Arts Review

Remembering Encounters with Piero

I was a student when I made my first trip to Arezzo, to see Piero della Francesca’s frescos of the Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco. It was a pilgrimage, a quest to encounter in actuality paintings that I had been fascinated by since I was a child and discovered that enigmatic group of women with the neatly aligned horizontal belts on a fold-out page of my parents’ lavishly illustrated Skira book on the Italian Renaissance—a book I now have, showing the signs of long use. Entering San Francesco, I was thrilled. I had the place to myself, and back then, there was no limit to how long I could spend, apart from the midday break when the church closed. The light was indifferent and, since I was fairly impoverished, I had to be sparing with the 100 lire coins I fed into the box that turned on the lights; elsewhere I would wait for another visitor to feed the meter, but at San Francesco, I was alone. Yet the potent geometry, the unexpected harmonies of the chalky color, and above all, the clarity of the whole, multipartite structure, kept me deeply engaged.

I was reminded of the intensity of that initial confrontation when I read, years later, Marsden Hartley’s essay on his first visit to the frescos, “Arezzo and Piero,” written about 1923:

What beautiful sturdy actual men and women with what superb horses, incomparable landscape touches, set off with matchless groupings of hilltown architecture. I had expected grandeur, elegance and nobility of diction and I found it—such commendable passion for coolness, hardness, light and the finest feeling imaginable for dramatic gesture without ultra gesticulation or tortuous design . . . I can say now that I know what fine painting is, after seeing these, for me, greatest of all Italians because they appeal most, very cold and very clear.

Piero della Francesca (c. 1420–1492). Legend of the True Cross: Adoration of the Sacred Piece of Wood. C. 1450–1465. Post-restoration. Photo Credit: Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le ttività culturali/Art Resource, NY.

Subsequent visits deepened my understanding of the complexity and subtlety with which Piero constructed the great cycle. I learned to follow the erratic course of the narrative spread in an elaborate dance, across, up, and down the choir’s three tiers of panels, interrupted by a tall lancet window, but the intensity remained the same. Whenever I tried to turn away, Piero tapped me on the shoulder and said “Guarda. Non hai finito.”—“Keep looking. You’re not done, yet.” Start on the upper right, with the damaged but still eloquent Death and Burial of Adam, with the tall tree that grew from his grave, to provide the wood for the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Go to the kneeling Queen of Sheba, who recognizes the “sacred wood,” even though it has been forgotten and reused, with her entourage of solemn, standing women, seen in profile—the ones with the emphatic belts. Note Sheba and Solomon and their courtiers. Study the narrow image of men straining to carry the vast plank, when Solomon has it buried, to prevent its being the instrument of destruction of the Jewish nation. Down to the Annunciation, with its upright Madonna, framed by a column and overhead beams, and its angel, frozen mid-kneel, as if constrained by the dimensions of the space he inhabits. Across to the Dream of Constantine, with its sheltering tent and swooping angel, announcing that the emperor will win his battle under the sign of the cross—which is why Constantine converted to Christianity and his mother set off to Jerusalem to find the Cross. Follow Helena’s discovery of the Cross, by resorting to torture and the various tests to identify the True Cross. Marvel at the two battle scenes. Calm down with the Exaltation of the Cross, facing the Burial of Adam, echoing and varying the blocks of figures and tall trees in the fresco on the opposite wall. And then work your way back, noting all the faces, the gestures, the fragments of landscape, the architecture—and more.

For nine years, from 1991 to 2000, visits to San Francesco to see the Pieros were frustrated by the seemingly endless conservation project to preserve and protect the great cycle. Substantial, albeit different, parts of the frescos were covered by scaffolding each time I was there, as the work proceeded. I was told by art historian friends that the initial investigations had revealed that the walls of the choir were deteriorating and needed serious, immediate attention, so that insuring the health of the frescos involved far more than cleaning and stabilizing the paint layer. Eventually, the project was finished, and thrillingly, the entire refreshed, radiant cycle was newly revealed. The downside was that, after conservation, as with Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padova or Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, one could no longer wander into the choir at will and linger, as I had done so often in the past. Now a timed ticket was required for a restricted period. The happy exception to the new rule was visiting during the years of the summer program of the New York Studio School, where I teach. I had long resisted joining the sessions, since I dislike traveling in groups and generally avoid Italy in peak season, but as the school’s Italian-speaking resident art historian, I was finally given no choice—which turned out to be a very good thing. Each year, the organizer of the school outings, the handsome grandson of a celebrated Italian modernist sculptor, charmed the women who controlled the visits to various sites into awarding special privileges to our small group. In Arezzo, we were allowed to stay in the choir while the church was closed at midday hours for lunch. The students drew, absorbed and silent, so unobtrusive that I could imagine that I was alone, as I had been years before. I looked hard, used my binoculars, made notes. “You’re not drawing,” said one of the students. “Don’t you get bored?” The answer was an emphatic “No”—and a tacit, unspoken “Leave me alone.”

Those hours spent with the newly cleaned, luminous frescos, free of scaffolding and well lit, allowed me to think about the cycle in new ways. I began to discover new relationships among the individual panels, formal echoes and variations that helped to reinforce the somewhat tortuous path of the narrative. At first I concentrated on the frescos that were obscured on my last visit, reveling in being able to see, once again, the massive flanks and curving rumps of the horses in two great battle scenes. Constantine’s pivotal engagement with Maxentius, with its thicket of straight, slanting lances and swell of horses’ rumps and necks, is in poor condition, with tantalizing gaps and blanks, but there’s a magical slice of landscape in the center—a curve of river, some blocky buildings, and a tree whose assertive vertical trunk is extended by its reflection. The play of straight lines and rhythmic curves echoes, in miniature, the clash of weapons and horseflesh on either side of the landscape, a contrast repeated, once again, by a fragment of a white horse’s head overlapping the scene, its flaring nostril and open jaw repeating the sinuous river, just as the vertical stroke of its bridle repeats the tree trunk.

Piero della Francesca (c. 1420–1492). Legend of the True Cross: Battle of Constantine and Maxentius—detail. C. 1450–1465. Post restoration. Photo Credit: Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali/Art Resource, NY.

The battle on the opposite wall, in which the Persian king Chosroes is prevented by Heraclius from stealing the Cross—another triumph of Christianity over paganism—is better preserved. The repetitive, linked, densely layered curves of helmets, horseflesh, shields, and bodies create an insistent visual drumbeat that suggests violence and chaos, with the angular counter-rhythms of lances and swords contributing to the sense of brutal action. And yet, even though Piero convinces us of the confusion and incoherence of warfare, he also freezes time by emphasizing the underlying geometry of the forms. The sense of inchoate action results from the short staccato bursts of incident that we follow across the space—disjunctive swords, legs, angled arms, the raised forelegs of warhorses, helmet brims, bridles, trumpets—an irregular sprinkling of special events that capture our attention and make us move in fits and starts through the rhythmically aligned human and horses’ legs, the tightly pressed patchwork of bodies. A man in a tall white hat blows a trumpet between two men in armor, their hidden faces making them particularly sinister. The cool inverted cone of the trumpeter’s headgear makes us notice a threatening triangle of battle-axes and a spear behind him. As I move across the wide scene, I keep getting caught up in eloquent contradictions: suave geometric relationships interrupted by staccato moments of brutality and carnage. The struggle to reconcile these oppositions somehow overwhelms the stop-time effect of Piero’s lapidary drawing and clear Euclidian forms, animating the dense fabric of battling men, changing the magical stillness into agitation. I start thinking that I hear the whinnying of the warhorses and the shouts of the men. Yet the few places where we see the blood of the wounded come as a surprise. I start thinking, too, of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s unforgettable film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, like a Piero come to life, the Pharisees, in their tall flaring hats, particularly menacing.

Over time, I discover more and more inner complexities—unexpected long-distance relationships between often widely separated scenes, sometimes on opposite walls of the choir. Piero establishes strong rhythmic connections among disparate scenes, sometimes subtly, as with the verticals of tree trunks, architectural elements, and columnar figures, or with slender, slanting lances, and the edges of banners. Sometimes it’s more complicated: the slant of the heavy, sacred plank, on the shoulders of laboring men, makes me more aware of the position of a cross angled toward us, in one of the trials to identify the real thing, while that angle is, in turn, answered by the trajectory of the radiant angel who zooms into the sleeping Constantine’s tent as the emperor dreams of victory under the sign of the cross. An attendant woman in the Solomon and Sheba panel proves to be a near-mirror image of an attendant woman in a scene opposite. And so on.

The multiplicity of postures and viewpoints triggers other associations, as well, reminding us that Piero wrote a treatise on perspective and, like many of his Tuscan colleagues, prided himself on being able to show the human body, horses, and the like in many different positions. I suddenly notice the convincingly rendered perspective of the paneled room in which Solomon and Sheba meet and remember that Giorgio Vasari admired it, in his entry on Piero. No matter how much we know about the way successful artists’ studios worked in the Renaissance, no matter how much we acknowledge the contributions of apprentices and assistants, we are left breathless by the inventiveness of Piero, the acknowledged master, in devising the entire extraordinary scheme with all its enriching subtexts and internal rhymes and assonances.

The great bonus of the Studio School’s summer program was this kind of extended time, within the tight two weeks of the session, when we visited such important (and favorite) Renaissance works as, in Florence, the Paolo Uccello frescos of the story of Noah, in the Chiostro Verde of Santa Maria Novella, and the dazzling Brancacci Chapel, with its frescos by Masolino, Masaccio, and Filippino Lippi. In Orvieto, where we were based, there were our nearly daily sessions with the tense, muscular Luca Signorelli cycle in the San Brizio Chapel of the cathedral. My renewed acquaintance with these works, within the compressed time of the session, and the research I did for my lectures to the students, prompted new thoughts about interrelationships and connections. Could the naked figure struggling to push himself out of the ground in Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Dead be an homage to Piero’s boy being hauled from the well—having capitulated to St. Helena’s grim methods for discovering the whereabouts of the True Cross? What about the similarly posed figure in that sort of wooden barrel, trying to float above the threatening waters in Uccello’s Story of Noah? And weren’t they all, including Piero, thinking about Masaccio’s eloquently simplified figures awaiting baptism in the Brancacci chapel? It was clearly time to do further research to find out who might have seen what, and when.

If one goes to Arezzo to see Piero, it’s usual to continue on “the Piero Trail,” to see the works in Perugia, Monterchi, San Sepolcro—his hometown—and eventually, Urbino. Public transportation being what it is in rural Italy, even these days, this is best done with a car, over several days—something I eventually achieved, over the years. With the Studio School students and a bus, we did a mini-version, stopping to see Piero’s fresco of the pregnant Madonna, displayed with too much drama in a former schoolhouse in Monterchi, and continuing to San Sepolcro for a superb altarpiece and the staggering, late masterwork, The Resurrection of Christ. The first time I tried to make this trip, following my second visit to San Francesco, on a hot June day, I had had to skip Monterchi because of the logistics of getting there. But a once daily bus from Arezzo to San Sepolcro, leaving mid-morning and returning late afternoon, seemed like a good option. I was used to local transportation, the civic museum would close about one for lunch, but I should have time with the paintings late morning and again in the afternoon. How long could 35 kilometers take? I hadn’t reckoned on its being market day. The bus was as packed as a Piero battle scene, not only with aromatic people from the surrounding area but with crates of aromatic chickens, enormous wicker baskets of produce, and a couple of aromatic goats. I shared my seat, toward the back, with an elderly woman holding a chicken crate; she looked at me with deep suspicion and glowered when the driver announced that there was “una forestiera”—a foreign girl—onboard, despite my having asked her politely, with my best Tuscan accent, if I could sit beside her. All heads turned. I didn’t have the nerve to turn myself. (I later discovered, reading Marsden Hartley, that he’d been to Arezzo on market day, too. But there was nothing about a bus ride with livestock.)

The ride was interminable. The bus stopped at every second olive tree and haystack, where passengers and livestock very slowly disembarked, chatting with fellow passengers as they inched forward, squeezing past the goats, who remained on the bus as long as I did. But the bus did not become less crowded. For every person and beast who descended, another got on, to travel to the next stop. In one tiny town, we waited for an extraordinary amount of time, admiring a robust toddler—hadn’t I just seen him in a fresco somewhere?— being bathed by his proud mamma at the pump in the center of the piazza. Everyone on the piazza side of the bus hung out the windows. Everyone on the other side stood in the aisles and craned. Only after we had all taken in the splendors of the child did the driver move on, reluctantly. The 35 kilometers took almost three hours, and I arrived in San Sepolcro fifteen minutes before the (empty) museum was about to close. Rushing in, I discovered, to my horror, that it would not reopen in time for me to have more than half an hour before I had to get back on the bus.

Nearly weeping, I explained my plight to the museum guard, throwing in as many expressions of sorrow and chagrin, along with as many subjunctives as I could muster, explaining that I was an art history student from New York, that I had traveled all this way expressly to see the Pieros, and that I was about to expire from disappointment. Fortu­nately, the guard was sympathetic and kind. He told he that he didn’t go home for lunch this time of year, because it was unpleasant to ride so far on his bicycle, at midday, when it was hot. His wife packed something for him. So I could stay while the museum was closed. But wasn’t I hungry? Why didn’t I run across the street to the caffé and get a tramezzino, at least. He would let me back in. Miracolo! And I even had time to pay attention to the other Piero in the museum, a splendid altarpiece with what seemed to be all of its many separate figures.

There was nothing memorable about getting to San Sepolcro with the Studio School students—certainly no goats onboard and no naked little boy being shown off in the piazza—but the impact of the astonishing Resurrection was as great as it had been the first time, perhaps even more, since I now knew more and had a larger frame of reference for this thundering, implacable painting. It’s a picture that reduces you to silence. There’s no appropriate response but awe and close attention. And if we pay that close attention, we discover that nothing is quite what it seems to be. No matter how centered the confrontational figure stepping athletically out of the sarcophagus, staring us down, purports to be, the painting is full of shifts away from symmetry. It’s really organized around two overlapping triangles, one with Christ’s head at the apex and one, off-center and slightly irregular, composed of the sleeping soldiers in front of the tomb, culminating at Christ’s knee, as he steps up and out. The soldiers, folded into the narrow band of space between the bottom of the canvas and the flat, frontal plane of the sarcophagus, diagram the three-dimensional possibilities of that space rather than simply restating its dimensions. The trees in the background are similarly asymmetrical, balanced but different, on each side of Christ. This irregularity and casualness remind us that the soldiers and the landscape are of this world and in this world. The half-nude, wounded figure about to rise up before us and who faces us so compellingly is not. He belongs to another realm, a zone in which a miracle may take place. The sweep of his pink cloak, framing the heroic bare torso, like a classical marble sculpture, accentuates the otherness of the fierce figure of Christ. But it’s the asymmetry of the soldiers that makes the painting dynamic and saves it from becoming a static demonstration of how seated men, overcome by sleep, may be shown in different positions, as they might have been in the work of a lesser, less inventive artist.

Piero della Francesca (c. 1420–1492). The Resurrection of Christ, 1456. Fresco, 225 x 200 cm. Photo Credit: Alfredo Dagli Orti/Art Resource, NY.

I wrote a lot of these observations down, especially on my last visit to The Resurrection with the students, but while I had given them an introductory talk about what we were going to see that day, I said almost nothing in the presence of the painting. Occasionally, someone would ask me a question, and I’d try to answer, in a way designed to encourage the questioner to interrogate the paintings more closely, as I tried to prepare them to do, when I spoke earlier. I wanted the students to have the thrill of discovery for themselves. It was all there. All they had to do was look.