Piero della Francesca, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (c.1460-70), oil (and tempera?) on poplar panel, transferred to fabric on panel; courtesy The Sterling and Francine Clark Institute
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Piero della Francesca’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (ca. 1460–70), once encountered, is not easily forgotten or, for that matter, absorbed. A cornerstone of The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Virgin and Child is a wildly unpredictable picture, though its stoic demeanor offsets its radical nature. There are Piero’s angels: they are, if not exactly wedged into the rectangular format, book-ended significantly within its edges, their wings offering only a hint of “escape” from the picture’s confines. Piero has increased the scale of the human form for mother and child, rendering them mountainous. A painted architectural frieze running along the top of the composition crowns the Virgin’s head, pressurizing Piero’s diorama. Space, once stated, is made shallow, stark and stage-like. Combined with the milky green pallor of the angels and Piero’s exacting geometry, Virgin and Child is revealed as a pictorial machine whose logic threatens to collapse even as it holds true.
Virgin and Child is a devotional image, of course, and its function as such is inescapable and ineradicable. Piero’s artistic liberties endow the figures with an immovable gravitas that keys into their spiritual vitality. As the centerpiece of “Piero della Francesca in America,” the Clark’s Piero is a stand-in for the lost central panel of The Sant’Agostino Altarpiece, a gilt framed edifice once situated in a church located in Piero’s birthplace, Borgo San Sepolcro. The commission took fifteen years to complete, roughly from 1454–1469, and was—if we are to believe that inveterate booster of the high renaissance, Giorgio Vasari—“highly praised” in its day. The altarpiece was dismantled in 1555. Hometown admirers of Piero’s art preserved many of the panels, but only eight are still extant—six are currently at the Frick, four being mainstays of the collection. The other paintings are borrowed from The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and Portugal’s Museo Nacional de Arte Antigua.
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You can’t blame Nathaniel Silver, Guest Curator and former Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Frick, for fudging the exhibition’s geographical purview by including the Lisbon Saint Augustine (1454–69). Its original location was, after all, named for the world historical figure—that, and it’s a spectacular painting. We don’t think of Piero as a showboat, but his portrait of the church father is an almost ostentatious tour-de-force. With his salt-and-pepper beard and knitted brow, Saint Augustine cuts a dour figure—fitting for the man who maintained the importance of original sin. But contemporary viewers will be taken by the inventiveness with which Piero has delineated Augustine’s vestments. Forget the sumptuous attention paid to material verisimilitude—a tough call given the razor-edged concision with which, say, St. Augustine’s crystal staff has been delineated. Instead, it is the title figure’s miter and cope that dazzle. They are compendiums of scenes illustrating the life of Christ—paintings within a painting. Narrative function, theological authority, and pictorial clarity reach a meticulous détente. Piero was some kind of artist.
An obvious statement, perhaps, but Piero had pretty much been forgotten by the end of the sixteenth century—a hundred years after his death in 1492. (He was born circa 1415.) It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Piero was rediscovered and into the next century when Piero-mania gained momentum. No less an eminence than Bernard Berenson expressed astonishment at this newfound “mass admiration”—particularly since Berenson had, earlier in his career, felt it necessary to defend Piero’s inclusion in the Renaissance canon. Among those taken with the Italian master’s “ineloquent art” was Henry Clay Frick’s daughter, Helen. She was eager to acquire Pieros—works “unlike any other Italian art!” After much frustration, including a failed attempt to woo Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels away from the “obstinate” Robert Sterling Clark, Helen convinced the Frick’s trustees to purchase Saint John the Evangelist (1454–69) in 1936 for $400,000. Subsequent Piero additions to the collection came through museological horse-trading. When the opportunity arose to swap canvases by Cézanne and Gauguin for a discount on two Pieros, Helen did so swiftly. She did not share her father’s love of Impressionism.
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“Piero della Francesca in America” is, in part, an homage to the perspicacity of American collectors and, especially, the doggedness of Helen Clay Frick. Is it crass (or ungrateful) to observe that this aspect of the exhibition leaves a greater impression than the re-envisioning of The Sant’Agostino Altarpiece? The attempt to do so, while heroic, is inherently frustrating. A photographic montage seen on a wall label illustrates what Piero’s altarpiece—or significant portions of it, anyway—might have looked like. But history is ruthless and scholarship sometimes a tease. It’s a testament to the intensity of Piero’s vision that the authority of this-or-that image survives the loss of a guiding context. Still and all, anyone who manages to mount the first U.S. exhibition devoted to this seminal figure deserves kudos. So give Curator Silver a hand. We are not likely to see another such exhibition on this side of the Atlantic in our lifetimes.
© 2013 Mario Naves
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of The New Criterion.