Author Archives: John

Cognoscenti 77 : Piero not Corot

No, not Corot seen through a Chagall dream… but…

Detail from the battle of Constantine and Maxentius (photo: John McKean)

So what is this magical and mysterious image, so delicately painted and coloured, the horse’s head only adding to its extraordinary dream-like calm? When might it have been painted?

Even as I look at it now, I find it difficult to realise that, when I took this photograph recently, I was standing in the hugely tall central choir chapel behind the altar and 13th century crucifix in the Franciscan church of Arezzo. And it was ablaze with life and excitement. All its surfaces were filled in three tall, stacked storeys, stretching to further than I can crane back my neck, three layers of oddly juxtaposed mythical stories, much of it coming from the 13th century Golden Legend. This extraordinary fresco cycle of bizarrely varied tales has one section showing the imperial Roman battle between Constantine and Maxentius – where Constantine famously had a vision of a cross, won the battle, and thereafter welcomed Christianity in the western Roman empire. Between the opposing forces – depicted without any clash of arms, but in in perfect perspective and the most realistic shadows and reflective glints from the armour – runs this tranquil stream.

None of the rest is at all like this fragment, but no two moments, no two details in the whole cycle are alike. The viewer is in the midst of a great pictorial book which can never be read too often. And I can’t wait to return with the World of Piero tour this time next year.

For all this was painted by Piero della Francesca, five hundred and fifty years ago.

7 Sept 2015

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Cognoscenti 76 : Urbino – centre of the Renaissance?

Surely Florence is THE Renaissance city?

This was the first question asked when the Cognoscenti Renaissance City tour was first advertised.  That seems long ago; now the case for Ferrara and Urbino is solidly made, the tour is full and we are off there in a few weeks.

But now we are in the final stages of planning the World of Piero Della Francesca, a 2016 tour, which will be on sale very soon, and the question arises once more.

If the principal works of Piero were to be seen in Florence, and those of Botticelli at San Sepolcro, I do not doubt that the public estimation of these two masters would be reversed. Artistic English spinsters would stand in rapturous contemplation before the story of the True Cross, instead of before the Primavera. Raptures depend largely upon the stars in Baedeker, and the stars are more freely distributed to works of art in accessible towns than to those in the inaccessible.

That was Aldous Huxley in 1925 (this text is further quoted in another Cognoscenti post).

Renaissance in perspective, painted in Urbino, in the circle of Piero della Francesca

Of the three known perspectives made within the circle of Piero della Francesca in Urbino in the later 15th century, often called (perhaps by those who feel people get in the way of fine architecture and urban spaces) “ideal cities”, this is the one which remains there.  The ducal court of Urbino hosted a rather different ‘Renaissance’ from Medici Florence. 

As the eminent art historian John White noted, rather more recently than Huxley,  ‘the patent on the history of art was taken out in Florence’. The chief culprit was Giorgio Vasari, a poor painter, a pedantic architect and the wrecker of Florentine Gothic, but celebrated for being the author of a hugely influential work celebrating the supremacy of Florentine art, Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors, published in 1550. For Vasari followers, art had been rescued from its dismal mediaeval abyss by the talents of Florence. In his narrative there was little room anyone else; there are the key Venetians, but virtually not a hint of Duccio or of Siena.

While the reputation of Florentine art is of course unassailable, Ferrara and Urbino as centres of Renaissance humanist scholarship and culture were every bit its equal. Moreover, the motto of Cognoscenti tours is always to head for the paths less travelled in our 21st Century – and every art-loving traveller can reach Florence on their own with their eyes shut or at least by ticking a box in a weekend newspaper’s small ad. What has been called ‘Vasari’s Florentinocentrism’ led naturally to the Art History Industry, to the 19th century cultured Englishman abroad, to I Tatti (Bernard Berenson’s Florentine ‘lay monastery’ for the leisurely study of Renaissance culture) and even to A Room With a View.

The English view of the Renaissance has always been through a Florentine window. But next month on the Renaissance City tour we will be more intrigued by what it was that encouraged the artists and the thinkers themselves to swarm at the different courts of Montefeltro and Este. And next year with the World of Piero tour we will follow Huxley’s footsteps and, despite Piero’s star having risen far since he wrote those words, we will still find we may have these wonderful masterpieces, which could not be grabbed by the Brera or Ufizzi, more or less to ourselves.

Piero’s Sigismondo Malatesta, patron saint and faithful dogs

As a slightly different coda, here is my recent snap of a Piero painted on – damaged but, again, not removed from – its original wall in Rimini, where the Renaissance City tour will see it shortly. It’s not called The Dogs of War and Peace.

25 August 2015

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Cognoscenti 75 : The Best Picture in the World


There is a small low-comedy railway across the hills from Arezzo. Or you can approach it up the Tiber valley from Perugia. Or, if you happen to be at Urbino, there is a motor ‘bus which takes you to San Sepolcro, up and down through the Apennines, in something over seven hours. No joke, that journey, as I know by experience. But it is worth doing, though preferably in some other vehicle than the ’bus, for the sake of the Bocca Trabaria, that most beautiful of Apennine passes, between the Tiber valley and the upper valley of the Metauro. It was in the early spring that we crossed it. Our omnibus groaned and rattled slowly up a bleak northern slope, among bald rocks, withered grass and still unbudded trees. It crossed the col and suddenly, as though by a miracle, the ground was yellow with innumerable primroses, each flower a little emblem of the sun that had called it into being.

And when at last one has arrived at San Sepolcro, what is there to be seen? A little town surrounded by walls, set in a broad flat valley between hills; some fine Renaissance palaces with pretty balconies of wrought iron; a not very interesting church, and finally, the best picture in the world.

The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall. Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date. Thanks to the vandals, the visitor who now enters the Palazzo dei Conservatori at Borgo San Sepolcro finds the stupendous Resurrection almost as Piero della Francesca left it. Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.

That text, now ninety years old, remains a wonderful amuse-bouche. It is the opening of a famous essay by Aldous Huxley. (It is further quoted in another Cognoscenti post.)

The Resurrection on the wall of the town hall in ‘the town of the Holy Sepulchre’ seen from the street

(Thorough restoration in 2015-6, inevitably in situ, restricts this view but allows a really close-up view of this amazing work.)

The journey over the hills from Borgo Sansepolcro to Urbino remains one of my favourites in the world. This is partly memories of Mary having to drive it, with its numerous, numbered and very steep hairpins at exactly the same time as a summer weekend classic sports car speed trial, which clearly did not want anyone else on the road. A bit hair-raising.   But it also is, as Huxley rhapsodises, through a stunning landscape. Luckily for Cognoscenti travellers, today the coach takes a less hazardous if just as lovely and rather quicker, newer route.

Join us on our 2016 World of Piero tour to the cities, towns, villages where he lived and worked. Final details are very soon to be published.

Same view, pulling came back a few inches from the glass door

26 Aug 2015

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Cognoscenti 73 : Biblioteca Malatestiana

The Elephant Never Forgets

Perhaps the elephant who remembers everything, therefore, is the ideal symbol for a library.   It happened also, in 15th century Italy, to be the symbol of the Malatesta clan which ruled Rimini and Cesena, where our Renaissance City tour will soon visit. The Tempio Malatestiana in Rimini is filled with elephants. But this post is about a library.

Just before the middle of the century, the great sculptor Donatello’s one-time student and assistant, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, was building the monastery of S. Marco in Florence. This gem is best known today for the wonderful Fra Angelico paintings but, architecturally, Michelozzo’s library was the great innovation, an elegant, long pillared hall with two side aisles.

Only eight years later, in 1452, and much less well-known today, an equally important library was opened in the Malatesta city of Cesena.

Carved above the library door is this elephant with its Malatesta motto: “The Indian elephant isn’t afraid of mosquitoes”

The form of this great reading hall is remarkably similar to its contemporary in Florence: a long barrel-vaulted central nave carried on columns and two side aisles of cross-vaulted bays.   But the experience here today is quite different, in two ways.

First, Biblioteca Malatestiana seems hardly to been touched in five and a half centuries. The two windows at the end of each bay provide good reading light, all 58 original rows of reading desks remain in place, with Malatesta arms carved on the end of each, the volumes on a shelf under each lectern are still today held with elegant wrought-iron chains.   The ribbed columns are elegant and light, the walls and vaulting still retain shades of their original pale green wash. The end rose window illuminates the central nave and original tiled floor.   It is a magical space.

This possibility remains, partly, because of its second peculiarity: Biblioteca Malatestiana seems hardly noticed on today’s tourist trails. We have never seen more than one other visitor when we were there.   It is, therefore, as wonderfully peaceful as it must have been centuries ago when built in the middle of a monastery. (It forms the upper floor of a long wing which stood between the monastery’s two cloisters.) By contrast, its contemporary, the monastery of S. Marco in Florence today often overflows with visitors, and I have never seen the library without strong electrical light: this here in Cesena is a completely different experience.

Moreover, unlike the slightly older S. Marco in Florence (which, I presume, must have been known to Matteo Nuti who designed this library), although it also was in a monastery it was not of the monastery. The lord of Cesena, Novello Malatesta, whose personal project this was, was very clear that this was to be a quite new, humanist project.   He engaged the friars of S. Francesco in an agreement that their library would be rebuilt within the new concept of a library available to all the citizens.   (All citizens, I presume, who could read and, moreover, read Latin.) Within the great reading hall, the books in the left aisle would be those of the fathers of the Church, those on the right would be the classics which in the later 15th century were being resurrected at a pace.

It was, in a sense, a perfect built definition of what the word Renaissance, the rebirth of classical culture and its spirit of enquiry, really meant. And to ensure that this dual spirit – the Christian and the Classical, the sacred and the secular, was held to, the great doors – which remain in place carved with the date 15th August 1454, 561 years ago to the day as I write this – have two locks, one key to be held by the abbot, the other by the city.

Our visit to this hidden gem is one of the highlights of the Renaissance City tour next month.

With the library, there was originally an important scriptorium where books were copied. Here are two examples of illuminated initials among the many early music manuscripts on display today but not necessarily created here.

15 Aug 2015

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Cognoscenti 68 : Reading the Renaissance City

We have been trying to think of reading which those who will be joining us on The Renaissance City tour in September might like to browse at leisure over the summer.   And I’m sorry to say we were rather stumped.

First, there are a few perfectly reasonable books about both Ferrara and Urbino, but sold as tourist guides only in the cities themselves (and there used to be some poor ones too, especially in Urbino; I illustrate two useful current Ferrara ones below).

Second, at the other end, there is quite a clutch of highly specific academic studies on aspects of the Renaissance in both cities. Of the 40 or so titles in my research notes on Ferrara, for example, two which stand out are C. M. Rosenberg (editor)’s The Court Cities of Northern Italy : Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, Urbino, Pesaro, and Rimini, (2010) and T. Tuohy’s Herculean Ferrara: Ercole d’Este (1471–1505) and the Invention of a Ducal Capital (1996). For these, Amazon charges £140 and £105 respectively – though the latter has a paperback version, a snip at £50. Specialist interest – or university library – only!

And third, of course, for general background reading the standard tourist guide books are probably as good as any – we use the Michelin and Lonely Planet guides, and often more interestingly, the Blue Guides.

But, for the general and enquiring reader, there is very little in between. As the exception, therefore, we particularly commend June Osborne on Urbino (illustrated above left) which is not cheap, but still in print; fascinating, intelligent and beautifully illustrated.

General reading about the Italian renaissance is always relevant and there are many books around thereon – browsing the library and bookshops is probably a good way to start.

Let’s move quickly to fiction: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2010) is set entirely in one closed Ferrara convent, which the Sisters will open for us to see their unique, Giotto-esque frescoes. (It is also in Italian but, if you’d rather read that, perhaps you should be leading this tour!) Leslie Forbes’ Waking Raphael (2004) is an intriguing thriller set in Urbino between the tempestuous 1930s and the Renaissance – its cover image is of Raphael’s La Muta, silence being a theme of the book. And Ali Smithi’s 2014 Booker-short-listed How to Be Both is interwoven with fluid subtlety with Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. The back cover of her book – a figure from the amazing Hall of the Months in Palazzo Schifanoia – is the first image below.

Introducing Ferrara in the Guardian, Dunant wrote in 2009 and Smith, quite differently in the same paper five years later, . I would particularly recommend Smith’s article (and do look at the little essay in Frieze by Jan Verwoert on Schifanoia, to which her piece easily hyperlinks); I recommend it not least for her enthusiasm for Giorgio Bassani, Ferrara’s great 20th Century writer, whose most famous book, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, was recreated by De Sica as a memorable Oscar winner in 1970. Sadly his Five Stories of Ferrara is less easy to find these days.

Finally, an unusual tale, The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded by Marcello Simonetta (2008), although built around the famous Pazzi Conspiracy in Florence, accuses the man on the cover of being the arch-criminal.

He is Duke Federigo da Montefeltro, his ear, curly black hair and red cap being cropped from Piero della Francesca’s famous portrait (now in the Uffizi).   Piero was at Federigo’s Urbino court just as, some years later, Raphael met Baldesar Castiglione there, making the inimitable portrait (now in the Louvre) used on the cover (below right). Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (Penguin Classics, trs George Bull 1976) is a unique and wonderfully readable panegyric on court life at Urbino.

The central image above, a ghostly view of the Urbino Ducal Palace, is cropped from a religious painting by Urbino’s great Counter-Reformation painter, Federico Barocci, who was introduced to an astonished British public by a National Gallery exhibition in 2013.

I end with a tiny, famous quotation from Castiglione’s Il Cortigiano:

Well maybe after all there is quite a lot of potential reading, to suit all tastes, around these remarkable cities!

A quarter of a century ago, the magazine Architecture Today, which had and still has a monthly column entitled “My kind of Town,” invited me to contribute. I wrote about Urbino.   I would write rather differently today, but I still like that piece. (Click here to download). I worked, in the last quarter of the 20th Century with Giancarlo De Carlo who, as author of Urbino’s town plan, was more than anyone else responsible for the husbanding of its Renaissance heritage, but also with his friend Carlo Bo, rector of the Free University of Urbino, responsible for the construction of its unique 20th Century Renaissance.

De Carlo’s 1960s study of Urbino’s past, present and proposals for its conservation into the future was Urbino The History of a City and Plans for its Development, MIT Press (1970) ; my study of De Carlo, his approach to the historic city and his new works was Giancarlo De Carlo: Layered Places, Axel Menges (2004, pages 52 to 113 are specifically about Urbino). Both of these are rather specialised. But a sample of how the new and old are interthought in Urbino, through one De Carlo university project, is described (click here) and can also be downloaded as a pdf.


12 July 2015


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Cognoscenti 36 : Renaissance City

This ever popular tour based in Ferrara and Urbino is now fixed again for the end of September 2015, and is available for pre-booking now.

The two archetypal cities of the Renaissance are Urbino and Ferrara. Here, avoiding the crowds, we explore their unequalled buildings and artworks, Renaissance town planning and mediaeval monasteries – and of course their wonderful food and wine with three nights at the heart of each historic centre. John McKean may still not have completed his proposed guide book to Urbino but, guided by his intimate knowledge of both cities, the Cognoscenti travellers will have an unmatched experience.


15 October 2014

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Cognoscenti 18 : Urbino

When the saint came marching in to Urbino

S. Crescentino's procession enters the city

Picture 1 of 3

On the first tour to Italy in 2014, at the very end of May, our arrival in Urbino coincided precisely with the annual parade of the city’s patron saint, S. Crescentino, a Roman soldier martyred for his Christian conviction.   As we watched the great procession along the ramparts, into the town centre and up to the dedication in the cathedral, we were taking part, with the complete population of the city, in a unique experience.

25 July 2014

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Sketches of Places & People by John McKean: exhibition opens today

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Laurie Melville photographs at Artwave 2017 opens today!

August 19, 2017:  Laurie Melville photographs opens today at Artwave, Lewes

The photographer offers a window into her/his soul


Group exhibition over three weekends, with Ruthien (painting, prints) and John McKean (sketches)

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Life Sketches by John McKean at Artwave opens tomorrow!


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