In the small main piazza, stately fortified towers, soaring like stalwart guards, bear witness to Lucignano’s bellicose past. For centuries contested in ferocious battles by nearby Arezzo, Siena, Perugia and Florence – for its fortuitous position overlooking the fertile Valdichiana – the tranquillity of tiny Lucignano (pop.just over 3000) today belies its aggressive history.
The fortifying of the town with walls by the conquering Sienese in late 14th-century followed by increased Florentine fortification mandated by Cosimo I de’ Medici, resulted in Lucignano’s characteristic elliptical shape of concentric streets, typical of citadel towns.
These “ring streets” of Lucignano merit sleuthing: after all, doesn’t every tiny Italian hilltown gem hide treasures?
And in Lucignano, we struck gold – literally.
We’d wandered the labyrinthine backstreets leading to the recently-restored 13th-c frescoes in the church of San Francesco, with characteristic black-and-white striped façade, typical of the Siena area. At the two-level building next door with a patchwork façade of local stones – the town Museo – we stopped “for a quick look.”
And here we found not just the treasure of Lucignano but one of the finest masterpieces of the medieval goldsmith tradition of the Siena/Arezzo area. L’albero della vita (the Tree of Life), one of the few phytomorphic reliquaries still existing in Italy, is a stunning and rare example of the plant-shaped – often like a tree – reliquaries cherished in ancient times. Over two meters high, this breathtaking masterpiece was designed to hold precious Franciscan relics as well as slivers of the True Cross.
Like us, you’ll probably view the golden “Tree” in stunned silence, peering at the intricacies of the embossed silver reliquary capsules, the delicate loops of golden leaves, the minute detail of the illuminated parchment images, and the twists of the forked coral branches symbolizing the blood of Christ.
From the golden Crucifix at the top all the way down to the golden Gothic temple with spires serving as base, un vero capolavoro (a true masterpiece).
We continued on – if reluctantly – to the adjacent room to another treasure, Signorelli’s early 16th-c painting, “San Francesco Receives the Stigmata.” (Once considered to have been the upper part of a locked cupboard holding the sacred reliquary in the adjacent San Francesco church, art historians now discount this theory.)
At least the Albero della Vita has come out of the cupboard (whether real or metaphorical) – and makes a trip to this sleepy southern Tuscan hill town a must. After all, you’ll strike gold.