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The Noble Dreams of Piero

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

Three scenes, presumably including both a Deposition and an Entombment and possibly a Descent into Limbo, are hidden from view by a fold in the cope. Kenneth Clark, who first identified this panel, felt that these embroidered scenes were the work of an assistant, but both Roberto Longhi and John Pope-Hennessy have persuasively argued that they are by the hand of Piero himself.

Saint Augustine is the most lordly of the four saints depicted on either side of the missing central panel. As portrayed by Piero, he is majestic, resolute, impassive, motionless. Piero is, as I’ve said, famous for the lack of movement in his paintings. This is true even in his chaotic battle scenes at Arezzo, where, as Longhi observes, “his style captures and freezes movement during those momentary pauses which, paradoxically, reveal action at its most intense.”13 And Kenneth Clark speaks of “the immobile warriors who appear in Piero’s somnambulistic battles.”14

Mostly, Piero depicted not action but tranquil, assured immobility, and probably the only genuinely mouvementé figure in all of his work is the man taking off his shirt in the early Baptism (now in London). The grandly sacerdotal Saint Augustine, radiant in his golden cope, solid as a stone pillar in a cathedral, the stillest of the four saints portrayed, embodies a faith as firm and determined as the clenched fist with which he holds his crozier.

The geometrically ordered little Crucifixion in the exhibition, which is also from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece and reminded Berenson of Cézanne,15 is suffused with light and with a glorious panoply of what Longhi termed “light-loving colors.”16 This painting was left to the Frick in his will by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Some forty years ago I was told that, because her father hadn’t bought the painting himself, the redoubtable Helen Clay Frick peevishly refused to hang it with the collection, and so it was lent to Princeton during her lifetime. This has been confirmed by Caroline Elam, who recounted Miss Frick’s anger at Rockefeller, a trustee of the Frick Collection, in a lecture she gave at the Frick in 2004.17

The crucifixion panel, dated by Longhi “around 1460 or later,”18 has been cut down and has suffered a good deal from wear and from restorations done in Italy just before World War I, but even so, it remains a ravishing little picture, with consummate composition and spectacular colors that confirm Leon Battista Alberti’s observation (a statement that could also have been made by Hans Hofmann half a millenium later) that “there is a sort of friendship between colors, so that their grace and beauty are increased when they are placed next to each other.”19 The distant background has been badly damaged, but I’d like to think we can just faintly discern the vestiges of one of those placid streams reflecting the landscape of their banks—le chiare fiumane, D’Annunzio called them—that appear again and again in Piero’s paintings, like some recurrent melody in Schubert. (They appear in his The Death of Adam, The Adoration of the Cross, and The Battle of Constantine and Maxentius in Arezzo, The Baptism and Nativity in London, the Portrait of Federico de Montefeltro and his Triumph in Florence, and the Saint Jerome in Venice.) Although Kenneth Clark thought this Crucifixion was mostly painted by the same assistant who he believed had painted the scenes on Saint Augustine’s cope, most art historians now attribute it to Piero and surmise it was the central panel of the predella of the Sant’Agostino altarpiece, located directly under the missing central panel of the Madonna and Child.

The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is not from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece. (See the illustration on page 9.) Although an Italian art historian has suggested that this picture might have been the missing central panel of that altarpiece, this is patently impossible, not simply because its size is wrong, but also because the base of the throne does not extend out of the picture, as the throne in the central panel must. Where the Clark Art Institute picture should be located in Piero’s oeuvre is much debated, and when it was last exhibited in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005, the six scholars who wrote about it in the catalog were unable to agree on a date for it.20

The four angels and the Madonna each display the direct, unmediated gaze we associate with Fayum portraits, and, as Philip Hendy observed, “this Madonna comes almost straight from the farm.”21 Looking at this serene picture, one is reminded of D’Annunzio’s astute perception about Piero: “E un Greco ritmo corse il pio silenzio” (“And a Greek rhythm wafts across the holy silence”).22 The strong light coming from the left makes radiant the exquisite range of pale colors and gives the picture an airy luminance that helps compensate for its somewhat claustrophobically crowded composition. On the right, an angel pointing to the divine child looks directly at the viewer, as if in compliance with Alberti’s wish to have such a figure in “historical paintings”:

Then, I like there to be someone in the “historia” who tells the spectators what is going on, and either beckons them with his hand to look…or points to some danger or remarkable thing in the picture, or by his gestures invites you to laugh or weep with them.23

The play of light and shadow upon the rosettes on the front of the upper step of the Madonna’s throne is nothing less than miraculous, and, as always, there is something genial and tender about Piero’s depiction of the angels’ feet—what T.S. Eliot called Piero’s “unoffending feet” (“Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”). The elaborate architecture of the atrium in which these figures are situated has, understandably, been much commented upon by scholars, as has the clever placing of the off-center Corinthian capital next to the caput of the Virgin. This is the most hieratic of all Piero’s pictures. And, in Zbigniew Herbert’s words, “once more geometry has absorbed passion.”24

In significant ways, Piero’s paintings are the quintessential artistic expression of the quattrocento humanism given definition by authors like Leonardo Bruni, Poggio Bracciolini, Poliziano, Vittorino da Feltre, and Pico della Mirandola—much as the Pazzi Chapel in Florence is the architectural expression of those same Renaissance ideals. Describing an orderly, rational world of individual freedom and dignity inspired by the world of classical antiquity, they extol the virtues of eloquence and learning, liberty and aspiration, personal nobility, goodness, and beauty. With inherent hopeful optimism, they depict an ideal universe of the imagination in which man, endowed with unlimited capacities and encompassing intelligence, has the possibility of perfecting himself and creating a harmonious society of virtuous citizens. That ideal world is one of the noblest dreams of Western man, and it suffuses the paintings of Piero della Francesca; for they depict, as Berenson wrote, “his dream of surroundings worthy of his mind and heart, where his soul would feel at home.”25


The Lost Piero April 25, 2013

  1. 13

    Roberto Longhi, Piero della Francesca, translated by David Tabbat (Stanley Moss–Sheep Meadow Book, 2002), pp. 167–168. 

  2. 14

    Kenneth Clark in The Burlington Magazine: A Centenary Anthology, p. 85. 

  3. 15

    Letter to Duveen, November 18, 1915; quoted in Silvia Sprigge, Berenson: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 1960), pp. 206–207. 

  4. 16

    Longhi, Piero della Francesca, p. 161. 

  5. 17

    Elam, Roger Fry and the Re-Evaluation of Piero della Francesca, p. 9. 

  6. 18

    Longhi, Piero della Francesca, p. 132. 

  7. 19

    “Atqui est quidem nonnulla inter colores amicitia ut iuncti alter alteri gratiam et venustatem augeat,” Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and On Sculpture, edited by Cecil Grayson (Phaidon, 1972), p. 92 (my translation). Hubert Damisch calls the De Pictura (1435) “one of the founding texts of Western culture” in A Childhood Memory by Piero della Francesca (Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 10. 

  8. 20

    From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master, edited by Keith Christiansen (Metropolitan Museum, 2005), pp. 271–277. 

  9. 21

    Hendy, Piero della Francesca and the Early Renaissance, p. 61. 

  10. 22

    This is from the third of the Arezzo Città del Silenzio sonnets in Elettra (1903). See Gabriele d’Annunzio, Versi d’Amore e di Gloria (Mondadori, 1982), p. 393. Roger Fry, in a letter to his father about Piero, observed in 1897: “He certainly comes nearer to the Greeks than any other Italian.” Cited in Elam, Roger Fry and the Re-Evaluation of Piero della Francesca, p. 22. 

  11. 23

    “Tum placet in historia adesse quempiam qui earum quae gerantur rerum spectatores admoneat, aut manu ad visendum advocet…aut periculum remve aliquam illic admirandum demonstret, aut ut una adrideas aut ut simul deplores suis te gestigus invitet,in Alberti, On Painting and On Sculpture, pp. 80 and 83. 

  12. 24

    Herbert, The Collected Prose, p. 147. 

  13. 25

    Berenson, Piero della Francesca, or the Ineloquent in Art, p. 5. 

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