A friend of mine recently went to see Pisanello’s fresco of St George and the Princess in the Church of Sant’ Anastasia in Verona. She was soon accosted by the sacristan, who was eager to tell her the story. When he realised that she already knew it, he asked, ‘Do you want the allegory?’ and proceeded to explain that St George symbolised the Pope, the Princess was the Church, the dragon Heresy, and so on. Pisanello himself would surely have been surprised by this interpretation. After all, if he had meant to show such an allegory, he could simply have painted a Pope with the standard personifications of the Church and Heresy, rather than the familiar legend of a popular saint. It was not until the Counter-Reformation, a century later, when the historical status of St George began to be doubted, that allegorical readings of his ‘life’ were first proposed. The sacristan’s explanation, in fact, sounds like one of those fanciful elaborations which become attached to pictures over the centuries and which guides everywhere love to relate. But it also resembles the interpretations of Renaissance works of art now proposed by many scholars.
The fashion, which seems to have started about thirty years ago, was initially associated with early Netherlandish painting. The most influential figure here was Erwin Panofsky, who popularised the notion of disguised symbolism: the idea that the seemingly realistic details which abound in Flemish pictures are theologically meaningful. That painters in Flanders did sometimes intend elements in their work to be read symbolically is not in doubt. Thus when Jan van Eyck showed a Virgin of superhuman scale, almost touching the roof of a lofty church, he was obviously drawing the familiar parallel between Mary and the Church itself. Again, when the room of the Virgin Annunciate was decorated with statues of Moses and Isaiah, these figures were included for a specific reason: Moses was a famous type or prefiguration of Christ, while Isaiah prophesied: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive.’ But Panofsky also argued, for example, that a group of three windows in an Annunciation scene was meant as a reference to the Trinity, and that everyday objects such as fruit, basins and ewers in paintings of the Virgin and Child alluded to the Fall and to particular qualities of Mary. Sometimes he provided religious texts to justify his readings, but often he did not.
Implicit here is the assumption that patrons and artists of the period thought that works of art should have a rich symbolic content, but it is by no means self-evident that this was the case. The traditional justification for religious images is that they are the Bible of the unlettered, that they instruct and remind the faithful about their beliefs. This need not exclude symbolism of a simple, familiar kind. Indeed, in certain contexts, such as pictures for a monastery, an artist might quite appropriately allude to relatively sophisticated theological ideas. But in most instances it is difficult to see the purpose in disguising symbolic references, let alone in doing this so effectively that they can be deciphered only by a professor from New York or Princeton. On the face of it, the old idea that Flemish paintings are full of naturalistic details because these gave pleasure to the artists and their public seems rather more plausible.
The belief that Italian artists of the Renaissance were interested in representing the visible world for its own sake has also been a commonplace at least since the 16th century. But this, too, has recently been challenged. Many scholars have argued, for instance, that even the lucid and spacious paintings of Piero della Francesca conceal a wealth of esoteric symbolism. None of them, however, seem to have gone quite as far as Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, who has devoted an entire book to explaining a picture which at first sight appears entirely straightforward.
When the Baptism of Christ was first exhibited in Piero’s native town of Sansepolcro in the middle decades of the 15th century, the style may have seemed startling, but the content surely did not. Even the angels, the one major feature not explained by the Gospels, would have been familiar from earlier representations of the story. In the past they had usually been shown praying or reverently holding Christ’s clothes, so Piero’s group, apparently based on an antique statue of the Graces, was a little unusual. But they are appropriately solemn, and one of them even has Christ’s robe hanging over his shoulder. Oddly enough, this detail has been overlooked by several scholars, among them Mrs Lavin, who calls it a ‘flashy pink scarf’, even though she reproduces an altarpiece by Bellini in which a similar motif occurs. Another traditional element is the neophyte removing (or putting on) his shirt, who must be one of the Jews who came to John for baptism. The four bearded men in the background may originally have seemed more puzzling, since they are dressed in modern Byzantine costume of the type worn by the delegation that came to Florence in 1439 to negotiate the union of the Greek and Latin Churches. Almost immediately, this kind of dress was adopted by local artists for subjects from Antiquity set in the Eastern Mediterranean. The figures in the Baptism are presumably the Pharisees and Sadducees to whom John addressed the ominous words: ‘And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.’ Piero contrasts the flourishing trees near Christ and the angels with the stumps in the background: he could hardly have made the identification clearer.
This is the one feature of the picture to which the term ‘disguised symbolism’ seems applicable. But the ‘disguise’, as usual, is transparent. The stumps are so prominent that they invite an explanation, and the well-known text must have come readily to mind. Mrs Lavin, however, argues that Piero was also referring here to a passage in the Psalms: ‘The voice of the Lord shall break the cedars: yea, the Lord shall break the cedars of Lebanon.’ Had this been his intention, it is difficult to see why he showed the stumps of cut, not broken, trees, and why he did nothing to indicate that they were cedars. Equally far-fetched is the suggestion that Piero set the Baptism in the vicinity of Sansepolcro and that the landscape was ‘a programmatic exposition of the vivified theological state of being in which the citizens ... felt they lived’. Although the town does indeed resemble Sansepolcro, the artist seems to have gone out of his way to exclude any literal identification by showing two distant peaks which do not exist there in reality. He was simply following standard practice in adapting the local landscape when painting a Biblical subject, and there is no reason to suppose that any symbolism was intended.
Mrs Lavin’s boldest speculations concern the subsidiary figures. She starts from the premise that the Baptism, the arrival of the Magi and the Marriage at Cana are all said to have occurred on 6 January and were commemorated on this day. For this reason the three events were often shown together in liturgical manuscripts, though in separate pictures. But Mrs Lavin thinks that Piero actually alluded to all of them in his Baptism. The men in the background, whom she calls Elders, would thus also be the Magi, ‘dependent on traditional figures in Baptism scenes’ but ‘overlaid with allusions to Epiphany’. But why are there four figures rather than the conventional three? The answer, we are told, is that Piero was here making reference to a passage in the Psalms in which four kings are mentioned. These words were taken as a prophecy of the Epiphany and indeed figured in the liturgy for the day: but no one in the 15th century, so far as I know, ever invoked them to claim that there were more than three Magi. As for the Marriage at Cana, this is supposedly recalled by the angels. As Mrs Lavin explains, ‘Piero does not intend to show his angels marrying; indeed, since they are sexless spirits, that would be theologically impossible. But by giving them overtones of androgyny, portraying female dress, and depicting them handfasting [holding hands] and touching the shoulder, he has created in them definite connubial connotations.’
If Mrs Lavin really thinks that four men not carrying gifts in a painting of the Baptism stand for the Magi, or that three attendant angels connote marriage, she will believe anything. It would be no more fanciful to argue, for example, that the angels – three in number and coming from a distant place – allude to the Magi, and that the other figures represent marriage. After all, Mrs Lavin herself says of the neophyte, ‘putting on the white baptismal robe is interpreted as the donning of the Bridal garment of the new man, married to Christ at Baptism,’ and she notes that ‘the robes of the Magi reflected in the water change it to the colours of wine.’ Besides implying that Piero went out of his way to make his meaning as obscure as possible, such readings are absurdly contrived and wholly arbitrary. Even if there were something to explain here, it is difficult to believe that this kind of explanation could ever be relevant.
It must be admitted, however, that Mrs Lavin is by no means alone in seeking hidden meaning in Piero’s picture. B.A.R. Carter, for example, argues in an appendix to her book that the artist based his composition on a geometric scheme which itself had symbolic significance. Unfortunately, the cabalistic and astrological ideas in 15th-century Neoplatonism which Carter invokes to justify his thesis can be found only in texts which postdate the picture by well over a decade. Two more theories are examined by Carlo Ginzburg. According to one of these, the angels represent Concord and the composition as a whole commemorates the short-lived union of the Greek and Latin Churches. The other hypothesis is that the angels signify Liberality and were shown in this way because the picture was ordered by a merchant anxious to atone for the sin of usury. Ginzburg himself favours the first alternative, which he believes is more consistent with the likely circumstances of the commission. His argument, a very conjectural one, is that the Baptism was originally in the Camaldolese abbey of Sansepolcro, whose monks had reason to be grateful to the recently deceased theologian Ambrogio Traversari. Since the latter had been particularly involved in the project of church union, Piero’s altarpiece would have been a memorial to him.
The idea that works of religious art might allude to contemporary events in this way is now almost a commonplace. An often-cited example is Richard Krautheimer’s interpretation of the Meeting of Solomon and Sheba on Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise as yet another allusion to the union (then still to be agreed) of the Eastern and Western Churches.This reading, indeed this whole approach to iconography, has been very effectively refuted by E. H. Gombrich, alas in a publication which few scholars seem to have had a chance to read. Ginzburg evidently has not seen it. He takes it for granted that topical allusions were a regular feature of Renaissance art and his whole book is an attempt to read Piero’s work in these terms. To his credit, he does at least try to justify his interpretations by taking account of the preoccupations of the patrons, in so far as these can be established. The trouble is that with many of Piero’s pictures, including the Baptism, we do not know when exactly they were painted, or for whom.
The second work examined by Ginzburg is Piero’s most substantial undertaking, the fresco cycle showing the legend of the True Cross in the Church of San Francesco at Arezzo. This story, taken from the Golden Legend, had been painted several times before in Tuscany, notably by Agnolo Gaddi in Florence. Piero certainly knew Gaddi’s cycle, but he did not show exactly the same individual scenes. Thus both artists depicted the Queen of Sheba kneeling in recognition before the wood from which the True Cross would be made, but Piero added her subsequent meeting with Solomon, and he alone showed Constantine’s dream and his victory over Maxentius. Ginzburg thinks that the inclusion of these episodes implies a change of plan on the part of the patrons, a local family named Bacci, and argues that they were meant as propaganda for a crusade against the Turks. He suggests that the decisive influence here was that of Giovanni Bacci, a minor humanist who knew various churchmen particularly devoted to the cause of Constantinople.
The evidence that some of the frescoes were intended to have a topical reference is at best tenuous. Ginzburg inevitably cites Krautheimer’s reading of the Meeting of Solomon and Sheba, but he does not adequately explain how it could still be relevant after the fall of Constantinople. Nor is it clear that any significance need be attached, as he supposes, to the fact that Piero gave Constantine the features of John VIII, the penultimate Byzantine emperor. John’s achievements, after all, hardly qualified him as a new Constantine: he had ended up being forced to make peace with the Turks. It is doubtful, too, whether his portrait would have been generally recognised in Arezzo. The simplest explanation for Piero’s use of his head, taken from a medal, is that the artist thought that the distinctive cut of the beard and the hat were authentically Greek in style.
The main problem with Ginzburg’s thesis, however, is that it fails to account for the most glaring anomaly in the scheme: namely, that one of the major scenes is out of chronological sequence. Several scholars have tried to explain this by supposing that the order of subjects was dictated, not by the actual story, but by some second level of meaning. All these theories seem very contrived, not least because there is no evidence that the legend was regarded at the time as an allegory. The alternative hypothesis is that Piero arranged his paintings as he did because they looked best that way. As he actually painted them, the six large compositions on the two long side walls of the chapel are in effect pendants. At the top are the first and last episodes of the story; in the middle, the Recognition of the Wood by the Queen of Sheba and her Meeting with Solomon, facing the Discovery of the True Cross by the Empress Helena; at the bottom, two battle scenes. Had Piero observed the correct narrative sequence, one of these battles would have been shown in the middle row, with the Discovery of the Cross below: but in purely visual terms such an arrangement would have been far less satisfactory.
Of course, if artistic licence was the decisive factor here, the same could be true elsewhere in the chapel. Thus it seems reasonable to suppose that Piero included the Meeting of Solomon and Sheba because he had a large space to fill. Likewise, he may have decided to show the Constantine scenes because they made attractive pictures. This kind of argument implies that the patrons were not especially concerned about the detailed content of the frescoes. Ginzburg evidently believes that they were, but he never really explains why. To me it seems very likely that when people pay a major artist large sums of money to decorate their family chapel they do so, at least in part, because they want him to produce something beautiful.
Giovanni Bacci again figures prominently in the concluding section of Ginzburg’s book, which is concerned with the Flagellation in Urbino. This certainly is a puzzling picture, and countless scholars – among them Mrs Lavin – have tried to explain why the most prominent feature of the composition is a group of three curiously dressed men who are not even looking at the scourging of Christ which takes place behind them. Ginzburg thinks the picture shows Cardinal Bessarion in front of the Lateran addressing Giovanni Bacci about the Turkish peril in the ghostly presence of a recently dead illegitimate son of the Duke of Urbino; and he believes that it was given to the Duke by Bacci to arouse his enthusiasm for a crusade. But none of the buildings has much in common with the Lateran; no one knows what the Duke’s son looked like; the figure said to be Bessarion resembles him only in a very general way, and is moreover not even dressed as a cleric, let alone a cardinal; finally, the man who is supposedly Bacci also appears in a painting by Piero commissioned by a confraternity in Sansepolcro, a work in which Bacci, a citizen of Arezzo, would surely not have been depicted. Few readers, I suspect, will be convinced by this interpretation.
One reason scholars like Marilyn Lavin and Carlo Ginzburg are predisposed to find complexities of meaning in the work of Piero is that he is now held in high regard. Similarly, it is indicative of the lack of modern interest in Gentile da Fabriano that his paintings have seldom been subjected to this kind of analysis. At first sight this is surprising, since his masterpiece, the marvellous Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, was painted for an unusually wealthy and cultivated patron, Palla Strozzi; and it is almost contemporary with the frescoes by Masolino and Masaccio in the family chapel of Strozzi’s son-in-law Felice Brancacci, which have been the subject of some very elaborate interpretations. But Masaccio has always been regarded as one of the founders of Renaissance painting, whereas Gentile, despite a formidable reputation in his own day, has long been stigmatised as a proponent of the supposedly retardataire style known as International Gothic. This accounts for a slightly apologetic tone in some passages of Keith Christiansen’s admirable monograph on Gentile. Not the least of the merits of the book is the author’s eminently sensible attitude to iconography: he sees no particular problems here, and does not try to create any. Instead, he is mainly concerned with the basic issues of what Gentile painted and when. This is a controversial subject, but Christiansen’s often novel conclusions are generally convincing. In short, he has written an exceedingly useful book, which makes an important contribution to our knowledge of Italian painting of the early Renaissance.
Ginzburg, at least, seems to feel that the questions which Christiansen has tackled are worth asking. Indeed, one of the purposes of his book is to show how the study of patronage and iconography can provide new evidence. But he has uncritically accepted the premises on which so much iconographic analysis is now based – for example, the belief that in the Renaissance artists and patrons attached little value to pictures which told familiar stories in a clear and eloquent way. What is needed now is a study of the attitudes of people in the 15th century to religious images in general. Ginzburg’s earlier work, such as The Cheese and the Worms, suggests that he is ideally qualified to undertake such a task. Until someone does so, we will never be able to decide what kind of interpretation might plausibly have been applied to a manifestly problematic picture like the Flagellation, nor can we be as confident as Mrs Lavin that the Baptism contains layer upon layer of symbolism waiting to be elucidated. In the meantime, we could do worse than recall what Panofsky said about the difficulty of deciding whether a particular feature in a picture has a hidden meaning: ‘There is, I am afraid, no other answer to this problem than the use of historical methods tempered, if possible, by common sense.’