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January 03, 2003

1000 Words -- Piero's Reputation

Friedrich --

Are you a big fan of Piero della Francesca's paintings? I always have been, if in a fairly casual way. I get fascinated by the tensions in his work -- the eroticism vs. the formality, the design-y qualities vs. the painstaking modeling, the emphasis on placement of mass vs. the emphasis on living-and-breathing flesh. My mind dives into thoughts and memories of artists I know more about -- Ingres, Degas, Puvis -- and swims around that pond very happily.

Madonna and Child With Saints, early 1470s

What I hadn't been aware of is the ups and downs of his critical reputation. Over the holidays, though, I was leafing around a collection of his work and brought myself up to date. Since the tale makes for a nice example of some of the themes we seem to return to on this blog -- the fluidity of the "canon," the fecundity of art and lit history, the way reputations come and go, the ways artists use other art, etc. -- I thought I'd pass it along.

People who are better Renaissance-arts buffs than I am may be fully aware of this story, but for the sake of my fellow amateurs out there, here it is ...

These days, Piero is considered one of the established greats, right up there with such giants as Botticelli and Giotto, a humanist pioneer in the development and use of perspective and 3D effects. Yet at the time he worked (the mid-1400s), he was barely noticed. He seems to have had a relatively successful painting career, although he gave it up late in life to devote himself to writing about math and perspective. Vasari did give him a nod in 1568, but after that, notice of Piero simply petered out; when he was thought of at all, it was as a kind of primitive.

Then, in the mid-1800s, a guy named James Dennistoun rediscovered Piero -- sorry, I wish I had more information about this -- and promoted him. Even so, Piero's work seems to have bewildered many art fans until the late 1800s. You can sense a bit of this struggle in an otherwise perceptive passage by a writer named G.F. Pighi: Pighi wrote that Piero, through "improving upon the traditional Greco-Roman type of the Sienese school, and, divesting it of a certain nebulosity in which Sienese art had restricted it, made the type more human ..."

Even the facts of Piero's biography weren't assembled until 1913. But by then, early modernist art was well underway, cubism was cooking, and Piero's spatial obsessions hit a nerve. Color reproductions began circulating, and after nearly 400 years, Piero finally had himself a name.

Through the rest of the 20th century, his reputation did nothing but grow. There have been lengthy debates about his real achievement -- was it in color? Perspective? Characterization? By 1951, Kenneth Clark was writing (convincingly, to my mind) that Piero was "in the full, critical sense of the word, a classic artist, and to a large extent his rediscovery was part of a new classicism, of which Cezanne and Seurat were the living manifestations ... Piero's application of geometry, not only to whole compositions but to individual figures, is in harmony with the spirit which was later to find expression in Cubism and its derivatives." By the time you and I passed through our Lousy Ivy College, it was common to refer to Piero as "the monarch of painting."

Piero's greatness? By the mid-'70s it was taken for granted as long-established fact. Yet for almost 400 of the 500 years since his death, Piero's existence was barely remembered.

Makes you wonder about how present-day reputations will grow and sink as future time goes by, doesn't it?

You can read more about Piero here, at the valuable art site CGFA.



posted by Michael at January 3, 2003


My first exposure to Piero was via Bernard Berenson's "Painters of the Italian Renaissance" which was was written in the 1890s and first decade of the 1900s. In it Berenson put Piero in the first rank of Renaissance painters. Interestingly, he did so based on his artistic criteria: to wit, the ability of a work of art to summon up ideated sensations of motion, force, resistance, relief, etc. I suppose that fits right in with your timeline of artistic "redemption." (I was interested to note in that survey of big-city newspaper critics that Berenson was never even mentioned as an intellectual influence. That explains a lot...)

Other artists who have "recovered" from obscurity? El Greco comes to mind. Vermeer. George de La Tour. Pieter Saenredam.

Always remember that "quality" is intrinsic and will infallibly be recognized by the art-historical consensus (not!)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 3, 2003 8:03 PM

At the risk of sounding blindingly obvious, can't the whole history of Piero's critical reputation be explained by the fact that he's a great Modernist artist? As Michael says, he hit a nerve with the Modernists, and they've been running the culturati for the past century, more or less. He's got the strength and simplicity of great Modern art (Malevich, say) and the added advantage of being a recognised Renaissance master who knew nothing of the tenets of Modernism. In other words, he helps the Modernists pitch their movement as being slightly more universal than simply being confined to Europe and North America in the 20th Century: they're picking up on themes which date all the way back to Piero.

Posted by: Felix on January 3, 2003 10:29 PM

FvonB -- Pieter Saenredam? Who? I suppose I could look him up myself, of course. And how is Berenson? I've never read him, and I guess I should.

Felix -- I think that's it exactly, don't you? Each era creates the art history it needs, even while contributing to it. Over time a kind of record or residue builds up, like a stalactite. And that becomes what's (ideally, anyway) passed on in an education.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 6, 2003 1:38 PM

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