The Secret History of Art

Piero della Francesca In Situ, Part Two

Madonna del Parto: This painting stops you in your tracks.

/ by Noah Charney

This is Part Two of an article which ran last Tuesday.


The Resurrection

The author (and his mom) in front of a Piero altarpiece.
The first stop on my three-part Piero tour is Sansepolcro. A mid-sized town, it has plenty of restaurants and delightful churches to keep you busy for a full day, including surprising works by Rosso Fiorentino and Perugino, if you need a break from your Pietro quest. And here is our first stop. At the Museo Civico you can find several Piero paintings, but the star attraction is his Resurrection, a fresco painted around 1460. It is the reason the Museo Civico is where it is—it was originally a palazzo, converted recently to a museum because this magnificent fresco already decorated its wall. You’ll notice some nodes on the wall around the fresco—those are vibration sensors, an anti-theft mechanism that detects whether someone might be chiseling into the wall to slice out the fresco and run.

Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri

Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without  forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

The subject of the painting is Christ’s Resurrection. He rises, with militaristic posture, out of the Holy Sepulchre (from which the town gets its name), and one can imagine the thrum of snare drums beating in the background to announce his rise from the dead. He confronts the viewer face-on, a posture reserved for depictions of Christ and God in past centuries, and he carries the cross of Saint George like a battle flag in his hand. Before him lie sleeping four guards in various poses that allow Piero to show off his mathematically-accurate handling of perspective—particularly the second guard from the left (whom the Renaissance painter and historian, Giorgio Vasari, claimed was a self-portrait of Piero) is slumped back, leaning against the marble tomb, but foreshortened, to appear as if he is inhabiting a three-dimensional space. This image has nothing to do with the Bible’s own description of the scene—in the Bible, Christ is entombed in a cave, its entrance closed with a rock. In the background, to Christ’s right are young, lively trees, while to his left are older, dying ones. The guard holding a lance, which recalls the lance-wound on Christ’s right side, inflicted by Longinus as he hung on the cross, to ensure that Christ was, in fact, dead, is posed in an impossible manner, apparently without legs. Piero has taken some flack from critics, who say that he was so focused on the mathematics of art, of getting the perspective correct, that he skipped over little details like accurate human anatomy. I’m inclined to let this slide, since my favorite period in art is mid-16th century Mannerism, when bodies were intentionally distorted by artists for dramatic effect. The math is complicated here, as the painting employs two, rather than the standard single, vanishing points: one is at Christ’s head, the other at the center of the sarcophagus. Aldous Huxley called this “the world’s best picture,” and while I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, my trip was already worthwhile for the feeling of grandeur and elevation I had while seeing this fresco in the space for which it was created.


The Madonna del Parto

Ever since my first screening of Nostalghia, I’d anticipated seeing the Madonna del Parto. But I’m a few decades too late to really do it justice. In order to better preserve it, it was long ago moved from the tiny church in Monterchi, Santa Maria di Momentana. I was prepared to be under-whelmed by this translocated masterpiece. But then I saw it.

Without going there in person, anything I write will sound trite, so you’ll just have to believe me. This painting stops you in your tracks. Even when I view reproductions now, the postcard of it I bought at the gift shop, or high-resolution digital images online, I feel unmoved. Meh. But in person—wow. There is the aura of which Benjamin wrote, shimmering invisibly out of the painting, but visibly affecting all of its viewers, including the throng of elderly visitors on a package tour, their guide shouting to be heard in Italian and gesticulating as if he were in the midst of an interpretive dance. Two angels push aside imaginary curtains, which would have mirrored actually curtains flanking the painting, allowing it to be revealed to pilgrims at selected moments, and otherwise shielded from view—another aspect lost when a work is transplanted. The light must also be taken into consideration. Of course it’s easier to see such works in a gallery setting, with defused overall lighting. But they were never meant to be seen that way, and the chicanery of natural light flowing from clerestory windows, or the flicker of chapel candles, is part of the drama of such works. They are meant to be difficult to discern, particularly when they lurk in shadowy church alcoves, heightening their drama and forcing the viewer to look long and hard and close, just to make out the details. It is an entirely different viewing experience, one that galleries do not permit, so our imagination must be employed, balancing the work in the gallery with our experience of dimly-lit churches and the mysteries that works remaining in them would hold. But this work has a vibe like the Resurrection, one that was entirely lost to me until I saw it in person. I can see why it would be an object of pilgrimage.


The True Cross fresco cycle

The great city of Arezzo is hardly visited, compared to its touristy neighbors, Siena and Florence, with Rome not far, and feels the more rewarding for this fact. It cannot be called a hidden treasure, but it is one that only the wiser tourists will experience. The city of Vasari, it boasts an impressive archaeological museum and several days’ worth of sites to visit. But we’re here on business. In the church of San Francesco, we can find Piero’s most complete and impressive work. Here, Piero frescoed the entire apse with a cycle of works surrounding the legendary finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena. This work comprises dozens of frescoes, their stories linked to one another, to the history of the church itself, to the relics it contains, to sculptural, architectural and other painterly works in it. It is a gesamtkunstwerk, that wonderful German word for which there is no English equivalent, meaning a complete work of art, multi-dimensional, multimedia. Standing inside the space is the only way to experience it—no slides or virtual tour can match the multisensory experience.

Art history books tend to reproduce just the single image from this multifaceted cycle, when Saint Helena prays and the location of the True Cross reveals itself to her. But there is more story present here. The layout, for example, is the opposite of what you’d expect: a chronology of events surrounding the story of the cross on which Christ was executed, running from the death of Adam in Genesis through the7th century AD. But Piero arranges the images, like panels in a comic book, backwards, reading from right to left—like the Hebrew of the Old Testament. There is a striking night scene which shows the dream of Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and unusual positioning of bodies—it was striking to have so many figures in a fresco with their backs facing the viewer. As might be expected from Piero the mathematician, he does wonderful things with perspective, nowhere more clearly than in The Discovery and Proof of the True Cross, in which buildings vanish into the background while the cross, used to raise the dead, pushes out into the foreground and appears in danger of poking itself out of the frescoed wall.

Suffice it to say that taking on this artistic pilgrimage is not only a lovely excuse for a ride through Tuscany, but also provides a depth and weight to visiting unique, in situ artistic masterpieces that are too easy to dismiss, when viewed only in reproductions in a darkened auditorium, or set against the glow of one’s computer screen.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.