Journey to Arezzo

Nicholas Penny

  • Piero della Francesca by Roberto Longhi, translated by David Tabbat
    Sheep Meadow, 364 pp, £32.50, September 2002, ISBN 1 878818 77 5

As the Gothic Revival in architecture reached maturity during the 1840s, painters were encouraged to provide appropriate mural decorations; proponents of classical architecture meanwhile were keenly speculating on the manner in which ancient Greek architecture had been painted. These developments strengthened a growing conviction that great artists should not be engaged in concocting delicacies for private consumption, or competing in the marketplace to catch the attention of fashionable critics, but should instead concentrate on adorning the walls of public buildings with great subjects worthy of Athens or Assisi. In Paris, Ingres’s greatest follower, Hippolyte Flandrin, painted austere, schematic images of saints and martyrs set against a dull gold ground on the walls of the churches of Saint Germain-des-Prés and Saint Vincent-de-Paul, works in which the Greek and the Gothic are condensed into an exalted style that may one day be acknowledged as more original than the gross realism of Courbet. In these murals, Flandrin had made an artistic decision that was to have enormous consequences: he renounced the fictional space and limited the dramatic power of painting; what remained suitable for an easel picture and was to be expected on the stage was not suited to the mural. During the same period the new Houses of Parliament in London were being decorated with murals by a group of leading British painters who were confused in their aims and varied in competence. The ambitions and hopes that surrounded this artistic failure nevertheless provided one of the preconditions for an art historical triumph: the rediscovery of Piero della Francesca.

The other precondition for Piero’s rediscovery was the connoisseurship that created the incomparable collections of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the National Gallery. Piero della Francesca was a figure of special interest for both John Charles Robinson, an agent for South Kensington as well as for private collectors, and Charles Eastlake, the first director of the National Gallery, because of the extreme rarity of his portable pictures. There was only one work by him in any public – or indeed any prominent private – art gallery: the diptych portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino in the Uffizi, gems of extraordinary brilliance which also had a special historical appeal because they epitomised some of the ideals of the early Renaissance courts. Robinson and Eastlake knew of the high praise Vasari had accorded to Piero, and on their predatory travels in Italy they were keenly alert to the possibility of discovering and acquiring examples of his work. In 1858, Eastlake tracked down Piero’s Flagellation in the sacristy of the Duomo in Urbino and made careful notes of the exquisite architecture, the crisp drapery, the tiny points of hair (‘like thorns’), the glassy reflections in the eyes. Moving on to the sacristy of the Duomo in Sansepolcro he found Piero’s Baptism, but it was ‘almost ruined by sun and damp’. He hoped to buy the Flagellation and therefore did not pursue the Baptism. A few months later Robinson snapped it up. Since he was not buying paintings for the National Gallery but for Matthew Uzielli, a millionaire railway magnate, Robinson was less concerned about the poor condition of the work. When Uzielli died in 1861, Eastlake bought the Baptism for himself; after a couple of days’ reflection he decided to place it in the National Gallery. In the following year he consoled himself with Piero’s St Michael, which entered the Gallery after his death.

On returning from his Italian travels in 1858, Eastlake would have found his friend Austin Henry Layard working on the proofs of a long article on fresco painting which appeared that October in the Quarterly Review. It is here that we find the first modern expression in print of the conviction that Piero was an artist of the first rank. We can be fairly sure that much of Layard’s admiration for Piero, like that expressed a few years before by James Dennistoun in his Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino, had been inspired by Eastlake. But Layard was particularly attracted by the fact that Piero was chiefly a mural painter. Unlike Eastlake, Layard was not at this point a collector of paintings, and his visits to Italy had not been devoted to hunting for rare panels but to climbing scaffolding and patiently making tracings of old frescos that he hoped to publish as outline engravings. Italian mural decoration was an appropriate interest for someone who had been brought up in Florence and had achieved international fame excavating the wall decorations of Assyrian palaces. At first, his Italian visits had been intended to help him recover from the violent excitements of political life in London (he became an MP in 1852), but by 1858 the interest had itself acquired a political character as Layard became increasingly determined to play a part in the redirection of national taste and the distribution of public commissions. Not long afterwards he became a champion of modern mosaic decoration, not least for the Houses of Parliament.

In the Quarterly Review, Layard wrote of Piero’s frescos in the choir of S. Francesco in Arezzo that the figures were ‘grand and noble’; there was ‘consummate power’ in his depiction of human emotion, and novel effects of ‘perspective, foreshortening and chiaroscuro’ abounded. Above all, in Sansepolcro there was the fresco of the Resurrection – ‘No painter has ever so painted the scene!’ Later, as the leading force in the Arundel Society, which was devoted to recording old Italian frescos, Layard commissioned copies of some of Piero’s works. The Resurrection was published as a chromolithograph. But the impact of the ‘awful and unearthly majesty in his countenance, in the large eyes fixed on vacancy, and in the still placid features’, and the effect of dawn light (the way the ‘cold grey morning creeps along the hills, and the dark trees stand motionless’), are better conveyed by Layard’s prose than they are by the print, which reduced the fresco to an easel picture. Indeed, Layard himself insisted that Piero’s easel pictures ‘afford but a faint idea of his originality’: his greatness lay in public work, which made him an example not only to artists but to patrons.

Layard’s readers were travelling to Italy in increasing numbers. In the mid-1860s a railway line to Arezzo was opened. The British had been prepared for Piero’s frescos by the National Gallery’s Baptism, and they could read about him in Vasari and in Luigi Lanzi’s encyclopedic history of Italian art, but they could still feel that they were discovering a neglected genius. They could see that the Italian Church didn’t seem to be taking good care of Piero’s frescos, so they didn’t have to think of his art as Roman Catholic. Nor did they have to worry about his belonging entirely to the Middle Ages, for he clearly excelled in the new ‘science’ of art, and his paintings even recalled the friezes of the Parthenon.

It isn’t clear that the journey to Arezzo was made by many British artists. But the young Edgar Degas went there in the summer of the very year that Layard’s article appeared. Soon afterwards, Degas began his large canvas (now in the Musée d’Orsay) of Semiramis Directing the Building of Babylon. The gracious but rigid pose of the Queen and her handmaidens, her arrested and reticent gesture, the angularities of the setting contrasting with the monumental cluster of figures and the profile horse, the nearly blank expressions, the eloquent intervals, the airy combination of dusty pink, chestnut brown, pale blue and white: all mark this painting as the earliest and perhaps the most interesting example of Piero’s influence on a great modern artist. In Young Spartans, which belongs to the same years and is now in the National Gallery, the group of elders in the distance relate to the foreground action in a way that is repeated a dozen rooms away by the figures who stand behind Piero’s baptised Christ.

Degas himself left these paintings unfinished and began to direct his attention to other masters, but Piero was not forgotten in France. Gustave Moreau claimed that Puvis de Chavannes had been in Italy with Degas in the late 1850s. There seems to be no other evidence that he visited the country after 1848 but he certainly had a close knowledge of the Arezzo frescos, and Piero’s influence becomes strikingly apparent in murals painted by Puvis after 1860. Degas must have made drawings after Piero – none of which survives – and it is tempting to wonder whether Puvis borrowed them. Before long there would be an easier way to study Italian frescos. In an initiative which paralleled that of the Arundel Society, but was sponsored by the state rather than by amateur enthusiasm and commercial subscription, Charles Blanc, during his brief tenure as director of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, opened the Musée Européen in the Palais des Champs-Elysées, where copies of Italian frescos – including two full-size replicas of works by Piero, which he had commissioned – could be studied. That was in 1873. In London the following year, Frederic Burton, the director of the National Gallery, paid the astonishing sum of 2300 guineas for Piero’s Nativity. This was the highest price in the sale of Alexander Barker’s collection, which included numerous masterpieces, among them Botticelli’s Mars and Venus. The purchase was endorsed by leading artists, and Benjamin Disraeli gave it his support. Piero was now fully established as an Old Master. Typically, his early discoverers – Robinson, Layard and Eastlake’s widow – believed that Burton had paid too much.

Once Piero had attained this pre-eminence, he seems to have excited less interest, but twenty or so years later artists and connoisseurs turned to him once again. On this occasion the catalyst may have been Puvis de Chavannes, who in old age suddenly became a significant influence on a new generation of painters. Two major exhibitions mounted by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1975 and by the Palazzo Grassi in Venice a couple of years ago predictably explored the debt to Puvis owed by Gauguin, Seurat, Denis, Vuillard and Picasso. But it is in the work of his more orthodox imitators and followers all over Europe and the United States in the first two decades of the 20th century that we find the influence of Piero coupled with that of Puvis. In the same years, critics repeatedly linked the names of these two artists. A fine example of their combined influence can be found in the entrance hall of London’s Middlesex Hospital, where the four large canvases of The Acts of Mercy by the now almost entirely forgotten Frederick Cayley Robinson are preserved beside the usual brash modern signage. They were painted for the hospital’s previous building during the First World War (the two best are dated 1915 and 1916), and their hushed atmosphere, tense geometry and subdued colour scheme respond to the grim anxieties of the Home Front, as well as to their original classical setting. The figures wait – for the doctor, for food, for peace. A columnar tree cuts across ashlar. Greys tending to lilac, mauve and olive green set off the plain white bowls of the orphans and the clean bandages of the wounded. The glowing oil lamp in the foreground and the sash window illuminated in the sober terrace beyond are at once marvellous and mundane, as light always is in Piero’s work.

Evidence of a profound critical response to Piero’s frescos in the decades before this visual homage is to be found in a series of lectures Roger Fry delivered for the Cambridge University Extension System in 1901.[*] Fry was not yet the champion of Cézanne and Seurat, and was writing as an artist whose hero was Puvis. During the 1920s, the director of the National Gallery, Charles Holmes, whose own watercolours were inspired by those of Cotman, also responded with fervour to Piero’s paintings, ‘among the rarest treasures’ in his care, which had ‘long been regarded with universal admiration’. ‘Universal’ was obviously an exaggeration, but the same adjective had been employed by Fry and it may be that few of T.S. Eliot’s readers would have found it hard to recognise Piero’s Baptism when they read about the artist ‘of the Umbrian School’ who painted those ‘unoffending feet’ so memorably rhymed with ‘paraclete’ in ‘Sunday Morning Service’, published in 1916.

Between 1900 and 1920 the rise in Piero’s reputation was favoured by several developments in European art and critical precepts. First, classical beauty and conventional elegance were rejected in favour of more archaic or exotic ideals. Piero’s predilection for thick ankles, broad nostrils and other facial features which ‘partake of the African’, about which Eastlake and other admirers had expressed reservations, became an advantage. Second, a feeling for two-dimensional pattern, which had been deemed essential for wall decoration by Flandrin in the 1840s, was now considered to be desirable in paintings of all kinds, and it was seen that Piero had contrived to reconcile this with the effective depiction of linear perspective and monumental mass. Third, for those who came increasingly to value the examples of Seurat and Cézanne, the determination to deprive line of any independent life also became an artistic ambition. It is the shapes rather than the contours which attract us in Piero’s painting. A stream half a mile away is made to relate to, and react with, an arm raised in the foreground. Different parts of the picture are also unified by the artist’s touch, as in a pointillist canvas. The corrugations on the Duke’s face and the jewels worn by his Duchess are rhymed with the distant rocks and water in the territories over which they rule.

Roberto Longhi’s brilliant book on Piero della Francesca, first published in 1927, is perhaps the first and certainly the fullest account of the artist to emerge from the cult of Post-Impressionism. The book was soon translated and immediately became influential. A generation grew up believing that Seurat and Cézanne had made Piero’s rediscovery possible. Kenneth Clark, who, as director of the National Gallery, should have inquired how Piero’s paintings came to be in his care, even made the absurd claim that the Victorians could never have understood Piero.

For all the influence of this book, Longhi has never been admired in the Anglo-Saxon world with anything like the adulation which is still usual among Italians. It has not helped that he is hard for a foreigner to follow. His prose is both compressed and periphrastic. But this is because he is defining visual impressions and analysing visual effects in ways that had never previously been attempted. The immense excitement in his writing – and it is a quality which also makes him exhausting – derives from his closeness to the picture. At times his prose can seem to mimic the process of painting. Thus the fluidity and rapidity with which pigment is brushed into absorbent plaster is recalled when he writes of how ‘green and greys of grassy fields and sloping hills flow freely around fetlocks, shins, horseheads.’ By describing figures in terms normally used for buildings or landscapes, he emphasises the way Piero constructed these elements as equivalents. Longhi’s metaphors are sometimes arcane, but they can also be familiar. When he considers the way Piero alternated colours, reversed shapes and repeated forms, he invokes not only chess and heraldry but also the shirts of opposing football teams. The threads of light on the Virgin’s veil are likened to harp strings, but also to cheese in the making. He evokes perennial experiences of the Italian countryside: shadows hide in the river-bed in Piero’s Baptism, ‘flickering like lizard’s tails’; the colour of dawn surprises us like the blossom which appears ‘suddenly, silently, secretly during the first night of spring’.

Above all, Longhi appeals to our memories of picture galleries and museums, returning to the Ludovisi throne and to Etruscan terracottas, finding in the ‘alliteration’ of the legs of Piero’s labourers a reminder of ‘the reapers or rowers of the Nile Valley’, and in the features of Saint Luke a granite Osiris. Occasionally it seems that he is looking not at Piero but at the greatest Italian painter of his own day, Mario Sironi, who made modern labour seem primeval. Christ in the Resurrection is likened to a ‘grim Umbrian peasant, up before daybreak’, and the Madonna del Parto is an ancient goddess, certainly, but also as ‘rustic as any mountain girl standing in the doorway of the woodshed’.

Somewhat reluctantly, Longhi admitted that there was no likelihood that Piero had studied ancient Egyptian art, and no way in which one could claim a long subterranean life for ancient ‘Nilotic’ and ‘Asiatic’ traditions of colour. But he could not resist hinting that Piero may never have been forgotten. The way that Piero paints lances and banners does not merely remind him of Titian and Velázquez; he implies that the Pesaro Family Altarpiece by the former and the Surrender of Breda by the latter were somehow made possible by Piero. The cryptic whimsy with which this idea is introduced cannot conceal its improbability. And when we are told that Piero is part of the ‘natural heritage’ of a ‘race of painters’ – that of Venice – it is a way of avoiding the plain fact that, even if Piero influenced Bellini, who made possible Titian, without whom Veronese is unthinkable, this does not mean that Veronese or Titian ever looked at Piero. Longhi was haunted by artistic genealogy, by ‘complex, yet to be charted pathways’, by the ‘secret, partly unconscious story’ of Piero’s survival, by the way his art continued its ‘journey . . . along more mediated routes’.

That is perhaps the reason Longhi investigated the history of Piero’s reputation with such thoroughness in an extraordinary bibliography with commentary, which is included in this new edition. Unfortunately, the editorial notes are not adequate. There is, for instance, no reference to Piero interpretato (1998), the collection of essays which includes Luciano Cheles’s account of Layard’s interest, and Marie Anne Dupuy’s of the copies commissioned by Charles Blanc, to which my own account is indebted. Longhi had not read Layard, nor could he have known Eastlake’s notebooks, or Fry’s lecture notes, and he refers merely to ‘un certo Robinson’ (the index here gives us ‘Robinson, dealer’).

We must welcome this book, however, because it makes accessible to non-Italianists one of the most important texts of 20th-century art history and criticism. The translation often reads like a translation, but that may be inevitable: the rendering of Longhi’s far more fluent account of the Arezzo frescos, published in 1950, which is also included, reads more smoothly. Shelves of books on Piero have been written since Longhi but none of them is as eloquent on his greatness as an artist. It was Longhi also who made the best case for Piero as a central figure of 15th-century painting. He traced Piero’s sources in Sienese and Florentine painting and speculated on his influence in Ferrara and Venice with unparalleled delicacy and subtlety. We are left with the feeling that he occupies a niche between Masaccio and Bellini, and that all the best currents were combined in him and then irrigated all the finest flowers that followed. But what, to take only the most obvious example, did Leonardo owe to Piero? The claim for his centrality depends on an underestimation of pictorial narrative. For Fry in 1901, Piero’s inability to portray figures in motion was a limitation, but the essentially undramatic character of his painting and his lack of interest in appealing to our ‘tenderer feelings’ was not held against him and, once Fry had discovered Seurat and embraced formalism, these became emphatically positive qualities. Only the quietest of human exchanges are rendered memorably by Piero, and this has suited those artists who have learned from him. Semiramis is not doing much of anything, nor are those figures of Puvis’s which seem most indebted to Piero. Cayley Robinson’s figures wait rather than act. If the priorities of modern art between Flandrin and Sironi helped us to rediscover Piero, they may also have helped to obscure some of the other achievements of Italian Renaissance painting.

[*] Caroline Elam is editing these lectures for publication next year by Yale.