In one of his famous letters, the Roman official Pliny the Younger—who surely knew his way around the empire—wrote to a friend describing the upper Tiber valley: “You will experience great pleasure when observing this region from the heights of its surrounding hills: rather than a territory, you will think, in fact, that you are gazing at a painting executed with incredible skill—such is its rich variety and felicitous arrangement [of features]—that your eyes will be satisfied wherever they dwell.” It would be another thirteen centuries before Piero della Francesca, a native of that valley, painted the picture that Pliny imagined. He was born about 1412 in Sansepolcro, a small, reasonably prosperous provincial town, often a pawn in the shifting alliances of Central Italy’s larger seigniorial city-states. Although Piero visited Florence, Ferrara, and possibly Venice—he also received a number of important commissions from the churches and courts of Arezzo, Urbino, Rimini, and even Rome—the topography of Sansepolcro and its surroundings always remained the informing locus of his art. It appears, somewhat timidly, in what may be the artist’s very first surviving work (the Madonna and Child, Alana Collection) and positively dominates his last (The Nativity, National Gallery, London).

Piero’s affection for his hometown is not surprising; his large, well-to-do family was firmly rooted there, and Sansepolcro awarded him early, important commissions (The Resurrection and the Misericordia polyptych). But despite having been occasionally described as a “provincial,” he was anything but. Like Lorenzo Lotto about a century later, Piero traveled almost continually. Although both artists have been identified by their regional origins, they were never particularly active in those local contexts. Piero is no more “Florentine” than Lotto is “Venetian.” Each derived from their travel experiences a diverse mix of influences that were then transformed into very personal, almost idiosyncratic, visual idioms. Similarly, neither served long apprenticeships with established masters nor, becoming masters themselves, formed lasting relationships with pupils.

Piero’s affection for his hometown is not surprising.

This outsider status unfortunately did not serve Piero well in his posthumous standing among early Renaissance artists. Vasari, that ultimate insider and committed celebrant of all things Florentine, was reasonably even-handed in his judgment, but, of course, he was from Arezzo, only an afternoon’s ride from Sansepolcro, and home to Piero’s supreme masterwork, the frescoed apse of the church of Saint Francis, known as the Bacci Chapel (The Legend of the True Cross). Nonetheless, from Vasari’s perspective, Piero appeared hopelessly old-fashioned in comparison to Raphael and Michelangelo. A scant sixty years after Piero executed one, possibly two, frescoes in the papal “Stanze” of the Vatican, Pope Julius II ordered them destroyed and replaced by Raphael—an act of either reckless desecration or insuperable self-assurance and chutzpah.

Things only got worse for Piero’s legacy. By the mid-eighteenth century, The Resurrection fresco in Sansepolcro’s city hall (the town’s very symbol as “Holy Sepulchre”) had been whitewashed and, within sixty years, the giant Sant’Agostino polyptych was cut up and dispersed. These actions came on the heels of the migrations abroad (to London) of two other capital works from Sansepolcro, The Nativity and The Baptism of Christ. As late as 1896, the Florentine art dealer Elia Volpi was negotiating with the owners of Piero’s former house for the purchase of the Hercules fresco. The deal was quickly done and, as a result, the artist’s only surviving treatment of a classical subject found its way to Boston.

The two painstakingly reasoned and illustrated treatises on perspective and geometry to which Piero devoted himself later in life fared little better. The first was overshadowed by its prototype, published by Leon Battista Alberti some twenty years earlier; the second was mostly cribbed in the early sixteenth century by the more famous Luca Pacioli. Once rediscovered in the wake of renewed interest in Piero’s art in the later nineteenth century, these remarkable manuscript texts revealed the full range and extent of the artist’s intellectual engagement in the creative process as well as the novelty of some of his insights. Piero suddenly emerged from obscurity and was recognized as a worthy predecessor to Leonardo and Vasari, the two emblematic figures identified with the Renaissance transformation of the humble painter/craftsman into the modern artist/philosopher.

Despite Karel van Mander’s failure to mention Piero in his monumental 1604 compilation of European painters, a smattering of references to the artist began to appear at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Notable is Luigi Lanzi’s favorable judgment, although still ranking Piero below Masaccio, Perugino, and, of course, Raphael. As the diaspora of Piero’s works suggests, the English were the first to become aware that, somehow, a great Italian painter of the Early Renaissance had gotten lost in the historical shuffle. The sense of excitement and discovery was enhanced by the fact that eighteenth-century Grand Tourists had, by and large, bypassed the Tiber Valley and the Adriatic provinces in their travels; they were areas not particularly rich in the classical antiquities so dear to those “enlightened” dilettanti.

One young Englishman who did take notice was Charles Lock Eastlake, a painter of middling talent who arrived in Rome in 1816 and stayed until 1830. It’s not known where or when, in the course of his extensive Italian travels, Eastlake crossed paths with Piero, but he holds the distinction of having made the first mention of the artist in a published English text. By then, Eastlake had returned home and was no longer painting; he was well on his way to becoming not only the National Gallery’s first Director (as “Sir Charles”) but also a formidable influence on the developing taste for “early” painting. It is to Eastlake’s insistence and perception that The National Gallery owes its two Piero masterworks (The Baptism of Christ and The Nativity). Not only did the aesthetics and perceived spirituality of the pre-Renaissance appeal to these Victorians; there was also, with Piero, a beguiling sense of mystery about a great artist whose memory and very identity appeared to be on the verge of extinction.

With Piero della Francesca almost everything had to be learned.

With Piero della Francesca almost everything had to be learned; the date of his birth, what his early training and working methods might have been, how and when he received his court and church commissions, and, finally, the identity of his pupils, had they actually existed. Some anecdotal details, such as his blindness in old age, survived in local lore but eventually proved elusive to verify. Essentially, Piero emerged from the past as that rarest of paradoxes, an artist of compellingly singular vision—rigorously coherent and consistent in the components of his imagery and therefore immediately recognizable in his relatively large body of surviving works—yet free of any readily identifiable geographic or stylistic attributes. Other than the recurring tropes—rural vistas to the Tiber Valley and the robust presence of its rustic but noble inhabitants—Piero’s vision existed as if suspended in a cultural vacuum. Sansepolcro and, for that matter, not even Arezzo and the other centers where Piero is known to have worked, could claim well-defined local artistic “schools” or traditions. As a result, over the last century, there has been endless spirited art-historical debate as to how much is “Florentine,” “Venetian,” or even “Sienese” in Piero’s art.

Ultimately, philology and iconography, that specifically art-historical discipline, have yielded ever-diminishing returns in analyzing Piero della Francesca’s art. Even the river of ink spilled in dissecting The Flagellation, that most enigmatic of Piero’s images, has failed to shed much light on the unique phenomenon of this Early Renaissance masterpiece and the genius of its creator. The measured, indeed mathematical, construction and disposition of elements; the reasoned, perspectival clarity of fictive space; the unerring apportioning of light and shadow; all these allow instant perception, if not instant understanding. “Classic” is how such a forthright, yet idealized, representation of reality has often been described. Piero was classic (as opposed to classical) in the accuracy with which he analyzed the physical world and the rigor he exercised in transforming essential components of that world into two-dimensional images. These components never serve simply as anecdotal appearances, but were carefully selected to the exclusion of a potentially infinite range of options. It was a distinctly cerebral (as opposed to intuitive) process without which a knowledge of Euclidian geometry would have been impossible.

And what about those austere and flinty giants that inhabit Piero’s world? The art historian Bernard Berenson called them “impersonal” and “impassable,” untouched by human emotion; a quality that, he claimed, the figures share with those of the Parthenon pediments. The fact that they owe much of their potent gravitas to Masaccio has always been noted. Confirmation of this came in the mid-nineteenth century with the identification of a rare documentary entry mentioning the artist’s name and establishing his presence in Florence in 1439. A recent further archival discovery tells us that by that date, however, Piero was already twenty-seven years old, well beyond his apprenticeship, only deepening the mystery of the artist’s early formation. It’s as if the majestic, silent, and self-aware creatures that appear in Piero’s paintings alighted fully formed from another planet. They really look nothing like their Florentine elder cousins—nor much else in Central Italian art for that matter. In the end, the visual record of the works themselves and the studies he penned in his own hand have served to reveal the man and the artist far better than stylistic comparison or archival documentation.

Despite this—or perhaps because of it—over the last century, Piero’s imagery and his texts have attracted the attention of art-history’s most formidable intellects, resulting in a steady stream of critical insights and opinions that have consecrated the artist as a central, albeit isolated, figure of the Italian Early Renaissance. The “Piero Itinerary” (Sansepolcro–Arezzo–Monterchi–Urbino) has become a well-established ritual for enthusiasts since long before the Second World War. The search for connections between the “proto-modern” Piero and Post-Impressionism has continued ever since Roger Fry pointed out the little noticed fact that full-sized painted copies of two scenes from the Arezzo fresco cycle had hung in the École des Beaux-Arts since the early 1870s. The connection with Puvis de Chavannes was all too obvious. This, in turn, led to Seurat, reaching to Cézanne and eventually Picasso. In 1929, André Lhote went so far as to salute Piero as “the first Cubist”! Roberto Longhi, who contributed probably more than any other twentieth-century scholar to an understanding of Piero della Francesca, wholeheartedly subscribed to the “French connection” but also developed his own grand theory about the artist’s far-reaching influences on later European painting—through the Venetians Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina. While this view has not found universal acceptance, Longhi also rightly emphasized the significance of those reciprocal contacts with the art of Flanders probably initiated during Piero’s visit to Ferrara between 1448 and 1450. These, and possibly even earlier experiences with Flemish painting, were to condition the way Piero painted for the rest of his long career.

By the mid-fifteenth century, the use of linseed oil as a painting medium—already the preferred technique in Northern Europe—was beginning to filter into Italy not only via Milan and Venice but through Angevin Naples as well. Piero, not having experienced a long shop apprenticeship in the prevailing Italian tempera tradition, must have realized the potentials of the new material, especially the possibility of creating finely detailed forms of solid, polished color and smooth, uninterrupted passages of transparent shadow. He took to the new technique at once, realizing that the resulting surfaces acquired a rich and saturated glow not obtainable with water-based tempera. There were, however, some problems. Faulty medium/pigment ratios often produced disfiguring cracks as the oil dried. Oil-based surfaces were also significantly more delicate, and certain pigments eventually became chemically unstable when mixed in oil. Moreover, Piero’s experiments when working in fresco, particularly the use of a mixed “wet/dry” technique, proved to be a dangerous departure from the traditional Florentine buon fresco.

Unfortunately, time has taken its toll on many of the artist’s works.

Unfortunately, time has taken its toll on many of the artist’s works. The Legend of the True Cross frescoes were plagued almost from the beginning with cracks due to the unsteady walls of the Bacci Chapel. These, in turn, led to frightful infiltrations of humidity and the consequent formation of corrosive saltpeter deposits on the pictorial surfaces. Many of the panel paintings fared no better, few escaping brutal “cleanings” during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More often than not these procedures were left in the hands of local artisans or, worse, churchwardens whose preferred “solvent” was caustic soda. One need only to stand in front of the majestic Nativity in London to realize how tragically it was abused; even the nearby and much-abraded Baptism of Christ has, by comparison, retained a reasonably strong pulse. The twentieth century did not spare further punishment of some of Piero’s capital works with injuries now inflicted in aberrant exploits of modern “scientific conservation.” A particularly melancholy result of such zeal is the Madonna del Parto, to which generations of “Piero pilgrims” paid homage in the tiny cemetery chapel at the gates of Monterchi, near Sansepolcro. The fresco, though detached from the wall in 1911, was soon wisely replaced in its original context. Definitively removed about twenty years ago, it has since resided as a forlorn exile in an antiseptic and nondescript “museum” environment in the village (closer, of course, to the restaurants and souvenir shops).

Less than a year after the Frick Collection’s ambitious undertaking “Piero della Francesca in America” (see my exhibition note in The New Criterion of April 2013), the artist returns to New York with a selection of four works exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in “Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters.”1 The equilibrium between the two Fifth Avenue institutions is a bit lopsided when one considers that, of the seven works on view last year at the Frick, four actually belonged to that collection. Unfortunately, Piero seems to have eluded the Metropolitan’s grasp despite the fact that Roger Fry, one of the artist’s early champions, served briefly (starting in 1909) as that museum’s Curator of European Paintings—and this at a time when several examples of the master’s work were still on the market. And so, Fry’s current successor as curator, Keith Christiansen, eagerly jumped at the chance of welcoming Piero, at least temporarily, to the Metropolitan when Italy’s Ministry of Culture suggested the idea as part of a yearlong program of international events.

The tiny gathering of works, shown in splendid isolation in a separate gallery, surround one of Piero’s supreme achievements; the so-called Madonna of Senigallia whose permanent home is now in Urbino. The modestly sized panel was probably executed as a commission for the ducal court of Urbino in the early 1470s. It may, therefore, be one of the artist’s last works before he abandoned the practice of painting altogether, devoting the rest of his almost twenty years of life to theoretical writing and speculation. It is also one of the very few paintings by his hand (the other is the so-called “Montefeltro Altarpiece” now at the Brera in Milan) to have survived in exemplary condition. In the context of this mini-show, the Madonna of Senigallia serves as a very appropriate contrast and bookend to the Madonna and Child, which may very well be the earliest surviving work by the master and is now in a private New York collection. The painting has not been seen publicly for almost sixty years and has recently benefitted from a careful conservation campaign. We can now, despite its ruined state, assess a variety of fascinating references to what was happening in Florence in the 1430s when Piero visited the city. Particularly intriguing is a perspectival rendering of a facetted bowl at the rear of the panel that instantly calls to mind not only the famous drawings of Paolo Uccello but, more specifically, the trompe l’oeil intarsia shutters by Antonio Manetti in the north sacristy of the Florence Cathedral. The odd, almost accidental, presence of Piero’s study on the panel attests to his early—and proficient—grasp of visual perception theories being formulated in the early Renaissance.

The other two paintings, also small works intended for private devotion, both feature Saint Jerome, although in conspicuously different attitudes. The earlier of the two is signed and dated 1450 and shows the ascetic Doctor of the Church in a verdant Tiber valley landscape, not quite the “wilderness” of familiar tradition. Much reduced in effectiveness by brutal abrasion, the panel still suggests a sense of spatial depth conveyed by the careful placement of trees and receding clouds as perspectival “markers.” The other rendering of the saint, although only slightly larger in size, represents a huge leap forward in terms of compositional sophistication. Saint Jerome is no longer the solitary hermit, but a biblical scholar in intense dialogue with a supplicant/pupil who kneels in profile before him. They are in an open landscape just outside the walled town of Sansepolcro, with the receding Apennine range behind them; it is the very picture of a calm, reasoned discourse between two humanists. Two small details, once noticed, almost shock for their verisimilitude: the cast shadows of the saint’s crossed legs and the astonishing foreshortening of his proper right hand as it turns a page. It is difficult to imagine that such pitch-perfect imagery could spring to life without a single preparatory drawing, though none has ever been identified. Research has shown that, at most, Piero may have transferred only some elements of his larger compositions by means of pricked cartoons, and always with virtually no revision or re-working. It is simply one of the many conundrums that still surround the life and work of this genius and contribute to the powerful spell he casts on our imagination.

Meanwhile, the exegeses on every aspect of the man and the artist continue. The latest addition to the long list is Piero’s Light by Larry Witham.2 The author grapples with a sweeping retelling of the known story, not only in the context of Italian early Renaissance culture but also in terms of how that story was interpreted in nineteenth- and twentieth-century criticism. It is in this latter perspective that Witham’s contribution is most illuminating, particularly the chapter entitled “Piero and Modernity.” While most informed readers may enjoy hearing again about the sensation caused by the Byzantine Emperor and his court at the Council of Florence in 1439, or of how neo-Platonism informed Florentine humanism, many will learn for the first time about the Marxist, Freudian, and even Lacanian interpretations with which, over the past century, scholars have gone after Piero. Witham, not himself an art historian, is careful to avoid judging the validity of such speculations, whereas the late and eminent John Pope-Hennessy, knowing all too well of what he spoke, called one of these—Carlo Ginzburg’s fanciful Enigma of Piero—“a tissue of tendentious nonsense.” The accretion of such conjectures and assumptions have adhered to Piero’s legacy like barnacles, obdurate and perverse.

With a good percentage of the artist’s known work exhibited in the span of a few blocks on Fifth Avenue, New Yorkers have been given a rare opportunity to discover and explore for themselves Piero’s realm of magical reality guided only by their eyes and imagination.

  1.   “Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on January 14 and remains on view through March 30, 2014.
  2.   Piero’s Light: In Search of Piero della Francesca: A Renaissance Painter and the Revolution in Art, Science, and Religion, by Larry Witham; Pegasus, 368 pages, $28.95.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 7, on page 16
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