I wrote about Piero Della Francesca almost a year ago regarding an exhibition at the Frick. On my return to New York recently I found another Piero loan show, this time at the Metropolitan Museum, and quite different from the Frick’s.
While the Frick exhibition was an analysis of one altarpiece and bringing parts of it together this one, called, “Piero Della Francesca: Personal Encounters” focuses on Piero’s private devotional paintings which are rare in his oeuvre. It was curated by Kieth Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings
I often wonder what is the genesis of an exhibition. Why should there suddenly be a Piero show when a short while ago there was another Piero show? In this case the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture (FIAC) came to Keith wanting to sponsor a loan. 2013 was the Italian year of Culture in the U.S. and FIAC suggested working with the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. So Keith picked up the phone and called his friend the director at the Accademia. They decided that they would take one work, “Saint Jerome and a Supplicant” and conserve it and do a technical analysis including the necessary archival research. From a curatorial point of view it is not right to move and endanger masterpieces unless there is a scholarly goal in doing so. From the Accademia’s point of view it was not only an opportunity for new scholarship but they would also have assistance in restoring the painting.
With that as a cornerstone Keith came up with an exhibition which was ideal for the Met’s small gallery where they have been doing focused Old Master shows.
The no brainer was to ask the Galleria Nationale delle Marche in Urbino to extend the loan of the painting that they had sent to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as part of the year of culture. It was the mysterious looking “Madonna and Child with two Angels” painted late in Piero’s life and is, certainly the most inspiring of the selection in the show. It is not known for whom the painting was done but speculation is that it was for a member of the family of Frederico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino and a major patron of the arts.
Developing his theme of bringing together devotional paintings it was logical for Keith to ask the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin for their “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” having similar scale and subject matter to the Accademia’s picture. The Berlin picture has far greater losses than the Venice Jerome and is surely a shadow of its original self, still there are comparisons to be made, particularly in the landscape.
The earliest painting in the show is from the mysterious private collection in Newark, Delaware known as the Alana Collection. It is a Madonna and Child dating about 1440. It is a Madonna and Child, obviously a most popular subject for devotional pictures, but what makes this a particularly interesting panel is the reverse where a perspective study of a wine cask is rendered as if it were a work of intarsia, the sort of bravura trompe l’oeil woodwork being done at the time for paneled rooms.
The show presented lots for scholars to debate about one of the most studied of early Renaissance masters. But for the non-specialist all but one of the works was disappointing. It was a lesson in how much our reaction to an Old Master is based on the condition of the work. Happily Piero’s , newly cleaned, Urbino Madonna retains the precision of detail that gives an almost eerie power to a lesser-known painting that is one of the artist’s greatest masterpieces. The exhibition closes March 30th.