Art in Context

Piero della Francesca in America

CLICK TO ENLARGE | Piero della Francesca (1411/13–1492), 
Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, c. 1460-70, detail. 
Oil (and tempera?) transferred to fabric on panel, 
42.4 x 30.9 inches
. ©The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Once upon a summertime, a long time ago, a young man entered a chapel. The chapel he entered was in Italy, in a hill-town called Arezzo. This was a modest chapel indeed, in a modest church, that of San Francesco. A lovely soft light was there. Everything around the young man dissolved completely in the presence of the beauty of the art of Piero. How the young artist felt, thought, lived would be changed forever.

Many years later during wintertime, an older artist was invited to join a small group of people in a large city called New York. They had come to look at some seven paintings gathered on the walls of an intimate circular room at the end of a central rotunda in a splendid museum that had once been a mansion. The museum is The Frick Collection. Everything around the artist dissolved completely in the presence of the beauty of these seven paintings of Piero della Francesca. How the older artist felt, thought, and lived had been changed forever.

One morning, between the two times, the artist was bicycling his way to teach at an esteemed summer school in the Catskill Mountains of New York named the Art Students League. Along the way, he stopped, as a few times before, for orange juice and coffee at the home of a friendly and wonderful artist named Philip Guston. Over toast, Guston opened his mail and expounded on the wonders of Piero della Francesca, his beloved Italian Renaissance painter.

Quite recently, several years ago, the artist (myself) received a postcard from the eminent artist and writer Brian O’Doherty. Following a few salutations and brief evaluations, the note ended this way: “Ah! Piero’s the man for me too. All the best.”

At the present time, through May 19, 2013, it will be possible to have the rare experience of being able to visit, in America, the great beauty of some seven works by Piero della Francesca at The Frick Collection (a lovely, quiet place). Six of the works are from American public collections. One work is from Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.

Much of Piero’s life and travels are matters of quiet conjecture. In a sense, he was what might be called today an independent or an artist’s artist. His identity and the character of his art were not centered on the artistic and political pressures of Florence, Siena, and Rome. In general, if one were to see him or his art, that would have been in Arezzo or Urbino or Rimini or Ferrara or in his hometown and birthplace, Sansepolcro. He was always a Tuscan at heart, literally living on the edge of Umbria. Surely, that special place contributed to Piero’s independent mindset and as an enabling freedom to create his distinctive art.

There are—somehow—aspects of Piero’s personal life that may be slightly more known. He was probably born in Borgo San Sepolcro and he died there. His date of birth was probably sometime between 1412 and 1420. He passed away, blind, on or about October 12–14, 1492 (a date and year we in America remember for other reasons).

Piero’s only formal studies, as an apprentice, were with a very local artist, one Antonio di Giovanni d’Anghiari. Somehow, he and the artist Domenico Veneziano found their way to Florence in 1439. There he assisted with frescoes at Santa Maria Nuova. Those frescoes are now lost. Piero returned home to Sansepolcro. Several excellent commissions followed in nearby cordial and accepting hill towns like Rimini and Urbino with their respectable dukes and duchesses. Ever onward, sometime around 1450 or so, Piero painted a large fresco at the Vatican Palace in Rome, which Pope Julius II ordered painted over and replaced by the ever-popular Raphael, whose art has since occupied that same spot. Piero della Francesca again returned to the hills, this time to the town of Arezzo.

The art, the frescoes of Piero della Francesca at the Church of San Francesco at Arezzo, are all around the basilica. Completed around 1456, they are among the very greatest and most beautiful of the great wonders of this world (beyond the Sphinx and the Panama Canal and the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls). They are what the young man saw at the start of this essay. A few years back, Italian art authorities were attempting restoration work on some portions of the fresco cycle. I was honored to be invited onto the scaffolding to see the stunning Piero work from only inches away. I wanted to feel and believe that the fellow quietly standing next to me was Piero…or that I was. Timelessness and love of art became the same thing. Colors, spaces, shapes and—yes—Piero’s blue. That blue. Never mind a scaffold, you can see it too. Be good to yourself. Go there, to Arezzo. If it seems that you cannot, then there are, at least, reproductions. They are plentiful in books and on the Web. (Don’t try to remember seeing them in the background of a five-second shot during The English Patient.)

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    If a painting does not make human contact, it is nothing. — Robert Motherwell