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The Noble Dreams of Piero

Piero della Francesca in America

an exhibition at the Frick Collection, New York City, February 12–May 19, 2013
Catalog of the exhibition by Nathaniel Silver, with essays by James R. Banker and Machtelt Israëls, and an appendix by Giacomo Guazzini and Elena Squillantini
Frick Collection, 149 pp., $27.50 (paper)
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Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
Piero della Francesca: Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, 1460–1470

Why is Piero della Francesca so different from other quattrocento artists? The longer one contemplates his work, the more imperative that question becomes. It haunts the viewer of the current exhibition at the Frick Collection, where more paintings by Piero are brought together in one room than anywhere except in Arezzo. The seven paintings in this exhibition, four of which belong to the Frick, are not the very greatest of Piero’s works, but they exemplify much of his achievement. Four of them are masterpieces, and this exceptional opportunity to see so many panel paintings of Piero at once is instructive.

Various attempts have been made to explain Piero’s unique qualities since his “rediscovery” in the late nineteenth century, many of them insightful. Early on, John Addington Symonds claimed that “by dignity of portraiture, by loftiness of style, and by a certain poetical solemnity of imagination, he raised himself above the level of the mass of his contemporaries.”1 Of course, Piero was also indebted to some of those contemporaries, and his relationship to Florentines such as Domenico Veneziano and Uccello, as well as to Flemish artists, has long been acknowledged. Yet in most respects the influence of others upon his work seems to be fairly minimal, and one might argue that he had a greater debt to the architect and humanist Leon Battista Alberti than to any of his painting predecessors. What is it, then, that makes him so distinct from his contemporaries?

Piero’s innovative use of oil paint and his perfection of perspective are two qualities that have been often discussed, as have his use of color to express form and his ability to evoke space. His phenomenal mastery of light and his breathtaking depiction of it have also been repeatedly noted.2 But Piero’s singular importance in the history of landscape painting has, so far as I am aware, rarely been adequately appreciated; yet his landscapes are some of the most accomplished, evocative, and innovative in Italian art before Giovanni Bellini.

Then there is the unemotional, inexpressive quality of his paintings, which so sharply distinguishes him from other painters. Bernard Berenson famously wrote about the “inarticulate” in Piero, claiming that he “seems to have been opposed to the manifestation of feeling, and ready to go to any length to avoid it.”3 “The quiet chant of the air and the immense planes are like a choir against which Piero’s dramatic personae remain silent,” says the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert.4 There is also a serene immobility that characterizes his personnages, which is unlike the work of any other painter of his time. These qualities, inexpressivity and immobility, have been beautifully articulated by Herbert, my favorite writer on Piero:

The principle of tranquility does not lie merely in architectural balance. It is a principle of inner order. Piero understood that excess movement and expression both destroy the visual painted space and compress the painting’s time to a momentary scene, a flash of existence. His stoic heroes are constrained and impassive. The stilled leaves, the hue of the first earthly dawn, the unstruck hour, give the things Piero created an ontological indestructibility.5

But what, in the end, is most idiosyncratic about Piero is the essential nature of his mind, which was molded both by artistic and by mathematical, geometric perceptions—a perfect union of art and science. When Piero looked at the world, he ineluctably perceived its geometric forms and mathematical perspectives, and it is this uncommon mental capacity that caused Roger Fry and others to see him as a precursor to the formalism of Cézanne and Seurat. This quality was not, however, abstractly expressed in cubes and spheres, but rather was realized in his naturalistic delineation of the world inherited by Adam’s descendants.

In his biographical account of Piero della Francesca, Vasari takes special note of one of his altarpieces. It is the first known reference to the work to which six of the seven pictures in the exhibition of Piero at the Frick Collection belong: “In the convent of the monks of Saint Augustine (in Borgo San Sepolcro), he painted the altarpiece for the high altar, which was much praised.”6 The commission given Piero for this work by the donor, a resident of Borgo San Sepolcro with a characteristic name of sequential descent, Angelo di Giovanni di Simone d’Angelo,7 was signed on October 4, 1454, and stipulated that the altarpiece should be a work comprised of several panels and should be completed in eight years; it also explained that the altarpiece had been commissioned to fulfill the wishes of Angelo’s late brother Simone and his wife Giovanna.8

But Piero, a notoriously slow painter, had other obligations at the same time, including the completion of his celebrated frescoes in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo and work in Rome for the pope, and the altarpiece does not appear to have been finished until around 1470. The chronology of Piero’s works is uncertain and contentiously disputed, but most scholars date the Sant’Agostino polyptych to the decade of 1460–1470.

A century later, in 1555, the church of the Augustinians passed to the nuns of Santa Chiara, and they remodeled and reconsecrated it, replacing some of the works of art with others more appropriate to their order. For many years, art historians assumed that Piero’s altarpiece had been broken up at that time and dispersed. But in 1990 an archival scholar in Sansepolcro, Franco Polcri (who was subsequently elected mayor of Sansepolcro in 2006), discovered a document dated 1825 in which an unknown person lists all the major paintings in the city. One of the entries for the church of Santa Chiara reads: “Sotto l’organo vi è la Vergine con un bambino in braccia, S. Agostino e S. Niccola—Pittura di Piero della Francesca” (“Beneath the organ there is the Virgin with a child in her arms, St. Augustine and St. Nicholas—Painting by Piero della Francesca”).

Not only does this discovery reveal that at least some of the panels remained in the church until the early nineteenth century, but it finally resolves the question of what was depicted on the missing central panel: a Madonna and Child, as many scholars had surmised, rather than a Coronation of the Virgin, as some others had conjectured. (Surprisingly, this important discovery appears to be unknown to the authors of the Frick catalog, who continue to say, “The missing central panel depicted either the Virgin and Child Enthroned or the Coronation of the Virgin.” Polcri’s pamphlet is not listed in the catalog’s bibliography with his other work.9)

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The Frick Collection, New York City
A hypothetical reconstruction of Piero della Francesca’s altarpiece for the church of Sant’Agostino, showing the position of seven of its eight surviving panels. In the top row, from left to right, are Saint Augustine, Saint Michael, Saint John the Evangelist, and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino. In the bottom row are Saint Monica, the Crucifixion, and (possibly) Saint Leonard.

An outstanding feat of historical reconstruction was performed by Millard Meiss in “A Documented Altarpiece by Piero della Francesca,” the magisterial article he published in 1941, in which he describes what the Sant’Agostino altarpiece must have looked like and conjectures correctly the subjects of panels missing at that time.10 By remarkable coincidence, the Florentine art historian Roberto Longhi reached many of the same conclusions and made similar conjectures almost simultaneously; they were published in the second, expanded edition of his Piero della Francesca, completed in 1942 but published only after the war, in 1946. Because of the war, however, neither scholar had any idea until much later of the other scholar’s work or of how completely they were in agreement. Both scholars guessed that the fourth (missing) saint would be Augustine and he was discovered shortly thereafter in Lisbon by Kenneth Clark, who identified him and his artist in an article in the Burlington Magazine in 1947.11 The important central panel has never been found.

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The Frick Collection, New York City
Piero della Francesca: Saint John the Evangelist, 1454–1469. The painting was originally part of Piero’s altarpiece for the church of Sant’Agostino.

The Sant’Agostino polyptych had five main panels depicting, from left to right, Saint Augustine (now in Lisbon and shown at the Frick), Saint Michael (in London), Madonna and Child (missing), Saint John the Evangelist (in the Frick Collection), and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (in Milan). As in most Renaissance altarpieces, these large panels were surrounded with smaller panels, some of them comprising the predella that formed the base of the altarpiece, others located elsewhere in the overall frame devised for them. The picture that the Frick Collection bought in 1936 for the then-record-breaking sum of $400,000 has been given various identifications, including Saint Andrew and Saint Simon Zelotes, but there is now general agreement that this grave, elderly figure represents Saint John the Evangelist and was the first of the four saints painted by Piero.

Juxtaposed to the youthful Saint Michael on the other side of the central panel, who is poised in the moment of his triumphant action of killing the dragon, this aged, white-haired, sun-darkened Saint John is lost in deep contemplation of the book he is reading. The light falls on his intricately painted, hoary beard, as if to emphasize his extreme age; his elderly hands, exquisitely rendered in reflected light, and his gnarled feet firmly planted on the marble floor underscore his antiquity.

The play of light on the rubies, pearls, and aquamarines that encrust the embroidered gold border on the hem of the saint’s robe is a bravura performance that anticipates similar prodigious renditions of light on jewels in the adjacent Saint Michael and on those worn by angels in some of Piero’s late pictures. (For example, the art historian Judith Field observes about the lines of seed pearls on the top of Saint Michael’s red boots: “As painted, each pearl is about the size of a pinhead, and each one is different, to take account of the different way the light is falling on it.”12) Saint John’s voluminous crimson cloak, absorbing the light into its heavy folds, gives him a massive monumentality, and unlike the other three saints, he is utterly oblivious of the world around him, rapt in thoughtful concentration.

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Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon
Piero della Francesca: Saint Augustine, 1454–1469. The painting was originally part of Piero’s altarpiece for the church of Sant’Agostino in his hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro.

The most splendid picture in the Frick exhibition is the magnificent figure of Saint Augustine from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, a companion to Saint John the Evangelist on the Sant’Agostino altarpiece. (See the illustration on this page.) In several other pictures, in Arezzo, Rimini, and Urbino, Piero painted figures wearing rich brocades, but this Saint Augustine, the patron saint and founding father of the Augustinian order for which the altarpiece was commissioned, wears the most sumptuous garment in all of Piero’s work. His damask cope is of cloth of gold with brocading wefts of dark blue velvet, and it has a golden fringe at the bottom. As a bishop, Saint Augustine wears a pearl-covered mitre, on which is shown the majestic, full-length figure of the risen Christ holding the cross, beneath whom, on the mitre’s band, there are portraits of martyrs; in his left hand the saint holds a beautifully rendered crystal crozier, the crook of which is elegantly foreshortened. On the clasp holding together the two sides of the cope the Resurrection (symbol of Borgo San Sepolcro) is depicted, and on the orphrey, the broad, embroidered band at the cope’s edges, there are ten miniature scenes from the life of Christ, starting with the Annunciation and, in what is visible, going as far as the Crucifixion.

  1. 1

    John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy: The Fine Arts (1877; John Murray, 1927), p. 170. 

  2. 2

    See, for example, Donata Levi, quoted by Caroline Elam in Roger Fry and the Re-Evaluation of Piero della Francesca (Council of The Frick Collection, 2004), p. 56, note 64: “Straordinario come la luce luminosa in pieno giorno gira da per tutto la scena…. Non ha cercato di chiudere la luce ma l’ha fatto girare in tutte le parti. Questo è modo tutto suo e da lui creato….” 

  3. 3

    Bernard Berenson, Piero della Francesca, or The Ineloquent in Art (Macmillan, 1954), p. 3. 

  4. 4

    Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Prose, 1948–1998 (Ecco, 2010), p. 154. 

  5. 5

    Herbert, The Collected Prose, pp. 154–155. 

  6. 6

    Millard Meiss, “A Documented Altarpiece by Piero della Francesca,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 23 (March 1941), pp. 53–68; reprinted posthumously with alterations and additions in Millard Meiss, The Painter’s Choice: Problems in the Interpretation of Renaissance Art (Harper and Row, 1976), pp. 82–104, quote on p. 83. 

  7. 7

    For Angelo, his brother, and his sister-in-law, see the essay “Piero della Francesca: The Commission and Completion of the Sant’Agostino Altarpiece” by James Banker, who knows more than anyone about the world of Borgo San Sepolcro in Piero’s day, in the Frick catalog, Piero della Francesca in America, pp. 73–74. 

  8. 8

    Meiss, The Painter’s Choice, pp. 83, 87, 98; Philip Hendy, Piero della Francesca and the Early Renaissance (Macmillan, 1968), pp. 120–121. 

  9. 9

    See Piero della Francesca in America, p. 11, and pp. 38, 54, and 94, and see also Franco Polcri, Due ritrovamenti d’archivio a Sansepolcro (Sansepolcro, February 17, 1990). 

  10. 10

    See Meiss, The Painter’s Choice

  11. 11

    Kenneth Clark, “Piero della Francesca’s St. Augustine Altarpiece,” Burlington Magazine, Vol. 89 (1947), pp. 205–209, reprinted in The Burlington Magazine: A Centenary Anthology, edited by Michael Levey (Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 81–86. 

  12. 12

    J.V. Field, Piero della Francesca: A Mathematician’s Art (Yale University Press, 2005), p. 191. 

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