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)
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.…

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