Piero della Francesca Found Order Amid Chaos
Pieros's puzzle: "The Flagellation" (1455-60) is the artist's most enigmatic painting. There are at least 40 interpretations of what is going on
I am in sitting in one of the most beautiful man-made places on earth: the Cappella Maggiore in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo, where Piero della Francesca painted a series of frescos illustrating The Legend of the True Cross. The stories told by the Legend are obscure, incredible and often extremely silly. But when you are looking at Piero's miraculous paintings, that doesn't matter in the least. You are transported into a luminous world of order, dignity and grace, where every object is in perfect proportion to every other, and where colour and form unite to produce the extraordinary sense that the world is a fundamentally benign place — one in which beauty is truth, and truth beauty.
This is so even when Piero depicts the bloody, vicious battle in which the Byzantine emperor Heraclius triumphed over the Persian king Chosroes — as he does in the Arezzo cycle. There are around 40 figures engaged in bitter fighting in this image, and they are stabbing, slashing, and cutting each other's throats. Yet such is the grandeur of Piero's conception, and such is the extraordinary dignity with which he has imbued it, that far from generating disgust at the carnage of war, your reaction is dominated by a sense of the harmony of the composition, its logic, even its grace. More than any other artist, Piero is capable of transcending the brutality, or the banality, of the facts he is depicting. Somehow he manages to transform them into something that elevates not only his subject but also the viewer.
Piero communicates directly to people today in a way that no other artist who lived and died in the 15th century manages. Some 50,000 people went to see The Legend of the True Cross over the summer months of 2000, when the pictures were finally opened to the public again after having been closed for more than a decade for restoration. Looking at The Legend of the True Cross today, you hear startled expressions of amazement in many different languages. The crowds are not attracted by the pictures' celebrity, in the way that thousands queue every year to see Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescos — Piero's frescos in Arezzo are just not famous in that way. You won't find their images printed on T-shirts, and you have to go to Arezzo to find a postcard of them.
What exactly is it about Piero that touches people? Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, Fra Angelico, even Masaccio — all great, innovative artists from 15th-century Florence — do not evoke the same sort of response as Piero does, although each of those artists was far more admired than Piero was during his own lifetime.
Piero was born around 1412 in the town of Sansepolcro in Tuscany. Very little is known about his life. His father was a merchant who dealt in leather and woad, which was used for dying cloth. We don't know where or from whom Piero learned to paint. No one has any idea of how he acquired his mathematical knowledge, which was far in advance of anything manifested by any of his fellow artists, with the exception of the architect Brunelleschi. Geometry seems to have been Piero's first love; painting was simply his means of expressing it.
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