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.
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.
Years later and the fresco was recognised as the masterpiece it is. It has been carefully removed from the old chapel 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.
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 wonderful selection of holiday villas near Monterchi. Please call us to find out which are best for your group and click on this link for photos and further information:Tuscan Villas near Arezzo