Five unmissable Tuscan paintings, and where to see them

Top Tuscan art

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Donald Strachan

Donald Strachan 
HomeAway travel expert

Panorama of Siena Tuscany Italy Just five? Of course, it’s impossible to select only five Tuscan paintings. The region is stuffed with art and architecture spanning the history of Western art. The Renaissance painting collection at the Uffizi is unmatched anywhere on the planet. Even small towns have art museums that capital cities would kill for.

Yes, five is nowhere near enough. And I could have selected a completely different five, in entirely different towns and cities—in Pisa or Prato, San Gimignano or Montepulciano. But these are five I return to every time I visit.


Donald Strachan's verdict on Top Tuscan art

 Gothic. The name was added later—a derogatory term for what some saw as a crude artistic style. That is not an opinion many share today. Siena is Tuscany’s ultimate Gothic city. Inside its palaces are walls decorated with frescoes (murals painted onto fresh plaster) rich in Christian symbolism and golden decoration, and populated with the sinewy figures that are characteristic of Gothic painting.

 Renaissance. This is the period when humanism and the academic study of draftsmanship reached a peak. Technically, Renaissance art is characterized by more precise representation of space, line, and human bodies. Philosophically, the overt religiousness of the Gothic period is supplemented with stories and characters from Greek and Roman legend.

 Mannerist. This art movement followed the Renaissance, and was centred on of Florence—hence its other name, ‘Florentine Mannerism’. Paintings are full of action; contorted bodies allow the artist to show off a knowledge of human anatomy. The major names are Andrea Del Sarto, Jacopo Pontormo, and Rosso Fiorentino.




Donald Strachan’s verdict on Tuscan painting


Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross, Arezzo Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross, Arezzo

Piero is a bit of an oddball in Tuscan art; a precise, studious loner, he broke with fashion (and probably good business sense) and worked outside Florence when it was the cultural centre of the Western world. His frescoes in the Bacci Chapel of Arezzo’s San Francesco church took him almost 15 years to complete in the mid 1400s. Based on tales from Jacopo da Voragine’s Golden Legend, Piero’s Legend of the True Cross traces the story of the wood from Christ’s Cross. Adam, King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, and 4th-century Roman emperor Constantine all feature.

At times the 10-panel cycle can be hard to follow, so it is worth taking a written or audio guide into the chapel.

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Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

Masaccio was a contemporary of architect Brunelleschi and sculptor Donatello, and the first to paint in true linear perspective. He shared decorating responsiblilties at the Brancacci Chapel with Masolino da Panicale, and the gulf in the quality of their work is obvious. Masaccio’s panels include The Tribute Money, in which Peter pays a tax collector with a coin from a fish’s mouth. Masaccio’s brutal Expulsion from Eden shows Adam and Eve’s despair pretty much as Edvard Munch would have painted it. The whole lot was almost lost forever when a fire ripped through the church in 1771—this little chapel was among the few parts of the church interior to survive.

Masaccio would have been far more famous today if he hadn’t died so young, aged 26, in Rome. The chapel is his masterpiece, and was still being studied by Florentine painters 100 years after it was finished.

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The Tomb of the Demon Charioteer, Sarteano The Tomb of the Demon Charioteer, Sarteano

Think the Renaissance is old? Think again. The Romans are definitely old… but to get back to the period when the Tomb of the Demon Charioteer was painted, you need to rewind even further. To the 4th century BC, when Tuscany was ruled by a loose alliance of Etruscan city-states. The Pianacce tomb complex, just outside Sarteano, has one of the Etruscans’ great art legacies, a corridor-style tomb whose walls are completely covered in ritual frescoes. The Demon Charioteer herself is an image seen only here.

Numbers admitted to the tomb are strictly limited (booking instructions are here), and if you can’t get in, there is a reproduction of the tomb at Sarteano’s Museo Civico Archeologico.

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Rosso Fiorentino’s Deposition, Volterra Rosso Fiorentino’s Deposition, Volterra

Painted in 1521, this Mannerist panel painting imagines the moment that Christ’s dead body is taken down from the Cross. The scene is full of despair and expression; a figure glances at you as you watch, drawing you in. Jesus’ body looks limp and sickly, and every other figure in the painting is doing something. Classic Mannerism.

Rosso’s Deposition hangs in Volterra’s Pinacoteca, in a darkened upstairs room that I often have to myself.

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The Pellegrinaio, Santa Maria della Scala, Siena The Pellegrinaio, Santa Maria della Scala, Siena

These are not the most proficient, nor the most important, paintings in Siena. But the frescoes in the former Pilgrims’ Ward at Santa Maria della Scala are packed with detail about life and work in a Medieval hospital, from the distribution of alms to the local poor to some gruesome-looking medical procedures. Santa Maria della Scala operated as a hospital from (perhaps) the 9th century until the 1990s.

The paintings were executed in the 1440s and cover a series of lunettes in a former ward. Look out for one or two characters you’d be unlikely to find in a modern hospital—like a cat.

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Main image 
Volterra by Sebastien Bertrand
Siena by Pug Girl

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