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The Lost Piero

In response to:

The Noble Dreams of Piero from the March 21, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

We thank Professor Walter Kaiser for his generous review of “Piero della Francesca in America” at the Frick Collection [NYR, March 21]. This exhibition features six paintings from Piero’s altarpiece for the Sansepolcro church of Sant’Agostino, and the reviewer rightly calls attention to the foundational scholarship of Millard Meiss, who in 1941 first attempted to reconstruct the celebrated polyptych from its surviving fragments.

Today, many outstanding questions remain. Principal among these is the subject of the lost central painting: Did it depict the Virgin and Child Enthroned or the Coronation of the Virgin? No evidence of the missing panel survives. Piero’s four saints that accompanied it (Augustine, Michael Archangel, John the Evangelist, and Nicholas of Tolentino) are first recorded together in 1680, after the altarpiece was dismantled, in the house of a local family. Thanks to recent discoveries by Giovanni Pagliarulo cited in the exhibition catalog, we now know that at least two of them, saints Augustine and John the Evangelist, had been in this private collection since at least 1624.

No record of the lost centerpiece remains, contrary to the suggestion of Professor Kaiser. He argues that Piero’s altarpiece stayed in the church of Sant’Agostino (today Santa Chiara) through the nineteenth century and identifies the missing panel with a Madonna and Child mentioned in an 1825 inventory published by Franco Polcri listing:Sotto l’organo vi è la Vergine con un bambino in braccia, S. Agostino e S. Niccola—Pittura di Piero della Francesca.” The catalog authors did not refer to this document because Piero’s paintings of saints Augustine and Nicholas of Tolentino were already in a private collection by 1624 and 1680. Therefore his Augustinian altarpiece must have been dispersed by that time. Its surviving paintings could not possibly be those mentioned in the inventory.

The ascription of all three works to Piero della Francesca in the 1825 inventory is likely incorrect. Spurious attributions to Piero were attached to many paintings in the same church and included, as demonstrated by Machtelt Israëls (Piero della Francesca in America, p. 56), a dismantled fourteenth-century gold-ground altarpiece from the cathedral by the Sienese master Niccolò di Segna. The identity of the painter of the Madonna and Child, Saint Augustine, and Saint Nicholas (of Tolentino or Bari?) beneath the organ is a mystery. Whether Piero’s Sant’Agostino altarpiece depicted a Madonna and Child or the coronation of the Virgin at its center remains an open question.

Nathaniel Silver, James R. Banker, and Machtelt Israëls
authors of the catalog Piero Della Francesca in America
The Frick Collection
New York City

Walter Kaiser replies:

In my article on the Piero della Francesca exhibition at the Frick Collection, I expressed surprise that the authors of the catalog, all of them scrupulous, first-rate scholars, did not seem to know about Franco Polcri’s pamphlet published in 1990, entitled Due ritrovamenti d’archivio a Sansepolcro. This said that someone in 1825 had seen in the Clarissan church in Borgo San Sepolcro (formerly the church of Sant’Agostino) three panels by Piero della Francesca, a Madonna and Child, a Saint Augustine, and a Saint Nicholas—panels that could only have come from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece. As it turns out, the curators did know this pamphlet, but decided not to refer to it, because of some new evidence that calls Polcri’s source into serious question.

After he had read my review of the Piero exhibition, my friend Giovanni Pagliarulo sent me an e-mail informing me about his article, which is several times cited as forthcoming but not described in the Frick catalog and of which I haven’t yet seen a copy. The seventeenth-century text he has discovered certainly would seem to pose serious questions about the nineteenth-century text printed by Polcri, and the authors of this letter are no doubt justified in giving Pagliarulo’s text credence.

However, I find it hard to understand why they didn’t mention the Polcri text, if only to refute it, or list it with his other entries in their bibliography. Until Pagliarulo’s text is available, it’s impossible to know why one text should be deemed credible and the other not. I have no idea what the explanatory resolution of this perplexing problem may ultimately be, and I leave that to art historians. But I’m grateful to Giovanni Pagliarulo and to the authors of the Frick catalog, all of them gifted scholars, for informing me about this new evidence, and I apologize to the catalog authors for having misinterpreted their puzzling silence about Polcri’s text.

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