Sansepolcro is a town in the eastern part of Tuscany, in the province of Arezzo, which was founded in the 11th century. Its name San(Saint)-Sepolcro(Sepulchre) derives from the tradition that two pilgrims had brought back with them a stone from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The monastery they founded became a popular pilgrimage site and grew to be known as the Abbey of Sansepolcro. Today the Gothic-Romanesque Cathedral of St John the Evangelist stands on the original site.
Nowadays the town is best known for its old centre with its imposing Cathedral and stately palaces, as well as for the magnificent fresco, The Resurrection, painted by Renaissance master Piero della Francesca. This masterpiece was once described by English writer Aldous Huxley as “the greatest painting in the world” a sentence which helped save the town from destruction during World War II when British Royal Horse Artillery officer Tony Clarke, who remembered Huxley’s words, arrested the Allied attack to save the fresco.
During the Renaissance, Sansepolcro founded a Crossbowmen Society, an ancient association which since the 15th century has been able to hand down uninterruptedly the Palio della Balestra, the Crossbow Palio. The contest sees the crossbowmen of the town of Sansepolcro compete against those of the town of Gubbio from Umbria.
It is historically documented that since 1594 there has always been a crossbow competition held by Sansepolcro and Gubbio. However, reliable sources confirm that this dispute was also held in the past and has since been held every year in Gubbio on the last Sunday of May and in Sansepolcro on the second Sunday of September.
The Sansepolcro version includes two preceding competitions: the tournament on September 1st celebrating the town’s patron saint, Sant’Egidio, and a Palio dei Rioni which sees the two town districts, Porta Fiorentina and Porta Romana, competing against each other. The challenge held against Gubbio is set against the charming backdrop of Piazza Torre di Berta. Here in the afternoon, the archers take turns at hitting the target placed at a distance of 36 metres. The prize for the winning team was once a wool banner, today a new artist is chosen and is invited to create a new trophy every year.
Sansepolcro certainly knows how to keep its traditions alive.