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Modern Times

Odds are long that you never heard of a Tuscan town called Sansepolcro, let alone visited it.  And unless you took a course in the history of art, you probably never heard of Piero della Francesca, whose fresco of The Resurrection is the symbol of the city, which recently celebrated its thousandth anniversary.  Pope Benedict attended, which suggests the importance of this beautiful little city, far off the usual tourist path, and at least on this sunny Friday in May, almost totally free of foreign visitors. Yes, there was a small group of Germans (you know, those old enough to have been active back when…), and a few French couples here and there, and even a handful of Americans, but for the most part it was locals.

The town can be walked in less than an hour, and you can do the diameter in about twenty minutes, but that would be wrong.  You don’t want to miss the lovely balance, the low medieval and early Renaissance buildings, the gently curving streets, and the tranquility of the place.  And you must, must, must see Piero della Francesca’s fresco, which, according to one of Aldous Huxley’s fictional characters, is the most beautiful painting in the world.

Aside from Barbara, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “the most beautiful,” but The Resurrection is quite wonderful, and it is surely one of the most beautifully displayed works of art I’ve ever seen.  It’s on a wall in the town’s museum, a palace built around the fresco, and you can see it through two glass doors that are reachable from the street via short staircases in an inverted “V.”  At night, the fresco is illuminated until midnight. Wow!

That “wow” goes for the masterpiece itself, which depicts Christ risen from the tomb, a lance-and-banner in his right hand.  Four Roman guards sound asleep below him.  This is a virile, physically powerful Christ, the sort you'd want leading your troops into battle, not a pale, cadaverous Christ about to vanish beyond the clouds.  If you look at it for a while, you will eventually wonder how della Francesca painted something so modern in the middle of the fifteenth century.  Go to the previous room in the museum and look at his hypermodern "Polittico della Misericordia" in which a Madonna who seems more likely to have come from an alternate universe on Star Trek than to have been the saintly Jewish mother of Jesus embraces the faithful in her long gown.

How does this happen?  That Madonna could have been painted by Salvador Dali.