Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Masterwork of Piero Della Francesca
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Arezzo seduces, especially on the first weekend of every month when the city hosts its annual antiques fair. Merchant booths are lined up chock-a-block along the streets that radiate downhill from the Duomo. One could spend many pleasant hours scanning tables piled with lace, jewelry, lamps, paintings, sculpture and house-hold goods.
Arezzo is also the epicenter of Piero della Francesca country. No antique dealer’s offering entices as alluringly as the Basilica of San Francesco, an otherwise unadorned 12th century church, which safeguards the Piero fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross. Ruined by centuries of moisture and crude repair, the frescoes were painstakingly restored and unveiled in 2000.
While not as majestic a visual program as Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, Piero’s Legend attempts arguably a more ambitious feat; that is, the visual interpretation of a single, highly-complex narrative. What’s remarkable about the frescoes is the spiritual power of the subject matter, which Piero manages to convey without the use of excess theatricality. Each scene is rendered with appropriate solemn majesty and yet the figures are, as Vasari reported “so well executed that but for the gift of speech they seemed alive.” Nothing in my opinion comes close to the simple and earthy elegance of the human figures in the San Francesco frescoes (unless of course it’s figures in another Piero fresco). And though these faces were executed some five and a half centuries ago, they resonate fully in our modern world. It’s confirmation to Piero’s long-lasting appeal that many 20th century artists, including Cezanne, Seurat, and Giorgio Morandi, were explicitly inspired by his color palette and style of modeling.
After decades of scholarship, the details of Piero’s life (1415-1492) remain sketchy. Although well known in his own time as a mathematician and a painter, Piero’s reputation was virtually obliterated in the decades after his death, through the destruction of many of his works. In 1508, for example, Pope Julius II ordered the demolition of his frescoes at the Vatican (along with those of other great painters of the previous century) to make way for Raphael’s Stanze. Similar fate befell Piero frescoes in Perugia, Florence and Ferrara, to Ancona, Loreto and Pesaro. Given the relative paucity of extant work, it wasn’t until Roberto Longhi’s monograph was published in 1927 that the artist’s reputation as one of the greatest Quattrocentro artists was secured. (VR readers will remember that it was Longhi who resurrected Caravaggio.)
Piero was born and died in Sansepolcro (where the grand Polyptych of Mercy is on view in the Municipal Picture Gallery), a stone’s throw from Arezzo. He trained Domenico Veneziano and associated with Fra Angelico, Masaccio and Brunelleschi. Though he worked in Florence and Rome for periods of time, he never strayed far from Tuscany. He remained at heart a country painter; witness his predilection for the earthy features of country folk around him. Man or woman, royalty or commoner, holy or not, these figures have, as John Pope-Hennessey described it in The Piero Della Francesca Trail, “a natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur.”
As the only extant Piero fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross is a precious gem. But it is the faces that provide the true sparkle.