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 fresco cycle at Arezzo that was the most ambitious project of Piero’s career. And once more Banker fingers Anastagi—grayer and more tired, yet still sporting the same red ribbon of office—as the most sumptuously dressed of the three foreground figures in the famously enigmatic Flagellation from Urbino.
What’s to relish is the way that Banker and Christiansen square off. All their shots are fired backward. From the main text of Banker’s book, you would get no idea that an inscription naming Amadi existed. It is only in an endnote that Banker dismisses the HIER. AMADI inscription, remarking that it was not written by the hand that wrote a signature on a tree trunk next to Saint Jerome—PETRI DE BVGO SCTI SEPVLCRI OPVS (by Piero of Borgo Sansepolcro)—and that it looks to be of later date. The “scrawling” of Amadi’s name can be no more than an impertinent gesture of appropriation by a sixteenth-century purchaser. Why anyway would the genuine patron need to tell himself who he is?
Now, Christiansen allows that the Amadi lettering must be sixteenth-century, but he supposes that it was added in fond memory by one of the original patron’s descendants. How this patron and Piero met he leaves vague. The painter is heard of in Florence in his late twenties, and Ferrara and Rome thereafter, but the rest of his known travels were closer to home, and why would a regular of the Venetian Rialto want to be portrayed on a far provincial hillside? The curator can find no more than poetical reasons: that Piero wished to generate a “confrontation of two worlds,” the urbanite’s and the rustic ascetic’s. On one point, however, Christiansen comes down with intransigence—though in common with Banker, he will not look his adversaries in the eye:
What must be firmly rejected are the various attempts that have been made to collapse all the middle-aged men with short-cropped hair who occasionally appear in Piero’s paintings into a single person from Arezzo or Sansepolcro.
All that we lay readers can bring to this stand-off is the use of our eyes. Mine tell me that although Christiansen’s historical logic feels fuzzier, this “rejection” of his is probably correct. The gowns worn by the kneeling figures in the Accademia panel and the Madonna della Misericordia are of the same cut and cloth, but their heads subtly differ. Christiansen points us to the unalikeness of their noses and ears. If this suggests that Piero got commissions from more than one pompous, mannerly doctor of law, that conclusion may be untidy, but it is not improbable. It may tell us a little about Piero: that although he remained tied from cradle to grave to his little country town, he cared for smart company. If thus keeping in with the sophisticates involved drawing gown after gown in profile, he was equally an artisan whose practice as a workshop master often entailed painting processional banners.
What more can we know about the artist, who died the day that Columbus landed in the New World and who for most of four centuries was nearly forgotten, only to reemerge as an indispensable fixture in modern schemes of art? The Met’s catalog ushers in Piero in the manner we have come to expect: he painted “magical pictures” that combine “intimacy and gravity,” inspiring “a sacral awe.”2 It points to his “almost primitive” qualities and cites Aldous Huxley’s essay of 1925 that names the Resurrection fresco in Sansepolcro as “the best picture in the world.”
All this fits the occasion, but it mystifies. It makes it harder to imagine a human painter at work. Banker has been intent to reverse that process. To do so he has scoured the archives of Tuscany, Umbria, and the Marches. (Sansepolcro lies near the border of the three regions.) If, just possibly, he has been overzealous about tying up loose ends, he can nonetheless boast of personally discovering “over one hundred previously unknown documents specifically relating to Piero.” His methodology is sober and his inferences are toughly argued, and the result must surely count as a vitally important contribution to Piero studies.
Is it a biography? The nature of the evidence tests the limits of that form. Banker determines that Piero must have been born around 1412 and thus lived some eighty years. In the course of this long span he penned three treatises of mathematics as well as quite a few witness signatures, but he seems to have left very few traces that we would nowadays regard as “personal.” The rumor that a self-portrait was inserted into the Resurrection—as a sleeping soldier, beneath Christ’s right flank—is for Banker another canard, not worthy of mention. Vasari, admiring Piero’s Arezzo frescoes and his mathematical repute two generations later, found himself unusually stuck in his search for enlivening anecdotes. The only document in which Banker hears an intimate note is the dedicatory letter to the last of the mathematical treatises, addressed to the young Duke of Urbino by an old man who had attended the humanist court of his father Federico. Through the customary rhetorical deferences, Banker catches an end-of-career sadness:
Our painter appears to have recognized that his constant striving with great intelligence and diligence may not have been sufficient to gain him fame, that fortune and his modest circumstances may have obscured his achievements.
And Banker continues: “If he did harbor such doubts, they proved to be prophetic.” But perhaps adherence to a rural comune inclines a man to a degree of fatalism. The della Francesca family were middling townspeople, working leather and dealing in woad, the source of blue dye, which was the local cash crop. Piero, the eldest of five or more children, attended the local grammar school, where his fellow pupil Anastagi began his social ascent. Piero, however, would have disappointed his commercially ambitious father, so Banker supposes, when he opted to train as a mere painter. Banker reads a “strained relationship” into the son’s long absences from Sansepolcro during the two decades from 1439, when he took on jobs in Florence, Rimini, Arezzo, and elsewhere. If so, quitting town at the age of twenty-seven was a very tardy form of adolescent rebellion. That Piero was not a creature of haste is confirmed by exasperated letters from patrons who, having commissioned the Misericordia altarpiece in 1445, were still waiting for delivery in 1454. In another contract that year, his younger brothers were required to stand surety against such problems arising: as successful merchants, they looked more reliable.
Nonetheless, around the age of fifty Piero reestablished himself in Sansepolcro and, with the formidable Arezzo fresco cycle behind him, delivered two of the boldest images of his career—the Resurrection for his town’s council chamber and the pregnant Madonna del Parto for a country church seven miles away, outside his mother’s home village. Banker dates the Flagellation, with its riddlingly complex perspective, after these, connecting it to Piero’s attendance at the Urbino court of Federico da Montefeltro during the late 1460s.
The artist’s zest for mathematics was further revealed during the following decade in his second treatise, De prospectiva pingendi (On Perspective in Painting). His first had ranged from commercial arithmetic to geometry: his third and last, exploring Platonic solids and more irregular bodies, would be the most ambitious. The elderly Piero, a citizen of standing, who served as prior to one of Sansepolcro’s lay brotherhoods, has been seen as gradually abandoning his brushes for abstract theorization. Yet tenderly worked panels such as the Urbino Madonna and Child with Two Angels, recently on view at the Met, or the Nativity in London’s National Gallery belong to this late phase. Remarkably, Piero the painter seems at the end to have moved beyond his concern with perspective: what he cared for more was naturalistic finesse.
No sexual attachments are recorded. At his death in 1492, the bachelor’s estate passed to his brothers and nephews and to the brotherhoods that were central to local life. The paintings likewise got reabsorbed into provincial quiet. Many were lost, and most of those that survive were so cavalierly treated as to be significantly damaged. But as I see it, this unassuming standing in the world inflected their very conception. What do we see in Piero’s work? An extraordinarily fine mind contemplating an ordinary settledness. What it recognizes are structured bodies inhabiting a more or less unstructured earth. That Piero conceives his women and men, his buildings and tree trunks, alike, as clear concrete volumes, has often been noted: the freeform of his foliage, hills, and skies less so, yet it supplies half the pleasure of his painting.
This analysis of an essentially steady-state environment relates the stable and the fluid by acknowledging that bodies are subject to movement and change. Their cylindrical forms may be pierced and may swell, as does the pregnant Madonna; may stand, youth and woman, in beautiful self-sufficiency; may burst forth with branches or with affetti—passions visible through gesture; may wither, as do the aged Adam and Eve in the Arezzo frescoes. Yet bodies are forever real. The Christ image meant to preside over the deliberations of the worthies of Sansepolcro provides “the best picture in the world” because the resurrection is an event fundamentally continuous with what Piero understands about nature, and indeed with the very interplay of outline and flesh in which his handiwork rejoices.
Piero’s marvelous mind therefore entrenches itself in the needs and contingencies of local piety. As Banker notes, a prototype for the risen Christ’s gaunt face is a tenth-century woodcarving in Sansepolcro’s cathedral, perhaps the oldest surviving large-scale crucifix in Italy. Thus rooted in the “primitive,” as we now term it, Piero was also from his early Baptism of Christ, now in London’s National Gallery, giving sacred themes a fresh personal reading: this being, Banker argues, a work that predates his visit in his late twenties to Florence.
Inevitably, the subsequent encounter with the work of Masaccio and Donatello charged his art with additional possibilities, as did the writing of Alberti, all of them involving him in theories of perspective. But Piero always kept some distance from the busier and more emotive art of Florence, and as he grew older he looked rather to models from the north. Panels by Van Eyck and Van der Weyden were collected by his ducal patrons, and their luminescent naturalism drew Piero, along with many of his Italian contemporaries, into a gradual switch from tempera to oils.
Broader international shifts were afoot. Italians were mesmerized by the advance of the Turks and the demise of ancient Byzantium. The painter’s fascination with Byzantine costume and his east-west battle scene in the Arezzo frescoes may be forms of historical anxiety—“What times are these we live in?”—but this anxiety feels incidental, compared to the steady contemplation that infuses his whole vision. Yet philosophic outlooks have their own history, and Banker is intent to place Piero intellectually. As on so many other fronts, this scholar’s discriminations are incisive and unignorable.
He sets Piero apart from humanism in its primary Florentine form—that of merchant-citizens looking for “new models of behavior” in the literature of the ancient world. Literature hardly concerns Piero, claims Banker. All that he effectively takes from antiquity are the geometries of Euclid and Archimedes, and these he applies and customizes as practical tools for analyzing the complexity of bodies. His treatises set the reader concrete tasks: in his writing, the intellectual and the artisan unite. With characteristically punctilious phrasing, Banker writes that “focusing on that which was evident and demonstrative was a constitutive quality of his work and his mind.”
“I doubt that Piero was a committed Platonist,” Banker continues. The point is no doubt reasonable, since Platonists put their trust in ideal forms rather than concrete bodies, whereas Plato himself did not care for painting at all. Perhaps Banker makes his point about Plato so as to dissociate himself from Larry Witham, a writer who politely declares a debt to his scholarship. Witham, the author of several books dealing with the history of ideas, has now produced Piero’s Light, a study of the artist’s life and reputation. Here, artistic achievements are interpreted as an onward march of the mind: “The Pieroesque style was not going to be a bridge to the next age. This was the age of baroque, an ebullient and hotly emotional time in the arts that was driven by the Counter-Reformation.” A century, it is true, seems to have gone missing there, but on scientific and religious matters Witham is quite informative.
While Witham’s reading of history might be seen as sub-Hegelian, his sympathies are Platonist. He is excited by the resurgent Platonism of fifteenth-century humanist writers and would like to recruit Piero as an artistic fellow traveler. But although Piero’s geometry may deal with so-called “Platonic solids,” Witham admits that “tedious” writings such as De prospectiva pingendi do nothing to confirm the connection: “Piero did not have anything specific to say about Platonism, except by way of his brush.”
And when it comes to the brushwork, Witham flounders. His accounts of the paintings rely entirely on previous writers for points of interpretation, and the few personal touches he adds are awkwardly anachronistic. A restored Piero panel has “the richness of a glossy color photograph” and Piero figures sport “stovepipe hats and pointy beards.” The Sansepolcro of the 1410s is evoked as “a postcard picture of orange-tiled roofs.” Florentine art under the Medici is typecast as “decadent,” while the painters of Siena “developed a Byzantine-derived mystical look to their imagery.” These platitudes, likewise, are out of date. Witham is happy when discussing negative theology and neurobiology, topics to which he wanders off at length in the book’s later chapters, but his titular theme is really outside his zone of competence.
Piero cannot be described as a Platonist. But Banker, in fact, would go further. He notes that in his close study of Euclid’s Elements, Piero ignores those sections that head into mystical speculation. And abandoning his customary caution, he compares Piero’s purposes in geometry to those of Machiavelli in politics or Copernicus in astronomy. All of them are “separating fields of phenomena from an overall metaphysical or religious superstructure.” He discerns an altogether this-wordly vision, and he concludes that “Piero’s Christianity was at best conventional.” One might think here of the hardheaded business negotiation between Jerome and the grandee, or of the magnificently self-sufficient Mary Magdalen at Arezzo, a saint whom Piero unprecedently portrays without a trace of pity or reproach.
Yet Banker’s drift feels at variance with my own experience of Piero’s art. The Easter morning Christ at Sansepolcro rises from the tomb just as the trees behind him burst into springtime leaf; the Madonna del Parto, another of Piero’s proud, strong women, is full with her sacred burden in the way that any mother might carry a new life. The divine is interpreted through natural, normative processes: Piero’s God, one might say, is immanent rather than transcendent. With all that, those processes remain rootedly mysterious and awe-inspiring. If these are not religious paintings, I don’t know what are.3
Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, another eminent Piero scholar of recent years, differs from Banker in finding the painter highly attentive to literary issues. She notes that the oratio consolatoria, the Ciceronian composition intended to allay grief and mourning, was “one of the great, newly revived, concerns of the Renaissance humanists”4 and she interprets the Flagellation in its light. Where some have seen a stark disparity between the foreground group of three contemporary men and the distant scene of Christ’s judicial torture, Lavin instead infers a fortifying analogy: the central foreground figure is a fair youth who has recently died a cruel death and the two flanking him mourn him, comparing his sufferings to those of the redeemer. When it comes to naming these foreground three, Banker and Lavin partly disagree, but in essence their unravelings of the pictorial riddle run parallel.
Surely consolation is a helpful concept in describing the temper of Piero’s paintings: surely they were always meant to steady and strengthen the viewer, showing what’s substantial. It is a concept one might extend. One useful task that Witham’s book does perform is to track the eventual rise of Piero’s reputation. After the painter’s rediscovery during a time of general nineteenth-century curiosity about matters quattrocento, two essays form great landmarks in twentieth-century appreciation of Piero. Roberto Longhi in 1927 exquisitely specified the visual qualities that made Piero sympathetic to contemporary painters, while Kenneth Clark in 1951 majestically erected him to the status of European icon, proclaiming that values such as his might “yet save Western man from the consequences of materialism.”
These values of Clark’s are explicitly emotional—or rather, anti-emotional: the head of the Madonna del Parto “reminds us of the finest Buddhist sculpture in its calm detachment.” Longhi is more nearly a formalist, and yet while he is startled by Sansepolcro’s “horribly sylvan and almost bovine” resurrected Christ, he too passes to “the calm pacification of sentiment” induced by this figure’s coloristic unity with the landscape.
Piero looked good to lovers of Cézanne and Seurat—whose art it has been conjectured he influenced—but he looked good because he felt right. The consolation he offered the art world in the modernist era was that spiritual intent might resolve itself into bodily content: that a repertory of “evident and demonstrative” surfaces, as Banker puts it, could satisfy all the hopes and anxieties invested in painting. But we are no longer in that era, and we find that the largest possible expressions of Piero’s significance were formulated many decades ago. For all the groundbreaking archival work of Banker, or for that matter the iconographical sensitivity of Marilyn Lavin, no major restatement has arisen to supersede them. Today it is a matter of who is who, of shuffling the captions to these “magical pictures.” The brute, majestic primitive who so stirred Longhi recedes, smaller and perhaps sweeter in the distance.
Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters, from Thomas P. Campbell’s Director’s Foreword, p. 7. ↩
In a late altarpiece in the collection of the Brera in Milan, Piero visually analogizes the Madonna’s perfection to that of an unbroken egg—a provocatively poetical or even mystical metaphor, distinctly at odds with Banker’s characterization of Piero as a proto-materialist. He refuses to acknowledge it with a mention. ↩
Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca (Phaidon, 2002), p. 104. ↩