The Secret History of Art

Piero della Francesca In Situ, Part One

Great art must be seen in person. And this piece is certainly like that.

/ by Noah Charney

In the opening scene of the film Nostalghia, by Andrei Tarkovsky, a group of women pray before a painting in the crypt of a church in Tuscany. The painting depicts a young blonde woman, the Virgin Mary, her eyes flickering in the candlelight. A priest enters, followed by women bearing a large votive doll of Mary, swimming in the midst of a copious dress. They set the doll down and, just as the scene ends, a swarm of birds, trapped beneath the doll’s dress, is released, flooding and fluttering through the crypt.

 

This was my introduction to Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto, the pregnant Madonna, a painting that has long been an object of pilgrimage for women who wished to conceive, but encountered difficulties in doing so. It is rare in the history of art to depict Mary with a swollen belly, pregnant with the Christ child. Piero accentuated this by giving his Mary a blue dress (painted in expensive lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan along the Silk Road) with the material split in the middle, her fingers resting on the seam, as if she is about to burst forth and give birth. She also wears a knotted cloth belt, a relic that featured in the nearby cathedral at Prato, referred to as the Girdle of Thomas—legend has it that, when May rose up to heaven (she didn’t die, just floated on up, in an event known as the Assumption), she dropped this belt down to Saint Thomas. Madonna del Parto, and the relic of Prato—anagrams for the two pilgrimage destinations for would-be mothers.

 

Poet of the Week
Anna Axfors
Twitter time

all ”clickbait” touches me

 

am I the only one who hates princess madeleine’s kids?

 

Brush off the ash from the lips

 

Can someone give me peace in my soul????

 

Damn I should get interested in science like space n nature. Anyone know a good documentary about this?

 

Everyone who wants to shorten my poems are fascists

 

Everything should be punk

 

God how you enjoyed crying as a kid. And your mom said ”sorry” & tried to comfort but you kept crying because it was so nice being powerful

 

how would I do without twitter? like the sun without the moon. would be fine that is

 

I am Zlatan

 

I’ve forgotten you all because that’s the way I am. living in the present

 

if I happen to die vry soon I want you to know that I loved you all, boys & girls, adults & kids, black & white, I liked everyone equally

 

I met an auschwitz survivor yesterday. he said that I looked like the woman in the

tv series bron

 

I want someone to favorite my tweets. now.

 

 

I want to tattoo something from the sea

 

It’s twitter time. It’s that time of day

 

just cooked some fucking meal that some fucking farmer in the country could’ve cooked

 

Life feels like a nightmare

 

Looking down at my phone

 

lying at the cemetery while writing, it feels symbolic

 

Now I’m going to estimate how many ppl that are in love with me, I think

it might be ten ppl. Don’t know if it’s an over- or underestimate

 

One of the most chillingly cheesy things I know: sayin that someone is your grandpa though he isn’t, just bc it’s an old man that you know

 

Poets are like models but within text

 

Something happened a couple of years ago

 

The title of my autobiography:

I’m half dog half wolf

 

The train has been standing still in the woods 4ever…always scared it’s war when that happens.

”The train is standing still due to war”

 

This tweet is sponsored by my brain

 

Trying to come up with stuff to tweet

that doesn’t infringe on my integrity

 

Ultrasound, that’s child pornography to me

 

watching a documentary about metallica,

on mute

 

what are you supposed to bring to the beach? anyone know?

 

what if a book was published containing everything that has been written and then deleted. I would like to read that book.

 

What if bus driver was to be the new high-status profession

 

what if you have misunderstood a lot of people?

 

When I get home I wanna watch a documentary

 

when I saw a guy today it felt like I had dated him in my previous life

 

why aren’t beds designed more like hospital beds? height adjustable with one of those tables attached to it

 

why do people hate on those animal click links? they’re usually very cute/entertaining/touching!!!

 

wonder how it feels to kill someone.

 

Wonder if God sent all people to earth just so he could get free porn

every day

I was already an art historian when I watched Nostalghia, and knew a bit about Piero della Francesca, but not much beyond the basics. I study 16th and 17th century art, and Piero is 15th—that might not sound like a big difference, but in the world of academic specializations, this meant that I knew fairly little about this artist. I knew that he was one of the brightest stars of the Florentine Renaissance, a mathematician as well as painter, whose compositions were wonders of trigonometry and accurate perspective. But that’s about all. I was curious to learn more, from the film but also because, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly impressed by his paintings that I’d seen in books. Some artworks struck me viscerally, even when seen in simple reproduction or online—his were not among them. So I was interested to see them in person, to see if I might be converted to an admirer.

 

One of my favorite things to do is to see art in churches, art that is still in situ, where it was meant to be seen. Museums are all well and good, but the majority of the art that I study was never meant to be viewed in a museum or gallery setting. Works like those by Piero were intended to be viewed in a specific corner of a specific church, often with a dialogue between the space, the architecture, the surrounding artworks, the story of the church, and even the temperament of the lighting. It is nearly impossible to understand a work of art like this if it is viewed in a vacuum—in a museum, and therefore out of its original context. I would rather construct an entire trip out of traveling to see a single great work in situ, than explore a museum full of hundreds of masterpieces. The journey is part of the fun, but the treat at the end is seeing the work as it has been viewed, admired and worshipped since its creation. I don’t even like turning on the electric lights that are posted in church corners, illuminated in exchange for a 20 cent donation, because viewing Renaissance art with light bulbs is so garishly anachronistic. All this meant that traveling on artistic pilgrimage to the Madonna del Parto was my idea of a great trip.

 

Great art must be seen in person. That may sound obvious, but too often even art historians feels that they’ve “seen” a work, even if they have only examined a digital reproduction online or a print in a book. First of all, reproduced images almost always get the colors wrong: google any painting you like, and you’ll find the same work with varying shades and colorings appear in your search results. Edges might be cut off, too—there is not an image online that includes the outer edges of Bronzino’s Allegory of Love and Lust, for example, edges which can be seen only in person. But for me, visiting a work is about the atmosphere around it, especially if it is in situ, the vibe it gives off. I don’t want to sound New Age-y, but I’m not the first to claim that great works of art have a sort of aura of mystery, beauty and greatness around them. Cultural critic Walter Benjamin said as much, admitting that this was a highly unscientific statement, but that he was at a loss to quantify what makes some art great, aside from this “aura” that it projects—but which can only be felt when you see it in person. I just published a history of forgery, and that “aura” is present in great originals, and absent in derivative copies. Having only seen these three most famous Piero paintings in books, I was determined to meet them, “in the flesh.” Though seeing them in a darkened auditorium during my undergraduate art history courses left me unimpressed, I’d read that Piero’s work is more interesting than beautiful, theoretically complex more than loveable. I wanted to give Piero the benefit of the doubt, and knew that I could not claim any true opinion without seeing them for myself.

 

This article will be continued next Tuesday.

 

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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 www.noahcharney.com or by joining him on Facebook.


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