The Mystery of the Great Piero

Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
Piero della Francesca: Saint Jerome and a Supplicant, circa 1460–1464

Scholarly spats are the salt of art history, lending it savor. The pettier, one may feel, the more piquant. Readers of these pages will have enjoyed the recent review by Sanford Schwartz of a little exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, “Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters.” The show brought together five small panels by the quattrocento master, including a newly restored Saint Jerome and a Supplicant from the Accademia in Venice. The “supplicant”—and presumably the panel’s commissioner—that Piero portrays here in profile is a man of affairs in a costly red gown. He has a cocksure demeanor, that of a man who expects prompt service wherever he goes. Indeed, as Schwartz suggested, there is implicit comedy in his eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the wiry and irascible Saint Jerome, who is fully his equal in his disdain for time wasters. Spiritual succour, as of the mid-fifteenth century, has become a matter for curt, cold business appointments.

Where the grandee kneels, on the gray-brown ground beneath his robe’s red folds and trailing ribbon of office, stands an inscription in Roman letters: HIER. AMADI AVG F. The Met’s curator of European paintings, Keith Christiansen, spells out for us this identification of the patron: “Girolamo Amadi, son of Agostino.”1 The Amadi family, he tells us in the exhibition’s elegant little catalog, were merchants in Venice—where the small panel was first inventoried, some four centuries after its creation, in 1850. And although little can be ascertained about this particular member, Christiansen’s catalog includes a thirteen-page history of the Amadi by an Italian scholar, exploring their dealings in textiles, their villas and palazzi, their international connections, their patronage of churches and humanists, and so on.

All effort in vain, if we are to believe James R. Banker, an eminent Piero scholar who has summarized some three decades of research in a carefully written account, Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man, just published. The panel from the Accademia, as accounted for by Banker, portrays not a Venetian but Jacopo Anastagi, a contemporary of Piero’s from his own small country town of Sansepolcro. This is why, Banker argues, the towers of Sansepolcro appear behind Saint Jerome’s shoulders, seen across the valley of the upper Tiber with the Umbrian hills behind. Anastagi, a lawyer who rose to riches in the service of the warlords of Rimini, was a big wheel among Sansepolcro’s four-thousand populace and, Banker’s study proposes, a crucial patron for his schoolfellow.

Banker finds his likeness in several other relics of the artist’s time-depleted oeuvre. There Anastagi kneels, dressed in the same red gown, as one of the eight representative Sansepolcrans gathered under the cloak of the Madonna della Misericordia, that lofty, sheltering woman-tree. He is spotted again as a counselor to the Queen of Sheba in The Legend of the True Cross, the…

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