TRAVEL / The alternative Piero trail: Driven by perverse elitism, Matthew Sturgis seeks out the artist's work in Rimini

THERE IS in most travellers a strain of perverse elitism. When any two paths diverge, the true traveller - along with Robert Frost - takes the one less travelled . . . and then boasts about it afterwards. It has become a cardinal rule of 'travelmanship' to prefer always the least regarded half of any recognisable pair; to admire Glasgow above Edinburgh, the Gobi Desert above Salisbury Plain.

This tendency is particularly marked amongst dedicated Italophiles. They can be relied upon to advance the claims of Siena over Florence; to prefer Umbria to Tuscany; to set the desolate south above the prosperous north; to praise Guardi before Canaletto; to drink a Fernet Branca rather than not. And it was, I confess, considerations very like these that led me to Rimini.

I wanted to pay homage to Piero della Francesca on the quincentenary of his death, but my 'Italmanship' instincts rankled at Piero's ever-mounting popularity. Such now is his fame that the beautiful frescos by him, scattered across a corner of Tuscany, have been semi-formalised into something called the Piero Trail. They have become an established part of every educated tripper's Tuscan itinerary. The trail has been fixed and coloured in the pages of John Mortimer's A Summer's Lease; it provides the title for a recent monograph by John Pope-Hennessy.

The route runs from Arezzo (where Piero decorated the church of San Francesco with scenes from the story of the True Cross) via Monterchi (outside which, in a little cemetery, he painted an extraordinary Pregnant Madonna) to Borgo Sansepolcro (Piero's birthplace and home to several of his works, including a Resurrection that Aldous Huxley called the best picture in the world). The trail then runs up over the rugged Apennines behind Sansepolcro to the ducal eyrie of Urbino, and here the exhausted pilgrim can rest in front of Piero's 'Flagellation' (which John Mortimer calls 'undoubtedly the greatest small picture in the world').

The Trail, however, is not what it was. Where once the Monterchi Madonna was to be discovered, as if by magic, behind a curtain under a sort of porch-arrangement, she is now housed in a smart new chapel, with regular hours and postcards.

So, with the simple snobbism of the traveller, I chose not to take the Piero Trail. I ignored Arezzo, Sansepolcro, Urbino, even Monterchi. I set off instead for Rimini, in search of Piero's least-known fresco, his earliest surviving work in that medium - his picture of 'San Sigismondo and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta'.

The pleasures of Rimini out of season may not be many but they are, I am sure, much more numerous than the pleasures of Rimini in season. With its beach-clubs and Identikit hotels it is known as the Grill of the Adriatic. Even in autumn the air seems touched with the lingering scent of Ambre Solaire.

Yet, in one of those happy dislocations of reality, there is, hidden behind the vulgar jollity of the holiday resort, an ancient town, where stands one of the accredited jewels of Renaissance endeavour - the Tempio Malatestiano.

The 'Temple' was once a barn-like Gothic church of little distinction, but in the 1440s the Lord of Rimini, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, wanting to add lustre to his name, commissioned the most famous polymath of the day, Leon Battista Alberti, to remodel the building.

Alberti borrowed precious marbles from nearby Ravenna and classical motifs from the great Arch of Augustus that still stands in Rimini, and created an arresting - almost Palladian - facade. Piero was hired to paint his fresco, but the general interior decoration was given over to Matteo dei Pasti and Agostino di Duccio. They strove to create a shrine to the glory of Sigismondo and the lovely Isotta degli Atti, his third, and last, duchess. (The previous one, a formidable Sforza, had been conveniently strangled just before work was due to begin.) On every surface their initials, I and S, entwine in a curious presage of the US dollar-sign. The door is guarded by elephants of black marble, symbols of the Malatesta family, while the walls are adorned with allegorical scenes in low-relief by Agostino.

There is, however, no sign of Piero's fresco. It was not above the altar, nor in any of the well-appointed side-chapels. That silent fear which is party to any cultural expedition in Italy sprang up before me: perhaps it was In Restauro. I suppressed a sudden flare of panic. There was, over to the right, between two side-chapels, a simple doorway leading to a small room, a sort of sacristy where a few postcards, guidebooks and key-ring souvenirs were for sale. I stepped through the doorway and was about to ask the sacristan the whereabouts of Piero's fresco when a flash of whiteness caught at the corner of my vision. I turned and saw it; there, set high up on the wall behind me, above the door, was the picture.

In a bare classical room an old man, buried under a luxuriant white beard and an eccentrically brimmed hat, was sitting at ease upon a throne. He seemed in some danger of dropping the orb he held in his left hand. At his feet, kneeling in stark profile, was a figure with a Renaissance pudding-basin haircut and an A-line doublet. Most of the colour seemed to have fallen off the painting, though in the right-hand corner there was a strange porthole that gave on to a turreted castle beneath a bright blue sky.

Roman lettering along the base of the picture indicated that the supplicant figure was Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and the seated man Saint Sigismund (a sixth-century Burgundian duke who abdicated in remorse on discovering that he had killed his own son on the strength of a false accusation). The young man at his feet looked a stranger to remorse of any kind. There was in his features an air of challenge, a sort of stubborn defiance registered in the set jaw and lowered eyelid. It was not for nothing that Sigismondo's great enemy, Pope Pius II, referred to 'his frowning eyes'.

The scene was so directly and naturalistically rendered that it seemed almost uncomfortably intimate. Just below the surface an embarrassing confrontation was simmering. Perhaps Saint Sigismund was about to enquire about the demise of the duke's last wife . . .

I would certainly not have cared to provoke the displeasure of Sigismondo Malatesta. Even in the brutal world of the Italian Renaissance, he earned a low reputation for nastiness. Between the demands of his military career and the eccentricities of his domestic life he ran up an impressive tally of malefaction, including murder, rape, adultery, incest, sacrilege, perjury and treason. Pope Pius II excommunicated him twice and had his effigy burnt.

Sigismondo, however, combined his base enthusiasms with an active passion for learning and art. At Rimini he gathered about him a court of diligent humanists; he endowed the beautiful library at nearby Cesena, he inspired the creation of the Tempio Malatestiana. He had, moreover, the great good taste to commission the young Piero della Francesca and then not to balk at the honesty of his masterpiece.

And now, when I hear guileless souls enthusing about the 'Piero Trail', it is without a trace of affectation (almost) that I say: 'Ah, but have you seen the fresco at Rimini? You really should.' -

Travel notes

GETTING THERE: Flights to Rimini with British Airways (081-897 4000 or 0345 222111) travelling via Rome pounds 445. It is simpler to fly direct to Bologna and continue by train or car. BA return flights to Bologna from pounds 263; there is also a Seat Sale discount scheme, return to Bologna pounds 155- pounds 170 (must be booked within 7 days of departure, must stay one Saturday night).

Train journey from Bologna to Rimini takes about 1 1/4 hours.

Car Hire: Budget Rent A Car (0800 181181), Avis Rent A Car (081-848 8733) and Hertz Rent A Car (01-679 1799) all have offices in Bologna. Avis Super Value rate, pounds 210 per week, book 7 days in advance in UK; Hertz Holiday Saver rate, pounds 192 per week, book and pay 14 days in advance in UK; Budget has a Holiday Drive special, valid until end of October, pounds 29 per day for between 7 and 13 days, book and pay in UK.