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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Piero della Francesca (1411/13-1492). Saint John the Evangelist, 1454-1469. Oil and tempera on poplar panel, thinned and cradled. 52.7 x 24.5 inches. The Frick Collection, New York.
At The Frick Collection is a perfect gem of a show—on the main floor, in the Oval Gallery. The show has only seven paintings and only three of any size at all-- but in terms of their impact and inner largeness, all are giants. There is also the theoretical reconstruction of an altarpiece, now long disassembled, showing how six of the seven might have been positioned originally. But (for me, anyway) the reconstruction is pretty much by the bye, as what I really treasure is the paintings themselves.

The show is titled “Piero della Francesca in America.” It has been organized by Nathaniel Silver, guest curator, and celebrates one of the great painters of the Quattrocento in Italy—one who still today ranks as one of the greatest anywhere (through May 19).

Born between 1411 and 1413, in the then-thriving small Umbrian city of Borgo San Sepulcro, Piero studied locally, then moved to Florence. There he earned enough of a reputation to be commissioned to fresco the choir of the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo (not far from San Sepulcro). These frescos, dedicated to the Legend of the True Cross, are his most famous work, along with his marvelous tempera-on-panel profile portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, hawk-nosed Duke of Urbino.

The latter (with its companion portrait of Federico’s wife) is still very well worth looking at (in the Uffizi Gallery ). However, I was disappointed when I saw the Church of San Francesco in 1968. The building had been deconsecrated, and (to the best of my recollection) was deserted when I was there, with only dirty curtains at the windows to preserve the frescos against the sunlight, plus a mechanism to provide electric light to see them by for limited periods of time (achieved by feeding the mechanism with coins). The frescos themselves appeared to be in poor condition, and most were so high up on the walls and ceiling that it was difficult to see them.

Judging from what I see on the web, restorations may since have taken place, and there may be binoculars for rent: certainly, there is now a ticket office, where visitors must buy admission (visits are limited to 30 minutes each).

Still, my Arezzo experience was not enough to ruin my relationship with Piero, whose work I’d fallen in love with back when I was an undergraduate and took a course on the Italian Renaissance at Barnard with Julius Held. I’d come to the course expecting Botticelli and Michelangelo. As I recall it, we got only a hurried lecture on the Sistine Chapel at the end of the course, and we never did get around to Botticelli, but there were so many other marvelous discoveries in that course that I never missed him.

First among the great discoveries was Giotto; next came Masaccio (though with more images in between of the International Style than I really needed to see). Third on my hit parade was Piero, whose rounded, bold and anatomically correct figural types, and command of the new Renaissance techniques of shading, modeling and perspective, may have been influenced by Masaccio, but whose frosty palette seems to have come from Domenico Veneziano, with whom Piero had worked as an assistant in Florence.

The paintings at the Frick are all oil and tempera on panel, and are accordingly well preserved and/or restored. Their combinations of composition and color afford bewitchingly beautiful images, even though there is relatively little variation in their subject matter. One is a small Crucifixion, and one is a relatively large Madonna and Child enthroned with four angels, but the remaining five are all single images of standing individual saints.

Two are large, full-length figures, while three are smaller, three-quarter length ones. All seem to have been painted in the later stages of Piero’s career, after he’d returned to his hometown and was executing commissions for local churches (he died in San Sepulcro in 1492).

What I love about all these figures is their statuesque simplicity, their dignity, their nobility and at the same time, their complete and moving innocence. These faces are too peaceful to convey signs of inner or outer stress. And their subtle, often paler colors likewise detach them from the everyday and situate them in another world.

The three large paintings are the Madonna and Child (on loan from the Sterling & Francine Art Institute in Williamstown), and the two full-length portraits: of St. Augustine (on loan from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon ) and of John the Evangelist, reading a book (owned by the Frick—the other loan is a smaller St. Apollonia from the National Gallery in Washington).

At the media preview, Dr. Silver pointed out how extraordinary it was for the artist to have been able to squeeze those four additional figures of the angels into the painting of the Madonna & Child, without giving the impression of crowdedness. I found this helped in my appreciation of the painting, but he had preceded this discussion with a detailed analysis of the many little pictures depicting the life of Christ that decorate the cope of St. Augustine, to say nothing of the saints painted on his miter and the picture of the Resurrection painted on the clasp at his throat.

This iconographer’s dream, I’m sorry to say, became this formalist’s nightmare: the workmanship is enchanting, but the result, a bit overdone & fussy. I couldn’t help suspecting that some pedantic cleric had dictated this elaborate program, and, since the painting was part of a commission for a church affiliated with the Augustine order, the artist had had no choice but to comply.

I liked the simple pale vermillion of St. John’s robe much better. And it is so nicely set off by other large and simple forms: the Evangelist’s green undergarment, the heavenly blue of the sky behind him, the flesh color of his face, hands, and bare feet, and the pale browns, greys and creams of the marble floor upon which he stands and the balustrade behind him. It is in these large & classically simple forms that Piero excels.

Combined with them are a few smaller details that embellish the image without overloading it: the saint’s white hair & beard, the precious gems embroidered on the narrow hem of his undergarment, and the decoration on the outside of the book (is it his Gospel or Revelations?? We’ll never know). Atop all of this is the solid gold disk of his halo, floating (horizontally and in accordingly correct perspective) over his head and looking—in this persuasive situation—completely real.
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