'The greatest picture in the world': Italy relies on donor to restore Piero della Francesca’s The Resurrection, the masterpiece saved in wartime

Concerns have been raised that the work is flaking and discoloured, while cracks have become increasingly visible

A street in a small town in Italy bears the name of a British officer who risked court martial to save a Renaissance masterpiece from shelling in the Second World War.

Yet, Italian art experts have become so worried about the state of the 15th-century fresco dubbed “the greatest picture in the world”, that they have embarked on a major restoration project.

The work was only made possible with a hefty donation from a private citizen.

Piero della Francesca’s The Resurrection, on display in Sansepolcro in north-east Tuscany, is widely hailed as one of the masterpieces of late 15th-century Italian art.

Concerns have been raised that the work is flaking and discoloured, while cracks have become increasingly visible. 

More details of the work will be announced later this month. It is expected to take between one and three years.

Yet the parlous state of the Italian economy has left arts budgets slashed and organisations unable to preserve their masterpieces, so the Government has increasingly turned to private sponsorship.

This includes the restoration work on Rome’s Colosseum, sponsored by Diego Della Valle, head of luxury leather goods group Tod’s.

Italian businessman Aldo Osti, a former executive of Italian food company Buitoni near Sansepolcro, has stepped in with half of the €200,000 (£160,000) needed to save the painting but the work is being run by the state.

Daniela Frullani, the mayor of Sansepolcro, said: “What can I say, thanks from the bottom of my heart to Mr Osti for sponsoring the restoration as a private citizen of the most important work in our town.”

Piero was a native of Sansepolcro and has become particularly beloved by the British, who can see examples of his work in the National Gallery.

He is believed to have painted The Resurrection in the 1460s, which shows Jesus rising from the tomb, carrying a banner with guards at his feet asleep.

HV Morton revealed in A Traveller in Italy in 1964 that officer Tony Clarke had saved the painting. After orders to shell Sansepolcro, where the Germans were stationed, he remembered an essay by Aldous Huxley which described the painting as “the greatest picture in the world”.

Mr Clarke refused to give the order to turn the artillery guns on the town, despite instructions from his commanding officer. Shortly afterwards, the Germans fled anyway. Sansepolcro still has a street bearing his name.