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Piero della Francesca: A Formal Introduction

Piero della Francesca, who channeled mathematics into shapes and colors, gets his first one-man show in America.

Piero della Francesca

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This month the Frick Collection in New York will stage a strange and magical event: the first one-man show in this country of the work of Piero della Francesca. Only seven paintings will be shown, but that’s an impressive gathering for a figure whose total oeuvre consists of just 22 paintings and who liked to paint large frescoes that cannot travel. In fact, with the exception of a fresco of Hercules from Piero’s own home in Arezzo, owned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which was too fragile to come, “Piero della Francesca in America” (February 12–May 19) contains every example of Piero’s work in North America, as well as a painting from Lisbon. To be sure, it doesn’t contain the two works for which Piero is best known—the remarkable frescoes of The Discovery of the True Cross in Arezzo, or the fresco of The Resurrection of Christ in his native city of Sansepolcro, which Aldous Huxley memorably singled out as “the best painting in the world.” Yet the exhibition will showcase precisely those qualities of nobility and gravitas which have made Piero probably the most esteemed of early Renaissance painters, a form-giver whose importance is often ranked with figures
like Nicolas Poussin, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne.

That the Frick is staging this show is surely appropriate, for Helen Clay Frick, the daughter of the museum’s founder, was a big fan of Piero’s work and made the somewhat arduous pilgrimage to Arezzo and Sansepolcro to see his murals. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive painting in the show, a crimson-robed rendering of St. John the Evangelist reading from a book, was the very first painting acquired when the Frick collection became a museum just after Henry Clay Frick’s death. In 1933, in the heart of the Depression, when the art world was in a slump, the Frick paid the then-staggering sum of $400,000 to acquire it (multiply that sum by 20 or 30 to put it into today’s dollars). It seems that Helen Frick had a particular fondness for the so-called “Italian Primitives.” It’s noteworthy that the conservative collector so admired the work of a figure whose revival from obscurity to fame was so closely associated with the rise of modern art. In fact it could be argued that it was modernism itself that enabled us to Piero’s greatness to be fully appreciated for the first time.

By a curious chance, Piero della Francesca died not only in the year that Columbus discovered America, 1492, but on the very day of his first landfall: October 12. We don’t know the date of his birth, but it may well have been in 1413, the year that Brunelleschi created his painting of the Baptistery of Florence that introduced the new science of Renaissance perspective. The coincidence of these dates, while not due to cause and effect, poetically suggests a central quality of the generation in which Piero lived: it was an age of discovery in which Western man sought to extend his knowledge and power in both the inner and outer worlds. While he himself did not discover perspective, Piero belonged to the first generation of artists that explored this new technique, and he himself wrote a treatise on its use, which seems to have been the second of its kind, after that of Alberti, and the first written by a practicing artist and addressed to artists rather than patrons.

Interestingly, Piero was also a notable mathematician—the only Renaissance painter of whom that may be said—and an important figure both for his own contributions and for his rediscovery of Euclid, whose work he helped bring back into circulation. In addition to his treatise on perspective, Piero wrote two other mathematical books, one a compendium of math problems solvable by algebra, which seems to have been aimed at the instruction of merchants, and the other a treatise on the five Platonic solids—pyramid, square, circle, decahedron and icosahedron—and their geometric properties. As several writers have noted, Piero’s perspective treatise contains diagrams that closely relate to sections of his famous fresco of The Discovery of the True Cross in Arezzo, and this suggests the degree to which his mathematical inquiries and his artistry were combined. Most likely, in fact, Piero took the working drawings for that mural and used them as diagrams for his book.

At the same time, he was something of an outsider. While we know that as a young man, he briefly worked in Florence, assisting Domenico Veneziano with a mural, for the most part his career was centered in Sansepolcro, with a population of 6,000 a somewhat provincial place, although strategically located on the crossroads between important centers such as Florence, Siena and Urbino. The fact that his greatest paintings are in places a bit off the beaten path has surely slowed the growth of his reputation, and even his art seems to have a slightly provincial character, a quality at once quiet and remote, standing a little outside of what was happening in the big centers such as Florence.

Piero was an idealist, although an idealist in a rather different way than Botticelli. Botticelli’s human figures are strikingly slender and beautiful, like Vogue fashion models today. This is generally not the case with those of Piero, who are often oddly stocky and featured, with strange-looking ears and noses, like the people we encounter in daily life. Even their poses are indecorous and slightly awkward. His famous Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery in London, for example, shows a figure in the background awkwardly pulling his shirt over his head, and contains the most detailed rendering I know of medieval underwear—which turns out to look very much like modern underwear but without the elastic band. Piero’s figures, in short, seem beautiful in a different way than those of other Renaissance artists—not because they’re strikingly handsome or exactly graceful, but because of something about their presence as shapes and forms.

In his perspective treatise Piero included diagrams showing how one can plot points on a human head in both elevation and cross-section and then draw the head as it would look from any vantage point, including foreshortened. It’s an oddly laborious way to draw a head, far more time-consuming than just sketching it freehand. But one suspects that Piero’s paintings are often the result of some such time-consuming process. A striking instance is the tipped head of the sleeping soldier in his famous Resurrection fresco—a head that is said to have been a self-portrait. It’s slightly odd-looking because every feature is a sort of compromise between an actual human head and a pure geometric shape. The strangely protruding Adam’s apple, for example, looks like half a gold ball.

One might even go further and say that in some peculiar way Piero’s figures seem not so much products of visual examination of the world as of pure thought. His handling of detail, for example, is odd. Most of his shapes have a highly simplified geometric aspect, but then on occasion, he’ll minutely trace the pattern of a lock of hair or a group of threads. He relies on abstract geometric rules more than on observation. Just how he applied these rules will probably always be a matter of debate, since while we can sense that there’s some sort of peculiar understructure to his composition, we don’t know exactly how he generated his forms. Thus, for example, as a mathematician Piero wrote about the properties of the Golden Section, but we don’t know how or even whether he employed this proportion in generating his designs.

The electric spark that jolted the art-history field into seeing Piero as a major master was a remarkable essay by Aldous Huxley titled “The Best Picture,” published in 1925 in a collection of essays, Along the Road. In many ways, it remains even today the best introduction to Piero’s work. In it, Huxley made the remarkable claim that Piero’s fresco of the Resurrection in the town hall of Sansepolcro is “the greatest picture in the world.” Huxley’s essay has two parts. The first describes the pilgrimage to Sansepolcro, whether by rail or the seven-hour bus ride that takes one through the Apennines and then descends. At first one’s destination seems like a disappointment. It’s not a picturesque hill town but a fairly small walled citadel set in a broad flat valley between hills. But then there’s the picture: the best one ever made.

The second part discusses the picture itself. What makes it great? For Huxley this greatness is somehow associated with “virtue,” though a virtue expressed in artistic terms rather than through conduct in society. “Great it is,” Huxley writes, “genuinely great, because the man who painted it was noble as well as talented… A natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur—this is the leading quality of all Piero’s work. He is majestic without being at all strained, theatrical or hysterical…He achieves grandeur naturally, with every gesture he makes, never consciously strains after it.”

Further on, Huxley explains that this quality has something to do with the handling of surfaces, of masses. “There is something in all his works that reminds one constantly of Egyptian sculpture. Piero has that Egyptian love of the smooth rounded surface that is the external symbol and expression of a mass. The faces of his personages look as though they were carved out of some very hard rock.”

For Huxley, these qualities give Piero a preeminent role among Renaissance painters. Indeed, in an extravagant reversal of the taste of the Victorians, he declares of Piero, “For myself I prefer him to Botticelli, so much so indeed, that if it were necessary to sacrifice all Botticelli’s works in order to save the Resurrection, the Nativity, the Madonna della Misericordia, and the Arezzo frescoes, I should unhesitatingly commit the Primavera and all the rest of them to the flames.”

So far as I can make out, Huxley was the first to make a claim like this for Piero in print, although I suspect he was echoing things he had heard in conversation with authorities on Renaissance art. Huxley was friendly with figures in the Bloomsbury Group, such as Clive Bell and Roger Fry, and also knew major historians of Renaissance art, such as Sir John Pope-Hennessy and Sir Kenneth Clark. One can consider what he had to stay not only as a statement about Piero, but as a document of a new way of looking at art that took hold in the 1920s when the impact of modern art began to change the way viewers looked at Old Master painting. One might even pinpoint a specific moment when this shift in how the world looked took place—December 1910, when Roger Fry held an exhibition of “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” at the Grafton Gallery in London. The event popularized the view that formal qualities in art rather than story-telling were the key to notable artistic expression: the event even inspired a famous essay by Virginia Woolf in which she declared that “On or about December 1910, human character changed.”

The astounding character of Huxley’s claim is evident when one considers that up to this time, Piero was regarded as a very minor figure. Vasari included him in his Lives of the Painters, but clearly considered him a minor figure compared to the great masters of his own day such as Raphael. As Kenneth Clark has noted in his excellent monograph on Piero, published in 1951, Victorian writers and art enthusiasts, who rediscovered the work of Botticelli, Fra Filippo Lippi, Bellini, Carpaccio, Fra Angelico and others, had very little to say about Piero. For example, he’s mentioned only once in the 39 volumes of John Ruskin’s works, in a context that is purely anecdotal. As is so often the case, the Victorians saw the art of the past through the art of their own time, and when looking at Renaissance paintings looked for the qualities of linear grace, emotional sentiment, and a certain wistfulness that they found in the work of their own painters, such as Burne-Jones.

It’s only when taste in modern painting changed, and figures such as Cézanne and Seurat, who were concerned with pictorial construction, came to the fore, that Piero’s work experienced a sudden reappraisal. At this point the term “blocks,” which had been used by the 19th-century writers Crowe and Cavalcaselle as a term of reproach, became a term of praise; and the unemotional nature of Piero’s figures, which had been seen as a consequence of lack of skill, came to be seen as the quality that moved his art out of the realm of story-telling and imbued it with deeper formal qualities.

Indeed, Piero is specifically mentioned in the famous passage in which Clive Bell, in his 1914 book Art, first propounded the term “significant form,” which was surely in large part inspired by the experience of seeing Fry’s “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” show at the Grafton Gallery in London four years earlier. As Bell wrote: “There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless. What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What qualities are common to Santa Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne? One answer seems possible—significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our esthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call ‘Significant Form’; and ‘Significant Form’ is the one quality common to all great works of art.”

Surely one of the most fascinating aspects of Piero’s work is his influence on great 20th-century artists—a subject that has been the focus of some remarkable scholarship by a contemporary Italian art historian, Luciano Celes. It’s no accident that Clark dedicated his book on Piero to his friend, the modernist sculptor Henry Moore. Surely Moore’s work shows precisely the same concern with monumental, archetypal forms that distinguishes that of Piero. But curiously, some of his greatest impact occurred in the United States, particularly in the 1930s. Among his great admirers, for example, was the painter Charles Sheeler, who traveled to Italy in 1909, just after visiting with Gertrude Stein in Paris. The experience proved pivotal to his work. As he later explained in an interview, “I discovered Piero della Francesca at Arezzo—you saw the pictures that were really planned like a house. By an architect. One doesn’t build a house just on impulse. They didn’t start piling bricks hoping it would turn out to be a house. They really did have their blueprints.”

Similarly, Elsie Driggs found in Piero’s work “a desire for structure and order, for simplicity and strength” and was inspired by it to find a new dignity in the imposing smokestacks and steel mills of Pittsburgh. She later recalled, “My gallery (the Daniel Gallery) hailed it as ‘the new classicism,” but when people would ask me about it, I would say ‘that is my Piero della Francesca,” and they would say: ‘Who is he?’”

Notably, several of these figures employ the phrase, “the greatest painting in the world,” a clue that they had probably read Aldous Huxley’s essay. George Biddle, for example, noted in his diary on January 1, 1935, that he had just dreamt of being Piero della Francesca; and on May 3, 1948 he reminisced of this period, “I devoured his works. I used to think the Resurrection of Christ in Sansepolcro the most beautiful painting in the world.”

Perhaps the figure who most perfectly reanimated and recaptured Piero’s qualities was Grant Wood, who must have learned of his work through Huxley’s essay. An amazing number of Wood’s paintings and designs pay homage to Piero, from 1927 stained-glass window design for the Veteran’s Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, which pays homage to the Madonna del Misericordia in Sansepolcro, to an odd composition of 1937, Saturday Night Bath, which contains a figure directly based on the man in his underwear in Piero’s Baptism in London.

Of all those inspired by Piero, it may be Wood who best captured the eerie strangeness of Piero’s art, as well as its reliance on underlying geometry. Wood even utilized one of Piero’s more curious devices, the use of a vanishing point to emphasize a thing or gesture of dramatic significance. In Piero’s Arezzo fresco, for example, the vanishing point draws attention to the pointing gesture of the Queen of Sheba’s attendant; and in Wood’s Dinner for Threshers a vanishing point serves as a marker of the place in the room where Wood’s father died of a heart attack, a few months after the meal which is the subject of the painting. Curiously, Grant Wood probably never actually saw an actual painting by Piero; he must have known his work through reproductions. Too bad he can’t make it to the present exhibition at the Frick Collection.

By Henry Adams

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: February 2013

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