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.


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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.


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.