Page 11, 11th October 2002

11th October 2002
Page 11
Page 11, 11th October 2002 — `The greatest picture in the world'

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`The greatest picture in the world'

Piero della Francesca's noble Resurrection makes a profound and moving theological statement, says Anthony Symondson SJ The Piero della Francesco Trail by John Pope Hennessy with The Best Picture by Aldous Huxley, The Little Book Room, New York, distributed in the UK by Macmillan Distribution, £14.99 In his novel Summer's Lease, John Mortimer describes three unsophisticated tourists leaving their rented house in Chianti after an early breakfast, so that they "can do the Resurrection" before lunch. They were embarking by hired Fiat on the Piero della Francesca trail in Tuscany and Umbria, first making a perfunctory stop at Arezzo to see the fresco cycle of The Legend of the True Cross in the choir of the barrack-like church of S. Francesco. "Not ten o'clock yet, and we have done Arezzo", says one. "It won't take us long to knock off the pregnant Madonna" in the ugly funerary oratory at Monterchi. They go on to the small town of Sansepolcro and the Resurrection, where "you can see what all the fuss was about" and after a hasty lunch they continue to Urbino to see The Flagellation (or is it The Dream of Jerome?) in the Palazzo Ducale. A good day's sightseeing: home, change, time for a drink, and on to the trattoria and gossip beneath the velvet Tuscan sky.

Today, many would associate their expedition with high culture. After all, it was a private occasion, somebody had done their homework in the Blue Guide, it had nothing to do with the vulgar tourism and the world of the charabanc, nor with cultural tourism when an art historian is engaged to tell you what to think. Nevertheless, what Mortimer conveys is the superficiality of what often passes for cultivation. Of the three, only one, Molly, has any engagement with Piero's work and a genuine desire to see The Flagellation, the picture "she had in mind all the holiday and the one she had come so far to see". Molly has a true, if unfocussed, love of pictures. She wants to know what they mean but she interprets them in personal terms and she is disappointed that she cannot look at them for long.

Piero della Francesca (c. 1410/201492) was for centuries a forgotten artist. He was rediscovered by modern art historians and came to be regarded in 20th century criticism as perhaps the supreme painter of the quattrocentro. Born in Borgo San Sepolcro, he found the origins of his style in Florence. Piero's figures are solid, round and measured like the columns of Brunelleschi's architecture. Some find Renaissance painting bloodless; but this is not true of him, whose imagination presented a world which had clarity, dignity and order.

The synthesis was achieved partly by an extraordinary precision in the outlines, partly by subtlety in the use of colour and light. The contours of his figures tend towards the grace and regularity of curves in geometry. Piero extended the boundaries of painting through experiment. His treatise on perspective based on arith metic and geometry demonstrated that both are the means of defining space in three dimensions. His lucid intelligence was complemented by a unique feeling for the cool, crystalline delight which envelopes the Tuscan landscape.

In 1925, Aldous Huxley published a rhetorical essay on the Resurrection in Along the Road, entitled "The Best Picture". He lived at that time in Italy and brought Piero's work to the attention of a new generation. He believed, as many people in those days did, in an absolute standard of artistic merit that established good and bad art, reinforced by the discrimination of connoisseurship.

Huxley regarded the Resurrection as the greatest picture in the world. Sir John Pope-Hennessy was then a precocious 12-year-old schoolboy at Downside, and the essay helped to lay the foundations of a vocation that led him to become one of the greatest art historians of the 20th century and perhaps its greatest authority on Italian Renaissance art. His many publications in Renaissance sculpture erudite, analytical, lucid, polished remain the standard works of reference and a pleasure to read. This short, well-produced and illustrated book is no exception. He died in Florence, loaded with honours, in 1995. Tens of thousands of people now pursue the trail, Piero's work is familiar from reproductions, and there are shelves of books and articles about him. It was not always so. Huxley exaggerated the hindrance of reaching the dusty little Tuscan town. He claimed it took seven hours by bus from Urbino, but Pope-Hennessy discovered in the 1930s that it took only three. The journey involved discomfort, enthusiasm and dedication. But, even now, the noble fresco cannot fail to move the observer. Huxley saw the figure of Christ, with its perfectly developed body "like that of a Greek athlete, so formidably strong that the wound in its muscular flank seems somehow an irrelevance", more as a Plutarchian hero than the Christ of conventional religion. Pope-Hennessy says that we should take Piero's work at face value.

christ rises by his own supernatural power from the tomb, over the four soldiers — two sleeping, one staring at him in astonishment, the other hiding his face from the vision, typifying man's reaction to the risen Christ. The symbolism is emphasised by the contrast between the bare trees and earth on the left and the burgeoning hillside on the right.

Piero was the most deeply cerebral artist of the Renaissance. Nothing is incidental. He makes a profound theological statement behind the monumental meditative grandeur and impassivity of the central figure. Piero's work embodies truth. Let's hope that Molly will eventually read The Piero della Francesco Trail and unhurriedly follow it again with opened eyes.

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