Approaching Piero

John Haber
in New York City

Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters

Piero della Francesca may have been the greatest early Renaissance painter in Italy and the least approachable. For him, that stubbornness was just the cost of being fully human.

Four loans of Piero to the Met do not make the approach any easier, and it takes nerve to subtitle the exhibition "Personal Encounters." The earliest has at best a doubtful attribution, just when one hoped for clues to the origins of his art. Three have suffered discoloration or damage. The fourth almost hides its humanity on a high shelf and in a back room. None is a masterpiece, and a standard survey text does not so much as mention a single one. Give them a little time, though, and they give a sense of a small-town boy at the heart of the action. Piero della Francesca's Madonna and Child with Two Angels (Palazzo Ducale, Urbino, c. 1464–1474)

A cool welcome

At least one man might have wished a warmer welcome—all the stranger, for he had paid for the encounter. Piero's patron kneels in profile before Saint Jerome, who eyes him warily while turning the page of his book. The supplicant, a silk merchant from Venice, surely sought out Piero, but Jerome seems barely to tolerate the interruption from his famed bible and from a crucifix rising up from a tree trunk beside his bench. Even the saint's open tunic seems more designed to express a healthy physique than penitence. Jerome may be in the wilderness, but this is plainly his territory, just as the landscape behind him is the artist's. It has a castle apart from an entire town very much like Sansepolcro (at the time, Borgo San Sepolcro), the rural byway in Tuscany that Piero called home.

The painting has all of Piero's precision in the 1460s, from the firm geometry of the bench to the parallel between the tall crucifix and its organic support. A living tree sets off the saint's mythic territory from the background, while neatly framing the donor with its trunk behind him and the leaves above his head. This is human territory all the same. It includes lush foliage, towers in perspective, and rolling hills, calibrated as never before to recede in depth. Jerome's impatience humanizes him as well, right down to the nervous motion of fingers across the page. The donor, in a lavish red robe and a greater show of piety than he may ever have possessed, got just the Renaissance portrait he wanted.

The painting, on loan from the Accademia in Venice, supplies the excuse for a show in the expanded European painting galleries. A cleaning has brightened it considerably, although the landscape has turned from green to brown for good. Cleaning has also retained an inscription identifying the donor but likely added after Piero. (The Latinate abbreviation AVG F after the merchant's name dignifies him as the son of someone named Augustus.) The painter has his own signature on the tree trunk at left, as Petri de Borgo—ever proud of his small town. He never gave up his position on the town council, and there is no evidence of a trip to Venice.

The merchant may have discovered the artist through someone else in the cloth business, the man who commissioned a greener version of Saint Jerome, this one dated 1450. Here humanity has already tamed the wilderness. A niche carved in stone holds the saint's library, and human hands have reduced some of an orderly array of trees to stumps. Piero delights in their reflections in a river, its windings unifying the painting. He used the same shallow mirror for a far greater painting that same year, a Baptism. Fra Angelico had already set his Descent from the Cross in front of a vast landscape and city, in 1434, but no one had so fully integrated gods and saints with Italy.

Still, Jerome in the Wilderness is not much of a painting. It is also badly abraded, and it gains much of its charm from the abrasion. Jerome's lion (the one from whom he helpfully removed a thorn) is a comic brown smudge and a tail. One could easily mistake the tempera on panel for unfinished, with one of those fascinating insights into Renaissance working methods. But no, for one can see the earth through the lion and through the saint's red hat. Even with this loan from Berlin, the Met is struggling to put on a show.

The Frick Collection did better less than a year before, with a loan from the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts to complement its own holdings. Even that show was simply "Piero in America," and a proper display of this artist may never reach New York. That still leaves room for beauty, insights, and enigmas. With the remaining two paintings, the Met spans the artist's career, and the puzzles are very much part of the show. I doubt that he had anything to do with the earliest, from a private collection in Delaware. Yet it introduces his peculiar balance between rigor and humanity.

Wine, women, and silence

The first painting, from perhaps 1439, is actually two—a Madonna and Child on one side of the panel and a wine cask on the other. One may have trouble making out the latter, as it is flipped on its side relative to the first. It is hard to believe that anyone thought of them together, least of all Piero. The curators, Keith Christiansen and Andrea Bayer, see his hand in both, though, from its limited palette to its skill in geometry. A wall label shows it right-side up, along with color to highlight lines incised in the panel, as a means of transferring a drawing. They helped someone pull off the feat of a rounded object in perspective.

But who? Someone apparently reused wood from a cassone, the ornamental chest often given in marriage. That occasion would definitely call for wine, but probably not for a painter prominent enough to work on more than decoration. So was this one reuse or two—and one painter, two painters, or three? To add to the dilemma, the surface damage to the Madonna and Child is awful, to the point that Mary's veil and face are all but gone. They were probably not Piero at his best anyhow.

Piero della Francesca's Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (Sterling and Francis Clark Art Institute, c. 1460–1470)Someone placed the holy figures in the narrow space of an open window, with Mary's robe lapping teasingly into the viewer's world. Someone also managed striking perspective for the oddly solitary window shutter and the two halos. Someone used quick darts of brown, very much like Piero's, to suggest yet another world outside the window—but then one does not see much of a landscape. Still, no degree of damage can explain the fat, ill-defined hands so unlike him. To make things murkier, no record exists of Piero working alone before 1439, when he assisted Domenico Veneziano with frescoes now lost for a hospital in Florence. The Met assigns his birth to 1412, but that would make even a small-town boy an aging apprentice and a slow learner.

Still, there are hints of humanity in the child's red coral necklace. Many an infant, especially a rich one, would have worn that as a good-luck charm. The same token also appears in the show's last and best painting, from Urbino. It is also the most fascinating to approach. Angels stand to either side of Mary and her newborn, their arms crossed like more dignified and attentive museum guards. The eyes of one look straight at the viewer, while the other turns toward the mother and child.

They mark the subject as a very special world, between this one and the next. Piero has further signs of another space and maybe another humanity in the background, though the same door that frames an angel. A window casts a shaft of strong light into a room otherwise unseen. All one can say is that it has blue-gray walls and plain rafters. The window itself has only shutters, not stained glass. And the same everyday setting and inaccessibility apply to Mary and Jesus.

The baby has a hand raised in blessing, a regal bearing, and a carnation for his purity, but also the coral. His pudgy face goes back to an infant by Masaccio at the very birth of Renaissance painting, stuffing grapes in his mouth as fast as he possibly can—and as fast as a symbol of the Eucharist could ever allow. Mary has plain garments with stitching down the front that she might have made by hand. Only the angels get to wear gilding and jewelry. Her sewing kit sits on high shelves behind her. It points further to her patience, her humility, and her human needs.

Nothing personal

It may still sound strange to speak of Piero's humanity rathan than his majesty. His Saint John the Evangelist, in the Frick Collection, buries his face in a scowl and his book, hardly acknowledging the viewer. John's columnar stance fits well with the architecture of the wall behind him and the steps of a throne, its corner just visible before his feet. The rich, flowing bulk of his robe has nothing on the pink marbled floor—and neither does the emotional chill. Exactly this silent perfection endeared Piero to the twentieth century, when Modernism helped rescue him from popular neglect. Like Jan Vermeer, he became the painter's painter, the master of tectonic form.

Nothing but form may seem to matter, for all the deep red of John's robe. At the Met, step around to the rooms for fifteenth-century Italy, for a burst of color that Piero has set aside. In the Baptism, the bare legs and torso of a man with his shirt over his head, stripping for the event, line up ever so neatly with the trunk of a tree. Not even time seems to matter, least of all human time. A battle scene, from a fresco cycle in Arezzo, disposes with any simple narrative procession from left to right. In the Baptism, the dove with its outstretched wings will hover in its place forever.

Unless, of course, it continues to fly forward and out of the picture plane. Piero learned the drama of detachment from Masaccio himself, in a Trinity in Florence. Yet he also learned the bitter or comic flaws of real people. The man stripping goes right back to the visible shivering in Masaccio's own Baptism. Even the gruff impatience of Piero's saints is a totally human failing. Maybe they prepared him for his late work at the court of perhaps Italy's most ruthless leader, Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino.

In his perfection and humanity alike, Piero was living up to Renaissance ideals, as articulated by Leon Battista Alberti. They include the close imitation of nature, but also the balanced relationship of parts to the whole. They include the study of Renaissance sculpture and architecture, like that of Lorenzo Ghiberti, as a model for painting. They entail linear perspective, at which Piero excelled. In a late work, one can picture to within a fraction of an inch the space within the shadows under a dome, where an egg hangs suspended over Mary's head.

Piero falls short of just one of Alberti's ideals, the representation of motion. Yet the stillness, too, is deliberate, and it adds to the drama as much as to form. His eternal collision of arms and warriors is an unrelieved picture of death. In that same fresco cycle from the 1450s, on The Legend of the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus died lifts a woman from her grave, in a movement both solemn and slow. In a typical Resurrection, Jesus triumphantly bounds to life, like an athlete ready to play. For Piero, he kneels on the edge of his tomb, emaciated and erect, while soldiers, one desperately covering his eyes, lie stiff and tormented and sleep.

Can one take anything personally? Piero needs to outdo others both in the formidable and the human. They allow him to describe a realm both more formidable and more human than this one. Of course it is the realm of a Christian man-god, but it is also his ideal of painting. One may have to head for Italy to find it, and one had best head for the Frick after the Met for a start. For now, one has just the earthiness of his landscapes and the challenge of a few injured paintings.

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"Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 30, 2014. A related article fills out an understanding of Piero with loans to the Frick Collection in 2013.


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