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Proportion and Brilliance- Pondering Piero

Updated: Mar 30

An essay on the Italian Renaisssance artist, Piero della Francesca- Brian Keeler

Above- The Brera Madonna- by Piero della Francesca, in The Brera Musuem in Milan.

I recall the first encounter with Piero della Francesca's paintings, it must have been in 1992, (in conjunction with the 500 anniversary of his death) a detail of one of his paitnings was on the cover of an art magazine, perhaps Art in America. This work was the Madonna della Senigallia, (shown below) which depicts the Virgin holding the infant Christ. The magazine also featured an article on Piero with several paintings reproduced. The painting of the Madonna struck me as stylized work, which is not disparaging, just a notation of individual and unique treatment. The interior with one room behind a doorway with slanted light filtering in and illuminating a wall had overtones to the Dutch Golden Age painters but the figures were peculiar. We could consider Piero's work a prequel or presaging the work of Vermeer and others like De Hooch, as Piero was working 200 years before the Dutch Golden Age. Piero's work is often thought of as having affiities with or preparing the way for even more recent painters, for example, Cezanne and other modernists. More on the more recent painters later.

Above- Piero's painting "Madonna di Senigallia" mentioned in the above paragraph. This small oil was painted in Urbino in 1474 and it remains there in the National Museum of the Marche.

Peiro's work is not quite like the naturalism of a Vermeer or nothing like the flashy brushwork of a Sargeant. His approach is much more controlled and rendered, rather than suggested or intimated. In the painting above, the eyes were treated in a similar manner on all the figures. They seemed too small and all dark and further accentuated by the minimal eyebrows on all. The whites of the eyes, are inordinately white, which further accentuates the unnaturalness. Still, I was captivated. The article explained that the light penetration, coming into the room through the window, was an analogue to the insight of the intellect. I liked this suggestion of light being a metaphor for understanding.

Since that time, I have made visitiing Piero's work in Italy a destination on several trips, including the most recent trip to Tuscany this spring (2023). My fist face to face with Piero original Piero's was in Italy as participant in a month-long retreat at the International School of Art near Todi- which is in central Umbria. On a tour we stopped at the small village of Monterchi to see the Madonna del Parto, a fresco painting dating from 1457. It shows two smaller-scale angels (in the hierarchial scheme of size) parting two curtains to ,reveal the virgin, who is also parting her garment to show her pregnancy with the Chirst child. I recall my reaction then as well. The colors seemed subdued. The opposite red and green garments on the flanking angels seemed like a subtantial amount of white was used. The effect is to make the colors a light value hue.

Learning that Piero studied with Domenico Veneziano in Florence we can understand his color usage, as it is related to his teacher. Veneziano's large figurative work in the Uffizi uses a similar kind of washed-out scheme of hues. I have come to appreciate and enjoy the color usage of both. At the time however it seemed rather opposite from what I appreciated- which was saturated and full-throated chroma.

In regards to the angels mentioned above- they too are reminiscent of another painter, of later in the 1400's- that being Perugino. His works often used symmetrical figures that appear as reversals or cutouts of the same figure. The art historians complain about Perugino's scheme and methods as being repetitive and formulaic but somehow Piero escapes their scorn.

Above - a statue of Piero in San Sepolcro.

On the same trip in the spring of 2023- while we were heading to a guitar seminar near Montepuliciano, we stopped in San Sepolcro to visit the Museo Civico to behold two of Piero's works, the fresco of the Resurrection and the polyptych altar painting. Linda, noticed in the Resurrection fresco that one of the sleeping guards was angled extremely with no visible support. Odd, that I had not noticed this before. The painting is powerful with a look in Christ's eyes as if he had indeed just returned from the solemn confines of death. There is another anomaly of conception, that being the staff of Christ is postioned impossbily behind the back of a sleeping centurion.

On that same trip in the early 2000's we also made a stop in Arezzo to view the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross in the altar of the Basilica of San Francesco. The Legend of the True Cross was a popular embellishment in the medieval era concerned with the supposed finding of the cross. We were permitted to go up on the scaffolding to view the frescos during their restoration. Thus we were only a couple of feet away. Normally the viewer is down on the floor cranning necks to view the paintings way up high. On this most recent trip in 2023, I sketched in the altar area- choosing the section depicting The Dream of Constantine as my subject. This theme had been in mind as I have been listening to a lecture on Constantine- with his supposed conversion to Christianity discussed. While there we met Sam Heath, an art historian from New Hampshire. Sam shared some wonderful insights into these works. Especially fascinating was Sam's revelation that another artist had started one of the sections.

Above- Chatting with art historian Sam Heath under the Piero Altar that includes the Fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross- in Arezzo.

Above- A sculpted terra cotta bust of Piero- done many years after his life.

I am reading a great book on Piero now that glows with insight about the artist's life- based on research but also intelligent inference as there is scant documentary written evidence. This book, "Piero's Light" By Larry Witham brings this renaissance artist to life on the pages. Witham's book is brimming with insights, and scholarly acumen which breaks new ground and in the final chapters he puts Piero in context with the numerous art historians who helped revive his art. In regards to this 19th and 20th century study of art historians like Bernard Berenson and Roberto Longo we are introduced to some wonderful connections. For example, seeing the influence of Piero on Puvis de Chavannes, the 19th century French artist, was a revelation and an aha moment. I've admired Puvis' work for years at the Met in NYC and was often struck by his subdued palette and arcadian themes. Now I see the connection to Piero and by extension to Domenico Veneziano. Witham succintly says that Piero became the Patron Saint of modernism and we can see his effects to other painters of the 19th and 20th century like, Seurat, Cezanne and maybe Picasso too.

I recently read another book on Piero by Machtelt Bruggen Israels, titled "Piero Della Francesca- and the Invention of the Artist." The title of Israel's book alludes to the fact that during Piero's time, a painter was just beginning to be regarded as an artist- as opposed to a mere craftsmen. We can understand this and see how innovative Piero's work was. Working figuratively, but realistically was quite a departure. Yes, Veneziano and Fra Angelico worked with the figure realisitcially as did Massaccio but still we see the uniqueness and trail blazing assertiveness of Piero. There is also an excellent lecture on YouTube, which was given at the Frick Museum by Israel where she discusses the art of Piero.

Speaking of the Frick Museum, they have another excellent lecture by Scott Nethersole, an expert on Piero. Access it here:

Plato- Peiro and Divinity-

Much has been made of the roll of mathmatics in Piero's work with special interest in Platonic ideals. Indeed, the artist wrote extensively on these subjects. Here's one passage from Witham's book that gets to the heart of the matter of invoking the divine through the aesthetics of the painting.

"Barbaro spoke of the secret intelligience behind the mathmatical forms, but Durer, and Vasari went further. Their writings proposed two alternative ways to reconcile the Platonic idea of beauty with the finite world of the artist, the inventive mind, and his materials. Vasri said in effect that the artist's mental idea can merge with the Platonic idea, thus giving art an imporvement on nature plus the quality of divinity(something that Plato had not quite allowed.) This was the origin of the modern new-classical definition of beauty: beautiful creations enhance or perfect nature and particpate in the divine idea by way of their images or aesthetic effects."

The above is rousing stuff to me- indeed quite exhilarating to have access and to participate in the divine idea through images and aesthetics.

I titled this essay "Proportion and Brilliance" as it encapsulated two of the more memorable qualities of Pirero's painting. He is known by some as the geometer-painter for his interest in perspective and Platonic ideals. All this is fascinating, along with the new humanism of the era the informed many artists and intellectuals of the time. In short we see a wonderful confluence of inspiratons at work. More over, Piero is uniquely positioned to connect with the ancient Greek philosphers, be representative of his own 15th century Tuscany, and reach ahead to the 19th century and even our own era.

I have visited Piero's work many times at the Frick Museum in NYC, The Clark Institute and most amazingly the large painting of the Baptism in Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery of London. The Brera Gallery in Milan has one of Piero's masterpiece, the Brera Madonna. And a true tour-de-force it is - combining the Platonic ideals in a beautiful setting of 1/3 illuminated niche. One of the most remarkable paintings of Piero's in the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia. His altarpiece in Perugia has its own room and a bench positioned right in front to allow for extended admiration.

There is an apocryphal story told in some circles about Piero's work coming within a hare's breadth of destruction duing WWII. It is a tale of the pen being mightier than the sword. The British were bombing in the area of San Sepolcro as the Nazi's were retreating. The officer in charge, Anthony Clark suddenly ordered a halt to the bombing, as he recalled that Aldous Huxley had mentioned in his 1925 book, "The Best Picture" that the most beautiful painting in the world was therein. Fortunately, for us and for future generations- this painitng was spared a direct hit by bombs. This was not the case in other instances during World War II in Italy or elsewhere during bellicose times. The last supper in Milan nearly suffered complete destruction in WW II- there is photo of the roof of church on Via Magenta in Milan that houses the Leonardo fresco with the roof collapsed- from an allied bomb.

Piero has found his way into our popular culture in recent years. A painting of his is mentioned in passing during an episode of Downton Abbey- where that family is considering selling a Piero painting to garner funds. Then more famously perhaps, there is a captivating scene in the movie, The English Patient that is set in the basilca in Arezzo that houses the Piero frescos of the Legend of the True Cross. In that scene, Juliette Binoche is hoisted up into the altar at night in the arms of a torch-bearing Indian bomb defuser. And then- in the department of recycling of art, Fernando Botero, the Columbian sculptor and painter, who recently died, created a large interpretation complete with his bloated, if not inflated treatement of the human figure- this time showing us Piero's double portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino.

One could easliy assume Stendahl's Syndrome to apply it to Piero's work. In other words, the trancscendant nature of his work has the power to transport us to elevated states of contemplation and awe. Stendahl, the French author popularized the emotional swooning that could occur upon an encounter with great Renaissance art. Viewing the work in situ, on the Piero Trail in Umbria and Tuscany is especially rewarding as we can walk the same streets, view the same buildings and landscapes. feel the light and marvel at the intellectual firmanent of the day- still accessable to us through art and books.

I have been contemplating a novel of Renaissance artists for sometime. The main character is from a town close to San Sepolcro. And conveniently for my timeline he (Paulo di Poppi) is a generation younger than Pirero. Therefore is makes for a convenient and auspicious tutelage under Piero in San Sepolcro and Arezzo. I visualize the apprenticeship taking place in the Arezzo basilica or maybe in nearby Urbino, while team under Piero's tutelage is working on frescos, studying perspective, geometry and immersing in Platonic study. In short, a great start for an artist who will eventually go to Florence and be in the Verrochio studio with Leonardo and Perugino and others.

There is a lot to marvel about with Piero and his work. As mentioned in the title, proportion and light along with geometry and spatial understanding, while articualting biblical themes and classical tales is part of the allure. One of the cruel ironies of fate is that this supreme exponent of the visual would become blind later in life. This fact is now questioned by Witham, but still it bears consideration. The comparison to Bethooven loosing his hearing is certainly understandable. Hopefully there was an equal amount of Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius' ideas to give him consolation. The melding of Plato and other ancients with Christianity is no small part of the mix. The blending of the classics with the Catholic doctrines of the quatrocento in Tuscany was a delicate balance. We are fortuante to have these paintings of that era to embody these transcendent ideals. We are fortunate as well to have wonderful books that elucidate the times and ideas of the Renaissance.

Above - a painting by Angelo Tricca, also a native of San Sepolcro- 1817-1884. He depicts Piero in his studio as an elderly man, after he was loosing his sight. The mathematician, Luca Paccioli is shown at the easel.

To view videos of Brian Keeler at the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo- sketching from the Piero Frescos go to these links below. The last three feature Brian chatting with Sam Heath, an art historian from New Hampshire.

Keeler sketches the Dream of Constantine- in Arezzo-

Sam Heath and Keeler on Piero- Part One

Sam Heath and Keeler Part Two-

Sam Heath and Keeler- Part Three

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