The Art World
Heaven on Earth
Piero della Francesca at the Frick.
by Peter Schjeldahl March 4, 2013
The supreme early-Renaissance master Piero della Francesca is like no other artist in my experience: not better, exactly, but loftily apart, defying comparison. Seven paintings—all but one of his works that are currently held in American collections, plus a loan from Portugal—are now on display at the Frick Collection, in the first show dedicated to works by Piero in this country. A Madonna enthroned, with angels; a small Crucifixion scene; and five individual saints glorify the Frick’s Oval Room. The Madonna, seen in an ornate interior with Corinthian columns, gazes down at a rose—a symbol of the Crucifixion—that she holds and which a naked baby Jesus reaches for. One of four standing, attendant angels looks out at us and gestures toward the child’s open hands. All the faces, while individualized, are impassive; they are not quite expressionless but preternaturally calm. The figures are rounded and sculptural. The oil colors—reds, blues, browns, whites, grays—glow in a soft, raking light. The picture has a magnetic dignity, typical of Piero. He makes a viewer’s spirit sit up straight. The work is only three and a half feet high, but it feels monumental and, at the same time, intimate, as if it were addressing you alone. It’s a kind of art that may change lives.One hot August, when I was twenty-three, I traversed Tuscany on the back of a Vespa driven by a painter friend, George Schneeman. We had seen Piero’s magnum opus, the “Legend of the True Cross” frescoes, in Arezzo, which I found bewildering, and were headed northeast, to the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro, the site of his famous “Resurrection of Christ” (“the best picture in the world,” according to Aldous Huxley), which I also failed to make much of. Then we stopped at a tiny cemetery chapel, in the hill town of Monterchi, to see Piero’s highly unusual “Madonna del Parto.” An immensely pregnant but delicately elegant young Mary stands pensively in a bell-shaped tent, as two mirror-image angels sweep aside the flaps to reveal her. One angel wears green, the other purple. Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death. George told me a sentimental, almost certainly untrue story that the work memorialized a secret mistress of Piero’s who had died in childbirth. This befitted the picture’s held-breath tenderness and its air of sharing a deeply felt, urgent mystery. In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic.
Piero has visited some such epiphanies on a lot of people since his rediscovery, around the turn of the twentieth century, after a long period of obscurity that was due, in part, to the fact that much of his work had been lost, and because a lot of what remained was to be found in largely untouristed towns. American collectors were notably smitten, including Isabella Stewart Gardner; Robert Sterling Clark, who bequeathed the Madonna in the Frick’s show to the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts; and Henry Clay Frick’s daughter Helen, who acquired three of the museum’s four Pieros. If money could have pried more than seven Piero works out of Europe, it would have. (Incautiously avid Americans fell for at least four forgeries that we know of.) Outside Tuscany, most of Piero’s work resides today in the National Gallery in Urbino, London’s National Gallery, and the Louvre.
Piero was born in Borgo San Sepolcro, as it was then called, circa 1412, and died there in 1492. In between, he travelled widely in Italy, executing commissions for rulers and prelates. His father was a tradesman; his mother came from an aristocratic family. He trained locally. (An early reference has him painting decorations on candlesticks for religious processions.) By 1439, he was in Florence, listed as a collaborator on frescoes, now lost, by Domenico Veneziano. Piero’s inspirations as a young painter included a thriving late-Gothic genre of polychrome wooden sculpture—as may be seen in the medieval hall at the Metropolitan Museum and at the Cloisters—and the scientific painting theories of the Genoese polymath Leon Battista Alberti. Alberti advised using shades of color, according to their “reception of light,” to give shape to figures, though when his theories were strictly applied, as by Veneziano, they led to a static, decorative effect. (I take this analysis from a great little book, “The Piero della Francesca Trail,” by the late art historian John Pope-Hennessy; it includes Huxley’s essay, from 1925, “The Best Picture.”) Piero, who wrote his own treatises on mathematics and perspective, leavened Alberti with an apparent inspiration from Masaccio’s slightly earlier depiction of figures in breathing space, with an appearance of air around them. “Luminous and rational,” the art historian Machtelt Israëls, writing in the show’s catalogue, finely terms Piero’s style, which remained consistent throughout his career. It projects both a formal rigor, like that of geometry theorems, and a religious devotion so serene that it seems common sense.
Piero was strikingly original in his emphasis on physical weight. His figures stand plunk on the ground. The bare feet of the Frick’s own “St. John the Evangelist” (1454-69) hug a marble floor. He has gathered up his red cloak, across his body, to help support the massive book that he is reading. You feel the downward drag. The effect is a bodily identification: the saint and you, both strenuously upright on earth. Piero’s characters are sometimes described as remote, without personality. But he simply combs out the qualities that are incidental to the fact of being a human creature, in solid flesh. I am reminded of the title of Simone Weil’s profound collection of spiritual reflections, “Gravity and Grace.” The central Christian enigma—a God incarnate, as a man who lived, suffered, and died—plays like a bass line beneath every passage of Piero’s art.The show’s Crucifixion scene and the five saints—John, Augustine, Monica, Apollonia, and, perhaps, Leonard (his identity is uncertain)—all belonged to an otherwise lost, grand altarpiece in Borgo San Sepolcro. A photographic montage, on one wall, documents how they may have been arrayed. In the view of Calvary, a crowd of people and horses around the Cross looks random at first glance but, upon scrutiny, reveals an exquisitely worked-out pictorial structure of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal alignments. The smallest saint panels—Monica with a scroll, Apollonia presenting a tooth, held with tongs, in token of a martyrdom that involved her teeth being yanked out or broken—are stark and almost perfunctory but intense. They are building blocks of piety. The large St. Augustine, from Lisbon, which is new to me, is among the most glamorous of all Pieros. The church father stands grasping a red book and a crystal staff in bejewelled white gloves. His cope is lined with pictures narrating the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion, with its later, miraculous episodes concealed in a fold of the cloth. Augustine’s face is grim—he looks burdened by responsibility and by a knowledge of things past and to come. His mood strikes a balance of austere seriousness with the temporal splendor of the ecclesiastical costume.
Certainly, Piero was devout, but in a manner that, as Berenson noticed, segues easily into a modern, secular reverence for art. The art historian Nathaniel Silver, who organized the show, tells in the catalogue of how the artist embraced the local legend of Borgo San Sepolcro: two pilgrims returning from Jerusalem with shards from the Holy Sepulchre awoke in a walnut wood to see the relics perched high in a tree and, thereupon, founded the city on that spot. (The Borghese of Piero’s time deemed their town the New Jerusalem.) Piero left bequests to religious confraternities in the region that maintained holy relics and cult images—representations of saints and the like which served as insignia of the orders and as objects of worship themselves. But there is no forcing of dogma in his art, which points toward the thoroughly urbane religiosity of his younger contemporary Giovanni Bellini, in Venice, whose Madonnas are as personal as young women you might know. A civilized spiritual poise marks that moment of transition to the Renaissance, which, through Botticelli to Leonardo, gave way to worldly mystiques of artistic genius, with Christian sentiments becoming merely conventional. Piero’s achievement stands for an aspiration that has no sect or date: getting something—anything—of ultimate, universal importance exactly right. ♦