Bernard Berenson called Piero della Francesca “the mighty Tuscan.” Among contemporary painters, he remains the best loved of Renaissance painters, influential to a range of modern artists whose debt to him might not be readily apparent. Nevertheless, renowned as he is among artists, he is not widely known to American audiences.
When a respondent to my previous post sent a link to Piero’s Madonna del Parto, it jolted me into contrition for having neglected to say a word about the gem of a Piero exhibition that opened at the Frick in February. This rare and marvelous opportunity ends this coming Saturday. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I have hogged it to myself, returning several times to bask in it. And, yes, pay homage to the enigmatic and majestic Piero.
Piero was better known in his own day as a mathematician, an authority on solid geometry and the author of a treatise on perspective. Little of his art survives, much of it having fallen victim to renovation fever over the centuries. Most of it was executed in fresco; fresco cycles do not travel. To boot, the Victorian era, smitten with Raphael, never gave Piero a nod. Hence, a current audience’s relative lack of acquaintance with an artist who, today, ranks with Leonardo as both artist and man of science. To see his work in its full splendor requires winding through small Tuscan villages—the Way of Piero—an itinerary that begins in Arezzo and Perugia, moves on to Monterchi, through Rimini to Urbino, and Sansepolchro, Piero’s home town.
Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, owned by the Clark Institute, Massachusetts, is one of only three works by Piero in this country. An oil on panel, it is one of the uncommon transportable ones; yet this is only the second time in sixty years it has been visible in New York City. It is the heart of the Frick exhibition and a glorious initiation into Piero’s particular genius.
This Virgin, like all his Marys, has the impassive, thickset solidity of an Etruscan farm girl. Four angel sentinels stand sturdy and substantial. They bear wings, but more as emblems of station than locomotion; nothing ephemeral marks this watchful quartet. These seraphs are as firm-footed as Wim Wender’s angelic pair in Wings of Desire. A husky, self-contained toddler, Christ reaches for a pink carnation, foreshadow of the crucifixion, in Mary’s grasp. He puts out his hand without affect, composed, as inscrutable as his mother.
Roses, too closely identified with Venus and profane imagery, frequently gave way to the elusive charms of the carnation—more sharply defined than the rose—in fifteenth century painting. Piero blends them easily together. His Virgin’s throne, set under the open sky [beyond the frame of the detail here], is decorated with stylized rosettes. Living flowers repeat in the garland worn by the farther angel, symbol of paradisial rapture. “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds,” cry celebrants in the Book of Wisdom. When, for whatever reason, a Renaissance painter chose against the rose, he painted a carnation. A rosebud or a pink carnation—let us not fret the allegorical difference.
Plants, fruits and flowers came into full fashion as visual metaphors in the art of the Renaissance. They are the fragrant, unspoiled things—good gifts—loved by antiquity and, so, embraced by antiquity’s self-chosen heirs. In the hieratic serenity of Piero’s composition we find the interplay of symbolic motifs that have become part of the heraldry of the Church.
The freshness of Piero’s achievement has held for more than six hundred years. His work speaks today with a grace and power made ever more precious by what the centuries between us have wrought.