Sunday, March 17, 2013

Piero Della Francesca

I am writing about an exhibition that I have not seen first hand. Due to back surgery I was not able to travel to New York and Maastricht as planned.  I will miss a great deal that I want to do but thanks to the marvels of the internet and a wonderful catalog I can write about the exhibition “Piero della Francesca in America” that opened recently at the Frick Collection.

Piero was born around 1415 and died in 1492. Famed in his own time, he is credited as one of the first masters of the Renaissance. The Frick has four Pieros, more than any other museum in the U.S,. and they were all painted between 1454 and 1469 for an altarpiece  in the church of Sant’Agostino, in Sansepolcro,  the artist’s hometown.  Miss Frick, Henry Clay Frick’s daughter, persuaded the Board of Trustees to buy their first, “Saint John the Evengelist” in 1936 to celebrate the opening of the conversion of her father’s mansion into a Museum. The last one, The Crucifixion, was added in 1961, a bequest from a Frick trustee, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

I first came to know Piero when I was finally allowed into the Frick at the age of 10 but it was as a student in London that I learned to truly appreciate him. I was smitten by one of his earliest works, The Baptism of Christ (1437), in London’s National Gallery. It comes from Sanspolcro but from a different church.

The guest curator for the exhibition at the Frick, Nathaniel Silver, had the idea of bringing together other panels from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece altar in the United States.  The Washington National Gallery lent their Saint Apollonia but the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum could not lend its Hercules. The Museu Naciaonal de Arte Antigua in Lisbon, however, did lend their full-length Saint Augustine  from the altarpiece, and the Stirling and Francine Clark Institute contributed their Virgin and Child Enthroned that was painted for a family in Sansepolcro.

To digress, last Wednesday I was supposed to be arriving in Maastricht for the TEFAF fair, instead I found myself, sitting in front of the television watching white smoke rise from the chimney of the Vatican indicating that a new Pope had been chosen.  I have no idea why but the day before I had decided that, though it would be great to have an American Pope, I thought that it should be a South American.  Sure enough Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires was chosen and he picked an original name, Francis I. To me this was the sign of independence and possible reform, at least in some ways.

When he ad-libbed at the beginning of his blessings and asked the people in St. Peter’s Square to first bless him and his Papacy I found myself in tears.   Why?  I am Jewish after all.  The truth is I am usually rather cynical.  Something that I had never felt before had moved me.  I realized that I had had a religious experience. It was a first , even though I have attended ceremonies in any number of churches and synagogues. 

To return to Piero, the installation of his paintings so intelligently assembled in the Frick’s wood-paneled oval gallery along with a reconstruction of the Sant’Agostino altarpiece can be viewed through the virtual tour on the Frick Collection website. Of course, what is missing is the spiritual experience of visitors to the modest church of Sant’Agostino when it was dominated by Piero’s ensemble that towered above the altar before it was disassembled in 1555.  At the high point of his career Piero was besieged by lucrative commissions from wealthy and powerful clients, not the least among them the Pope. Surely religious inspiration played a part in the years he devoted to creating this monumental work for the Augustinian friars of his hometown.

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