Rediscovering Piero

Rediscovering Piero

- By Walter Kaiser

Piero della Francesca in America An exhibition at the Frick Collection, New York City, February 12–May 19, 2013. Catalogue 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, US $27.50)                                                  

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.’  

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 colour 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. 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.’ ‘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.

There is also a serene immobility that characterizes his personages, which is unlike the work of any other painter of his time. These qualities, inexpressivity and immobility, have been beautifully articulated by Herbert, my favourite writer on Piero: The principle of tranquillity does not lie merely in architectural balance. It is a principle of inner order.

Piero understood that excess movement and expression both destroy the visual painted space and compress the painting’s time to a momentary scene, a flash of existence. His stoic heroes are constrained and impassive. The stilled leaves, the hue of the first earthly dawn, the unstruck hour, give the things Piero created an ontological indestructibility.

But what, in the end, is most idiosyncratic about Piero is the essential nature of his mind, which was moulded both by artistic and by mathematical, geometric perceptions—a perfect union of art and science. When Piero looked at the world, he ineluctably perceived its geometric forms and mathematical perspectives, and it is this uncommon mental capacity that caused Roger Fry and others to see him as a precursor to the formalism of Cézanne and Seurat.

This quality was not, however, abstractly expressed in cubes and spheres, but rather was realized in his naturalistic delineation of the world inherited by Adam’s descendants.

In his biographical account of Piero della Francesca, Vasari takes special note of one of his altarpieces. It is the first known reference to the work to which six of the seven pictures in the exhibition of Piero at the Frick Collection belong: ‘In the convent of the monks of Saint Augustine (in Borgo San Sepolcro), he painted the altarpiece for the high altar, which was much praised.’

The commission given Piero for this work by the donor, a resident of Borgo San Sepolcro with a characteristic name of sequential descent, Angelo di Giovanni di Simone d’Angelo, was signed on October 4, 1454, and stipulated that the altarpiece should be a work comprised of several panels and should be completed in eight years; it also explained that the altarpiece had been commissioned to fulfil the wishes of Angelo’s late brother Simone and his wife Giovanna.

Full review in The New York Review of Books:

Wikipedia on Piero della Francesca:

Review of the exhibition from The New York Times:

CathNews bookshop:

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