Piero della Francesca Found Order Amid Chaos

I am in sitting in one of the most beautiful man-made places on earth: the Cappella Maggiore in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo, where Piero della Francesca painted a series of frescos illustrating The Legend of the True Cross. The stories told by the Legend are obscure, incredible and often extremely silly. But when you are looking at Piero’s miraculous paintings, that doesn’t matter in the least. You are transported into a luminous world of order, dignity and grace, where every object is in perfect proportion to every other, and where colour and form unite to produce the extraordinary sense that the world is a fundamentally benign place — one in which beauty is truth, and truth beauty.

This is so even when Piero depicts the bloody, vicious battle in which the Byzantine emperor Heraclius triumphed over the Persian king Chosroes — as he does in the Arezzo cycle. There are around 40 figures engaged in bitter fighting in this image, and they are stabbing, slashing, and cutting each other’s throats. Yet such is the grandeur of Piero’s conception, and such is the extraordinary dignity with which he has imbued it, that far from generating disgust at the carnage of war, your reaction is dominated by a sense of the harmony of the composition, its logic, even its grace. More than any other artist, Piero is capable of transcending the brutality, or the banality, of the facts he is depicting. Somehow he manages to transform them into something that elevates not only his subject but also the viewer.

Piero communicates directly to people today in a way that no other artist who lived and died in the 15th century manages. Some 50,000 people went to see The Legend of the True Cross over the summer months of 2000, when the pictures were finally opened to the public again after having been closed for more than a decade for restoration. Looking at The Legend of the True Cross today, you hear startled expressions of amazement in many different languages. The crowds are not attracted by the pictures’ celebrity, in the way that thousands queue every year to see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos — Piero’s frescos in Arezzo are just not famous in that way. You won’t find their images printed on T-shirts, and you have to go to Arezzo to find a postcard of them.

What exactly is it about Piero that touches people? Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, Fra Angelico, even Masaccio — all great, innovative artists from 15th-century Florence — do not evoke the same sort of response as Piero does, although each of those artists was far more admired than Piero was during his own lifetime.

Piero was born around 1412 in the town of Sansepolcro in Tuscany. Very little is known about his life. His father was a merchant who dealt in leather and woad, which was used for dying cloth. We don’t know where or from whom Piero learned to paint. No one has any idea of how he acquired his mathematical knowledge, which was far in advance of anything manifested by any of his fellow artists, with the exception of the architect Brunelleschi. Geometry seems to have been Piero’s first love; painting was simply his means of expressing it.

Transformative grace: “Constantine’s Dream” (c.1455) from “The Legend Of The True Cross”

Fewer than 20 completed works by Piero survive. When he died at the age of 80 in 1492, he was not particularly respected or valued by his contemporaries. One of the reasons that so few of his pictures have come down to us is that he was not often commissioned to paint them: during his lifetime, demand for his work was not high. Piero never received a single commission to paint in Florence, which was then the art capital of Italy. Even late in his career, he was reduced to painting images on flags and banners used on ceremonial occasions rather than permanent works on church walls or portraits for private patrons. Flag-painting was adequately paid. But it wasn’t a medium in which Piero could develop his meticulously worked out compositions, or demonstrate his perfect comprehension of the laws of perspective.

Piero was not even the first choice to paint the Cappella Maggiore in Arezzo. Bicci di Lorenzo, a painter who has now been almost totally forgotten, had that distinction. But Bicci died within a few months of starting his work in the Franciscan church in Arezzo. He and his team had painted the vault and the arch at the main entrance to the chapel when he died, but the walls were bare. Only then did the family paying for the frescos, and the Franciscan friars who were responsible for the church where the pictures were to be painted, turn to Piero.

Piero’s art was soon thought to be old-fashioned and unsophisticated. Pope Julius II had no qualms whatever about commissioning Raphael to paint over the frescos that Piero had created in the Vatican within 60 years of Piero having finished them. Piero certainly completed a fresco cycle in Ferrara, and possibly one in Modena: both were destroyed. His Resurrection, which many regard as his greatest work, was plastered over and only rediscovered in the 19th century.

We probably owe the survival of Piero’s Legend of the True Cross to Arezzo’s slow but continuous economic and political decline. It is quite possible that the Franciscans would have replaced them with something that seemed to them more “modern” had they had the money to do so. Fortunately for us, they did not.

Piero’s relatively undistinguished reputation in the 15th and 16th centuries is not easy to understand. The sophistication of his use of perspective and the geometrical perfection of his compositions were very much in line with what the most advanced theorists of art, such as Leon Battista Alberti, advocated as essential to any painting worthy to be termed “art”.

One of the most beautiful man-made places on earth: Piero’s frescos in the Cappella Maggiore in the church of San Francesco, Arezzo (Alinari Archives/George Tatge/Getty)

It seems incredible that so tediously mediocre a painter as Bicci di Lorenzo could ever have been preferred to Piero. But perhaps what displeased, or at least did not excite, clerical patrons in the 15th century may have been the element that appeals to us today: the unclear, almost ambiguous, nature of Piero’s religious faith.

Piero depicts religious subjects. But he does not do so in an overtly religious way: he does not do religious propaganda, as most of his 15th century contemporaries did. The heart tends to sink at the prospect of a gallery filled with a long sequence of gold-backed Virgins and saints being martyred. Piero’s pictures never have that lowering effect, and they always stand out from any crowd of gilded Annunciations or martyrdoms. While they depict incidents that are part of the Christian religion, they also convey the sense that illustrating the truths of the Christian religion is not their real point. As the great (although occasionally perverse) Italian critic Roberto Longhi wrote in his essay “Piero in Arezzo”, Piero’s Legend of the True Cross frescos “refer only minimally to the ‘religious’ core buried within each scene. Instead, we have what looks very much like an extensive epic of secular, profane life.”

That is true, and it is true even when Piero depicts the uniquely Christian moment of the Resurrection. The risen Christ in Piero’s painting in what used to be the town hall in Sansepolcro emerges with cosmic inexorability from his tomb, but he seems to be propelled by a natural, rather than a divine, force, one closer to the revolution that turns winter into spring than a power that is external to, and independent of, nature — as God is in traditional Christian theology.

Piero’s Madonna del Parto depicting the pregnant Virgin, now in Monterchi in Tuscany, has next to nothing in common with the ethereal Virgins who populate so much of medieval and early Renaissance painting. Despite the angels on either side of her, the primary subject of Piero’s fresco is not divinity. The woman that Piero depicts is very definitely a flesh and blood human. She is extremely but not impossibly beautiful. And you do not come away thinking that this woman will have a miraculously pain-free birth.

Flesh and blood: Detail from “The Resurrection” (1463-65)

Piero’s most enigmatic picture is the small painting entitled The Flagellation. It appears to be dedicated to a religious subject: in one half of the picture there is a figure who seems to be Christ, tied to a pillar and being beaten, while being watched by an imperial figure who is presumably Pontius Pilate. But to stop there is like saying that King Lear is about the inadequacies of inheritance law. The other half of The Flagellation depicts three men who may or may not be in conversation. No one knows who they are or what they symbolise, or even if they symbolise anything. There have been at least 40 different interpretations of what is going on. None of them have achieved general acceptance among scholars. Whatever else The Flagellation is, it is not a conventionally religious picture or an aid to conventional piety. 

The geometry of the picture is extraordinarily carefully worked out: so carefully that it has proved possible to construct computer-generated views of the room that show what it would look like from directly above, from the sides, and from the floor. It is clear that Piero cared a great deal more about getting the geometry right than making any religious message in his picture comprehensible to viewers.  The fascination that the picture exerts derives from its utterly logical, rational and comprehensible proportion and perspective. Its religious message is so obscure that it is irrelevant to appreciating it — and one senses that Piero was well aware of that fact.

It is of course impossible to get at what Piero’s religious beliefs “really” were. But it is striking that when he painted a fresco in his house in Sansepolcro he did not choose to depict a saint or any Christian figure, but the pagan demigod Hercules. He worked for the Franciscans and for religious confraternities — but also for condottieri such as Sigismondo Malatesta, ruler of Rimini, and Federico da Montefeltro, the count of Urbino. Both made their fortunes out of inflicting misery on others. Federico has had a better press than Sigismondo, who earned an excoriating condemnation from Pope Pius II for publicly sodomising the 15-year-old bishop of Fano in Rimini’s central piazza. But if Federico was more restrained in his personal conduct than Sigismondo, Federico’s troops probably inflicted more damage, most notably in their bloody sacking of Volterra. Piero dutifully painted official portraits of both men, making them look stately and dignified, even pious.

Detail from the “Madonna del Parto” (c.1467)

What is known from the surviving documentation about Piero’s life gives no indication of religious opinions. Botticelli became an enthusiastic, even fanatical, follower of Savonarola: he was so committed that he destroyed many of his own works on the grounds that Savonarola condemned art as “vanity”.

Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi were both monks, although only Fra Angelico kept his vows. Piero never married and never had any children, but his chaste continence — if that is what it was — does not seem to have been the result of religious conviction. He seems to have devoted himself entirely to his work, of which painting was merely one part, and perhaps not the part that meant the most to him: he also wrote three books on mathematics. All of them were published in manuscripts written in his own hand.

To judge by his art, Piero’s deepest commitment was not to Christian precepts, but to the notion that there is a clear mathematical structure underlying the visible world. The structure and order that his geometrically rigorous compositions generate, where everything is in exactly the right place, means that Piero’s world seems fundamentally opposed to a conception that is essential to modern science: ultimately, there is nothing but atoms and the void, a perpetual cycle of interacting forces without purpose.

Piero’s world, by contrast, is one that is rationally ordered and comprehensible. For everything that happens, there is not just a cause: there is a reason. That is why Piero’s art is deeply consoling. Without invoking any external divinity, it seems to refute the idea that in the end, the world amounts only to unintelligible chaos. Perhaps that is also the reason why his art has become so popular in our age.

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