Category Archives: Cognoscenti

Cognoscenti 96 : Legends and enigmas

I worry about the ideas of “influence” and “icon” which so pervade popular art history today. Two new exhibitions, one built around Piero della Francesca and the other around Giorgione, bring these issues directly into the open. And on two very different Cognoscenti tours this year we will try to cut through to the actual world of these great artists – we will be visiting the countryside of both, indeed visiting the birthplace of both, and we will see masterpieces in the setting for which they were painted.

Art history exists to offer us lenses through which to view the world of great paintings or sculptures. We may see more clearly through these lenses, but they will always to some extent be distorting, and they can change focus with seemingly arbitrarily changing fashion.

I believe art historians are most useful when they help explain the formation of a work and the world wherein it could be made, with the varied actors and the tools available to them – from beliefs and symbolic gestures to pigments and hammers.   But art historians have most influence on our experience, rather differently, in what they choose to focus on, what they neglect, and what they group together.

Three little Piero works: two very minor ones and Lavin’s little monograph on a very major one

The intriguing exhibition ‘Piero della Francesca: Exploring a Legend’ which has now opened near Bologna, shows just that. And it raises again the two worries I have – around “icon” and “influence.” ‘The Age of Giorgione,’ at The Royal Academy in London shows a rather different approach to similar curatorial issues.

“Icon” makes me shiver particularly, as a large book I wrote on Charles Rennie Mackintosh many years ago had the word “icon” in its title, against my wishes but with a publisher convinced the word brought sales. Piero della Francesca attracts such superlatives and perhaps visitors to this exhibition, though the word is equally meaningless – since “legend” he surely is not.

His remaining works, particularly moveable ones, are few; and here parallels begin to appear with the slightly later Veneto painter, Giorgione. Both are called enigmatic, both left work whose subject matter is far from simply explicable. “The Enigma of Piero” (by Carlo Ginsburg) I referred to in this post); “The Enigma of Giorgione” (by Ali Smith) is referred to (Cognoscenti post 68) and can be read in full (in The Guardian archive).

“Excessive iconomania has been one of the banes of art history for the last two decades,” lamented a critic years ago, when reviewing Marilyn Aronberg Lavin’s book about Piero’s Flagellation (its cover seen above).

“Influence” worries me rather differently; it can tend to diminish artists, focusing on what they took from, rather than how they built on others, and it can also privilege the art historian’s skill over our focus on the actual works.

With each of these shows there is only a handful of works by the “icon,” the painter who appears in large bold lettering on the posters. So how do they build into a satisfactory exhibition? The Piero show has over 150 works, but just three by Piero, two being his (minor) saints shown above. There are ‘contemporary’ works from Giovanni Bellini and Antonello, Veneziano and Beato Angelico. There is, for example, the bust seen below of Battista Sforza, she who was painted by Piero as in my post (Cognoscenti 115). In this exhibition there are lots of copies of Pieros, mainly of the Arezzo fresco cycle. But the main sense of “influence” is in the inclusion of Seurat and Degas, Carra and Morandi, even Balthus, Duncan Grant and Hopper. Unexpected juxtapositions are often fascinating, but this show must appear strange to a devotee of Hopper; or indeed of Piero.

One of our American travellers to The World of Piero in September has kindly pointed out a long and interesting review in The Wall Street Journal this week.

Battista Sforza, Duchess of Urbino, by Laurana; Castelfranco altarpiece by Giorgione; portrait of a man, by Giorgione or Titian

The Royal Academy, on the other hand, sticks entirely in the age of Giorgione, the shortly-lived painter of whom so little is known. And it offers wonderful pictures whose attribution has swilled around, keeping the historians in business, but whose actual qualities never change. Does it matter whether the young nobleman above is by the hand of Giorgione or of Titian?

Finally a word on two amazing altarpieces. The extraordinary, original composition (above centre) is one of very few works verifiably by Giorgione. It is not in the exhibition – but it will be visited by our Cognoscenti Terraferma tour in June, in Giorgione’s home town of Castelfranco.  The highlight of the ‘Piero Legend’ exhibition – indeed the only ‘Piero’ reason to visit – is his magnificent, unique Madonna della Misericordia (below). This also will be visited by our Piero tour in September, for by then we are promised it will be back in Piero’s home town of Borgo Sansepolcro, whither it returns to become once more the central panel of a great polyptych.

(And surely the penitent on the extreme left is also the donor with S Girolamo on the far right in the first image of this post, kneeling in front of his city of Sansepolcro.)

24 March 2016

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Cognoscenti 94 : Reading Piero

Travellers joining us to visit the world of Piero della Francesca in September have been asking if we might recommend reading. Where do you start? One recent book, which I do recommend here to the serious enquirer, has itself a “select bibliography” which runs to 14 pages! Well here are a few, very varied, personal encounters you may choose to follow up. (The city pictured by Piero above is his hometown, Borgo Sansepolcro, which we will be visiting.)

There are picture books and introductory guide-books to the paintings, there are general biographies, and then there are original and particular explorations (like the little Piero and His City by Luigi Andreini).

Pictorial guides are perhaps best found at the locations, their reproductions reminding us of what we’ve been looking at. The lower book on the left, however, is not. It is a heavy, majestic volume which might threaten a lightweight coffee table and certainly your baggage allowance. It is the fully explained and wonderfully photographed record of Piero della Francesca: The Legend of the True Cross in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo. Written by top experts including the superintendent of their restoration (Carlo Bertelli and Anna Maria Maetzke), published by Skira Editore in 2001, its 278 hardback pages are in print at around £40. A beautiful book back home, to remind you of what you saw in this one building in Arezzo, and be the envy of your friends who leaf through it on your coffee table.

For the proper, rounded life-and-work, an expert account by Marilyn Aronberg-Lavin, Piero della Francesca (Phaidon, 2002, paperback around £18) follows the well-known book by Kenneth Clark – same publisher, same simple title, 65 years earlier but still accessible. However two other new books are very interesting. James Banker’s  Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man, (Oxford UP, 2014 about £20 hardback) and Larry Witham’s Piero’s Light: In Search of Piero Della Francesca: A Renaissance Painter and the Revolution in Art, Science, and Religion (Pegasus, 2015 paperback at around £11). Both of these books locate Piero, rather differently but very well, in his cultural context. Banker is a serious Piero scholar. Witham’s attempts to see Piero himself as scholar as much as painter and to draw lines of inspiration through subsequent centuries up to modern neuro-science I find less convincing.

Then there are the odd treats for those who like a bit more, and each of these, unlike the above, fits in the pocket.

John Pope-Henessy’s lectures, The Piero della Francesca Trail (Thames & Hudson, 1991), interesting not least for its contrarian view on the Flagellation in Urbino. It is not too easy to find, but it has been reprinted with the Aldous Huxley Piero essay “The Best Picture” (Little Bookroom, New York, 2005). Hubert Damisch’s A Childhood Memory by Piero della Francesca (Stanford University Press, 2007) is a post-modern echo of Freud on Leonardo, and a read not undertaken lightly. Keith Christiansen’s little Personal Encounters is a Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue (NY, 2014, c.£13) and very particular. The picture on his cover (seen at the start of this post, S. Girolamo and a donor) and a very early Madonna and child are subjects of two of his four nice brief essays. Both these (small, minor) paintings are currently exhibited in a show in Italy which I discuss elsewhere, and one of the essays is published by that exhibition online.

The great Carlo Ginzburg‘s Enigma of Piero (Verso, 2002, in print paperback c. £18) is personal, provocative and brilliant sleuthing. (I have my own thoughts on ‘enigmas’ here.) Much more simply, Luigi Andreini brings his subject home in Piero and His City; it is slight but of real local interest and, I think, only available in Sansepolcro itself (introduced by James Banker and translated by Maureen Banker).

Finally, to put our understanding of Piero in a greater context, a book which, a generation ago, revisioned how we looked at such things is Michael Baxandall’s classic Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, (Oxford UP , paperback 1988, today around £8), and a fine more contemporary context is painted by Evelyn Welch’s Art in Renaissance Italy 1350-1500, (Oxford UP, paperback, 2000 £16 and not to be confused with John T. Paoletti’s oft reprinted book of the same title).

But hang on, this isn’t a course to be tested – it’s a holiday, and there’s certainly no need to do homework. The tales of the different works will be discussed when we get there, but most importantly they will all come alive in our experiencing them, in the places where Piero himself lived and worked, and still today a world away from the mass throngs of tourists.

Oh, and then, of course, there’s the imagination of novelists and filmmakers – you remember Juliette Binoche swinging on a rope from the Arezzo rafters in The English Patient? This rather different story is found here!


8 March 2016, slightly updated 1 August 2016.


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Cognoscenti 93 : All too short a date

All too short a date – speedo or bungee Piero? 

“The villa will appeal in particular to devotees of Italian painting. It makes a perfect centre for the study of the Sienese school. More importantly, perhaps, the work of Piero della Francesca can be followed from the frescos in Arezzo to the pregnant Madonna in the small chapel at Monterchi. Enthusiasts can take the trail to Sansepolcro and on, across the Mountains of the Moon, to see the sublime ‘Flagellation’ in the Ducal Palace at Urbino, undoubtedly the greatest small picture in the world. Those making this journey should ensure that the stopcock is closed and all electrical appliances switched off before departure. The pleasures of art tend to be diminished by returning to a complete absence of hot bath water.”

Well, this was the note awaiting John Mortimer’s visitors at the Tuscan villa whence, in Summer’s Lease, they embark on “The Piero Trail,”ending at ‘the sublime Flagellation’ – with its romance, its coded meanings and its mystery (as intimated in the other cover pictured here).

All on one day, they ‘do’ Piero, from Arezzo to Monterchi, and Sansepolcro to Urbino. Mortimer’s three tourists leaving their rented holiday villa after an early breakfast to ‘do the Resurrection before lunch.’   They make a perfunctory stop at Arezzo, glance at the vast and wondrous frescoes in San Francesco, and ‘not ten o’clock yet, and we’ve done Arezzo,’ says one. ‘It won’t take us long to knock off the pregnant Madonna.’   And knock it off they do at Monterchi; they pop in to nearby Sansepolcro for the Resurrection, where ‘you can see what all the fuss was about.’ Then, after a hasty lunch they continue to Urbino and the Flagellation, which was the picture they had particularly wanted to catch.


John Mortimer, in his charming book, enjoys this gentle satire on the “Piero Tourists.” Their tour, however, could not be more different from ours. We will guide you at leisure and with space to breathe in the wonders. We will assume you have no wish to have “done Arezzo and it’s not yet ten’oclock, ” and that your enthusiasm is even the equal of Juliette Binoche’s.

In the film The English Patient (following hints in Michael Ondaatje’s fine novel), the nurse, during World War Two, marvels at this amazing chapel in San Francesco. Sandbags are piled high, very little daylight penetrates.

And the Sikh sapper helps her fly. No, today you can’t light flares, nor will you dangle from the roof beams. But today the frescoes are recently gloriously restored, they are beautifully lit and we gaze in wonder at our leisure.

For the English patient’s nurse, as for Mortimer’s tourists, their Piero summer’s lease certainly had all too short a date. Join us in September in the world of Piero della Francesca, and feel the time expanding.

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Cognoscenti 88 : On the (Piero) wild goose trail

What an amazing vignette: at the foot of the elegant, invitingly top-lit stair, beyond the swirling white-robed figure, sits a figure in red boots and exotic hat. We may not know what scene is being portrayed in front of us here, but there is no doubt who painted it: THE WORK OF PETER FROM BORGO S SEPOLCRO is so beautifully lettered it could be carved. Yet this post – when displayed on my desktop screen – is even larger than the original, painted on its worm-eaten piece of timber in Urbino’s Ducal Palace. The whole paintings is less than two feet by three (58 x 81 cm, in new money).

It is the Greatest Small Painting in the World. So said Kenneth Clark (in capital letters, it seems).

The paintings of Piero (he from Borgo Sansepolcro, descendant of the matriarch Francesca), tended in the 20th century to attract such superlatives (you can read Aldous Huxley’s well-known superlative on another post). With neither of these judgements would we care to disagree – hence we are so looking forward to immersing ourselves in the World of Piero della Francesca in 2016 and hearing how our travellers judge such comments for themselves.

But this painting – whatever it portrays, and certainly there is some sado-masochistic goings-on under the gilded statue – is full of romance, hidden coded images and mystery; at least according to Andrea Aromatico whose book cover is also shown.

But, having recently read Sir John Pope-Hennessy’s idea that it depicts The Dream of S. Jerome, I am easily converted away from the notion of it depicting the Flagellation of Christ (as all others say). Whatever else, this mysterious ‘double’ image deepens The Enigma of Piero (as Carlo Ginsburg calls it) which we will discuss when physically in Piero’s world in September 2016.

According to Pope-Hennessy, “As a young man S. Jerome dreamed that he was flayed on divine order for reading pagan texts, and he himself later recounted this dream, in a celebrated letter to Eustochium, in terms that exactly correspond with the left-hand side of the panel.” Pope-Hennessy also reproduces an earlier picture by Sienese painter Matteo di Giovanni, which showed the subject recorded in Jerome’s letter – and the comparison is obvious. No one seems to support Pope-Hennessy. But also, no one has produced a different explanation for all the figures and their various groupings, their costumes and behaviour, which convinces me. I’m sure I’ll have found one by 2016.

Romance and mystery, the Flagellation Code

Picture 1 of 2

In fact, our Renaissance City tour missed a talk by an ‘art philosopher’ just by minutes, as we visited the Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena on our way home. Who knows how it might further have stirred our confused brains.

Let me make a recommendation: abandon attempts at deciphering and interpretation. Come with us, in the footsteps of Piero himself next September, and simply enter into the extraordinary pictorial world he presents to us.

5 November 2015

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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 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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