Arezzo Cathedral, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Donatus, faces the Bishop’s Palace across the majestic Piazza del Duomo. This imposing Christian building, the largest in the province of Arezzo with its harmonious Gothic architecture, is home to a collection of outstanding art treasures and extremely important testimonials of faith.
The building was erected on the top of St. Peter’s Hill by order of Pope Innocent III, who enjoined Bishop Amedeo in 1203 to move the cathedral dedicated to St. Stephen and St. Mary, together with the rectory and the bishop’s residence, inside the city walls from their original seat on the hill of Pionta, a high point in the Etruscan and Roman castrum and the first area to be settled by Arezzo’s Christian community. This new arrangement required the elevation to cathedral status of the erstwhile Benedictine abbey church of San Pier Maggiore, which stood where the front of the present cathedral now stands.
The plan to build a completely new cathedral, devised by Bishop Guglielmino degli Uberti, received an unexpected boost from a fortuitous circumstance: Pope Gregory X, who was returning to Rome from the Second Ecumenical Council held in Lyon, broke his journey in Arezzo as the bishop’s guest. The pope was in poor health, however, and his condition deteriorated so rapidly that he passed away on 10 January 1276. Before dying, however, he left the huge sum of 30,000 gold florins in his will for the construction of the new cathedral, and on 9 November 1277 Bishop Guglielmino issued a decree ordering that a start be made on the work “for the honour of God, of the Blessed Virgin and of our patron St. Donatus”.
By 1289, the year of the Battle of Campaldino, the church had already been consecrated and the chancel and first two bays were complete. Work came to a halt, however, when the bishop was slain in the battle, but it was resumed by his successor Guido Tarlati (1312–27), lord of Arezzo from 1321. The third bay was built, work began on the side door, where we can still see the Tarlati coat-of-arms, and the sculptural decoration with a life-size group of earthenware figures occupying the large lunette over the lintel is also a product of those years. The Madonna del Latte (or Virgin of the Milk) in the centre of the group has Bishop Donatus on one side and Pope Gregory X on the other. The group may be considered to be more or less coeval with the large cenotaph of Bishop Guido Tarlati, a monumental work by the two Sienese artists Agostino di Giovanni and Agnolo di Ventura. The sale of the Commune of Arezzo to the Signoria of Florence in 1384 led once again to the suspension of work which was only resumed in 1471, to be broadly completed by 1511 in a style in keeping with the original design.
The cathedral dominates the present square at the top of a broad set of steps running around two sides of the building. The steps’ present aspect is the result of 18th century renovation when the original pietra serena stone was replaced by travertine. The design, however, dates back to the 16th century and has been attributed both to French artist Guillaume de Marcillat and (by Vasari) to Andrea Sansovino.
The cathedral façade, which had remained unfinished, was given its current aspect by Dante Viviani between 1900 and 1914.
In a Neo-Gothic style with a few concessions to the Art Nouveau of the time, the façade boasts three portals and a marble rose window and is enlivened by a variety of sculptural adornments. It was solemnly unveiled on 2 August 1914 in the presence of the Duke of Genoa, representing King Victor Emmanuel III.
In the early 17th century, following the introduction of new liturgical requirements by the Council of Trent, the interior was modernised with the renewal of the chapels and side altars to a design by Teofilo Torri, a painter and architect of Arezzo.
The interior, with a nave and two side aisles but no transept, has five bays separated by clustered piers and a polygonal apse. The superb cycle of seven stained-glass windows was painted by Guillaume de Marcillat in two stages between 1516 and 1524. De Marcillat is also responsible for the Bible stories painted in the vaults of the first three bays in the nave and the first bay in the north aisle. The high altar is a truly monumental complex. The Ark of St. Donatus contains the mortal remains of Arezzo’s patron saint and second bishop, drawing the eye not only with the sheen of its marble but also with its majestic size and the beauty of its ornate design. It consists of three parts: the altar proper, which was completed before 1289; the marble altarpiece with its sophisticated workmanship in bas-relief and its multitude of pinnacles resting on an altar dating from the mid-14th century; and the large Ark containing the relics of the patron saint and of other martyrs from Arezzo.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited the cathedral in 2013, it was decided to update the chancel to reflect modern liturgical requirements with a design commissioned from Giuliano Vangi who built the new bishop’s throne, altar and pulpit in a spirit of dialogue between the traditional and the contemporary.
The north aisle wall next to the door leading into the sacristy is home to the Magdalen, a masterpiece by Sansepolcro master Piero della Francesca, which he may well have painted while working on the fresco cycle depicting the Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo in 1459.
Adjacent to Piero’s fresco stands the imposing cenotaph of Guido Tarlati erected by Sienese artists Agostino di Giovannij and Agnolo di Ventura in 1330, with 16 panels in bas-relief recounting the story of the bishop’s life. Beside the cenotaph, the choir loft with its venerable organ is dated 1535–7. The stone choir loft was carved by Pietro di Bernardino di Subisso and Piero Giannozzo da Settignano to a design by Giorgio Vasari, who sought his inspiration in the base of Michelangelo’s tomb of Pope Julius II.
The high point in the tour of the cathedral is the Chapel of the Madonna of Consolation which opens off the north aisle and is associated with a miracle that took place on 15 February 1796. Begun in August of that year, the chapel was completed in 1817 and it is still the focal point of strong popular devotion to this day.
Inside the chapel we can also admire a number of Della Robbia glazed terracotta works brought from other churches in Arezzo and placed here in honour of the Virgin Mary in 1811. Particularly prominent on the right-hand wall is Andrea della Robbia’s Most Holy Trinity with St. Donatus and St. Bernard, completed in 1586 and brought here from the church of the Santissima Trinità, while on the left-hand wall we can admire the Virgin Enthroned with St. Donatus, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Apollonia and St. Bernardino of Siena from the church of San Francesco, also made by Andrea della Robbia c. 1495 but with help from the assistants in his workshop. The dome and vaults of the chapel are adorned with a fresco cycle painted between 1799 and 1802 by Luigi Ademollo and Luigi Catani with stories from the Old and New Testaments on the theme of, or in some way associated with, the figure of the Virgin Mary.