A long time ago, a well-respected Roman doctor told me a story of his youth. He had been dispatched from Rome to visit a small village near Arezzo. The inhabitants were all complaining of "bubons", unsightly growths on their necks and faces, and he was asked to find out why. He duly traveled to the village, stayed for a while and discovered that their water source was contaminated. By fixing the problem (the water source was being contaminated upstream by the villagers' flocks of sheep) he cured the village.
One of the villagers, in gratitude, offered to show him their local secret and lead him to a small, dilapidated chapel. Kicking the doors open the villager stood back, proudly pointing at the fresco inside. It was a masterpiece by Piero della Francesca, and a most unusual subject: A pregnant Madonna. The figure of this Madonna, protector of pregnant women, stand with a natural stance of a woman heavy with child in front of a dark damask canopy, held open at the sides by two angels. The sacred and ritual nature of the image is further emphasized by the fact that the angels are drawn from the same cartoon, repeated in mirror image.
I can only imagine the Stendhal like moment that such a revelation would have, seeing such an amazing painting revealed unexpectedly in a non-descript country chapel. The doctor told me it took his breath away.
The fresco was painted by Piero della Francesca in or around 1460, and was allegedly finished in just seven "working days". His authorship was lost in time and it was only in 1889 that the fresco was attributed to the master of Arezzo, Piero della Francesca.
Years later and the fresco was recognised as the masterpiece it is. It has been carefully restored and is now housed in the old school in the nearby village of Monterchi, after lengthy restoration. It is still breathtaking and the subject remains highly unusual.
There is no doubt that the image of a pregnant Madonna is striking. She rests a hand on her belly, where the head of the child Jesus might be. Her expression is beatific and serene, aware of the importance of the child within. But the most important figure is, in a sense, missing.
There are very few images of the 'Madonna del Parto' or Pregnant Madonna and they seem to span a short period, just over 130 years. Renzo Manetti, a Florentine academic, has an interesting theory about this. He believes these depictions are linked to the dissolution of the Knights Templar in 1312.
He argues that Florentine survivors of the dissolution went underground, and the pregnant Madonna symbolises the hidden promise of a return of the order. The spoken word as truth, the pregnancy as gestation and the re-birth as the promised return of tolerance and knowledge.
It is difficult to know whether this is what lies behind Piero della Francesca's unusual choice of subject. It is true that this was the last example of these paintings, bringing to a close a short vogue that started in 1334 with Taddeo di Gaddi's pregnant Madonna in Bellosguardo, Florence.
Catholic dissent over mystery of pregnant Madonnas. The Guardian.
The Madonna del Parto is housed in the Museo della Madonna del Parto of Monterchi. The fresco was originally planned to complete the back wall of the main altar in the 13th century church of Santa Maria di Momentana (formerly Santa Maria in Silvis) in an isolated village on a hill close to Monterchi. The church was completely destroyed in 1785 after a powerful earthquake which miraculously left standing only the wall with the fresco. The miraculously saved fresco was later detached from the wall and moved to a niche in the main altar of a new church, a chapel constructed to serve a cemetery established as part of the reforms instituted by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo. In 1889, after more than a century of neglect, the fresco was "rediscovered" as one of Piero's masterpieces and in 1910, in order to conserve it, the fresco was once again detached from the chapel wall to be restored by Domenico Fiscali. A further earthquake, in 1917, again put the fresco at risk and damaged the 18th cnetury chapel. From 1956 until its restoration in 1992/93 the Madonna del Parto was conserved inside a new chapel built from the remains of the earlier structure - it must have been this chapel that my Roman doctor friend was lead to all those years ago.
Today the fresco of Madonna del Parto is housed in the old school in Monterchi. Go to the website (in English and Italian) for opening hours and ticket prices: madonnadelparto.it
For directions click on this link and it will open in Google Maps: Museo Civico Madonna del Parto
We have a number of villas in the area but one is very close and ideally placed to visit this beautiful fresco and explore all the area around Arezzo and Cortona: Villa di Monterchi for 12
To see a wider selection of holiday villas near Monterchi click on this link for photos and further information:Tuscan Villas near Monterchi, or call us to find out which might best fit your needs.