Piero and Rosso
Growing up in a small town in Ireland the 1950s and the early 1960s, I looked to my idea, and my ideal, of ‘Europe’ as a cultural touchstone. When in my late teens I finally got the chance to travel to what we called ‘the Continent’, I naturally chose to visit first what for me were, and are, the great centres of European civilisation: Paris first, but only because it was nearest, then Greece, then Italy. It was Italy that became my first, most intense and most abiding love, and it was in Italy that I discovered the painter whom I came to regard as the greatest artist of the Italian renaissance, Piero della Francesca. But Italy is not all light and order: and the darkness visible in, for example, the work of Rosso Fiorentino spoke to a sense of luminous darkness within my own sensibility. The following essay is a small tentativo at capturing something of my regard for these great artists, so different in so many ways, and in other ways surprisingly alike.
Beauty, says the poet Rilke, is nothing but the beginning of terror we are still just able to bear. Certainly the Mannerist painter known as Rosso Fiorentino – Giovanni Battista di Jacopo – would have agreed, but so too, one strongly suspects, would the apparently far more restrained and stately Piero della Francesca, who beyond his concern for transcendent forms knew a thing or two about the terrors of the world. Aldous Huxley famously described Piero’s Resurrection as the best picture ever painted, and while one may smile at the hyperbole, as indeed the author himself did, one understands the impulse that drove him to it.
By happy chance, the Resurrection (1468) and Rosso’s extraordinary Deposition from the Cross (1528) are both to be seen in Borgo San Sepolcro, the modest town in the province of Arezzo in eastern Tuscany where Piero was born in 1415, and where he died 77 years later. Many people, including myself, were travelling the Piero della Francesca Trail, beginning in Florence and ending at Rimini, long before the connoisseur and critic James Pope Hennessy gave a name to it by publishing a little book with that title in the early 1990s. Nowadays I follow a truncated version of the Trail, stopping short of Rimini and avoiding Florence.
Rimini as a town can boast of many delights, but of Piero it has only a curiously miniaturized Sigismondo Malatesta being glared at by his irascible-seeming namesake Saint Sigismund – in this time-damaged fresco the most pleasingly fashioned figure is the greyhound.
And Florence, ah, poor Florence, her impossibly narrow streets choked by traffic and tourists, is a city I have never managed to love.
So I start instead at Arezzo, with a ritual visit to Piero’s fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross, and end at the Ducal Palace in Urbino.
I say a “ritual visit” because, while I heartily acknowledge the greatness of the Legend – to do otherwise would render me ineligible to write an article such as this one – I view it with a certain reservation. For me it displays a number of Piero’s weaknesses, the main one being his tendency to drain his figures of an essential expressiveness, often paying more attention to their hats than to their faces. This is heresy, of course, but it does no harm, and may even effect a little good, to pitch a pinch of heretical salt now and then at those works of art which the world has agreed are beyond criticism.
So let us assume we have visited the Basilica of San Francesco and given ourselves a crick in the neck by following the stages of the Golden Legend from the Death of Adam, through the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and Constantine’s Dream – one of the first night scenes in the art of the West – to the Discovery and Proof of the True Cross and, at the last, the Annunciation. How apt that we should have had to view this master geometer’s great narrative, set out on its sheer and close-set walls, by squinting up at it from a succession of sharp angles.
Further along the Trail, after a half hour’s drive from Arezzo, I shall make a stop at Monterchi to pay homage at the slippered feet of the Madonna del Parto, which Piero completed in seven working days in or around 1460. I first saw this remarkable and enigmatic work when it was still housed in the little village church that in its sanctified simplicity was the perfect setting for it. In the 1990s, the Madonna and her canopy – one can almost hear the echo of a celestial drum roll at the drawing back of that fur-lined drapery – along with her pair of mirror-image angels, were transferred to a specially prepared museum that stands at an awkward road junction just outside the village; within this sanctum, the strictly controlled air conditioning makes a sinister hum, while in an adjoining room a short film on the life and work of Piero loops and loops throughout the day, like a serpent trying to bite the tip of its own tail. The atmosphere of the place is reverential, and also, sad to say, somewhat deadening.
Ahead, up a wonderful winding pine-fringed hill road, lies Urbino, where the Ducal Palace of Federico da Montefeltro, Piero’s patron, holds two of the artist’s finest works. One is the Flagellation of Christ, in which the frightful action that is the subject of the painting takes place in the background – Auden was right: about suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters – while in the foreground stand three mysterious gentlemen who seem caught in a moment of social embarrassment, as if conversation had lapsed, leaving them suddenly at a loss for something to talk about.
Kenneth Clarke, taking a leaf out of Huxley’s essay The Best Picture, held the Flagellation to be “the greatest smallpainting in the world.” [my italics] Great it certainly is, but it does not outshine that other superlative work from Piero’s hand, also in the Ducal Palace, which is the Madonna di Senigallia, with its angled light through the high windows at the left shining straight in from the Netherlands, and its four massive figures, including an impossibly hefty Infant Jesus perched on his mother’s arm, bodied forth with a solidity of form that Phidias himself would have recognized and approved. Piero’s work observes the requisite Christian pieties, but essentially he is a pagan artist.
From Urbino we must make our way back down that precipitous and rackety road to Sansepolcro, as the town now calls itself. Here, in the original Palazzo dei Conservatori, the present-day Civic Museum, we come face to face with Piero’s Resurrection.
And face to face we are. What is it about Piero’s faces? His men are as melancholy as Titian’s invariably sad-eyed kings and condottieri, while his Madonnas, who are all one Madonna, seem sunk in the sulks – recall Stanley Elkin’s gleefully blasphemous novel The Living End, in particular the section of it that is set in Heaven, in which the Virgin Mary has never forgiven God the Father for getting her pregnant by the agency of the Holy Ghost and thereby ruining her reputation in the village.
Piero invests his sculpted subjects with, as Huxley has it, “a natural, spontaneous, and unpretentious grandeur,” which is inexplicably affecting: we should not care for these people, stonily indifferent to all around them, including us, as they appear to be, and yet we do, we do care, to the point of terror, that terror which is a component of the sublime, in Edmund Burke’s conception of it.
In the Resurrection, Christ, as he steps up out of the sepulchre, seems to have but paused for a moment before coming to get us. This is not the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of our bedtime prayers, but the Commander-in-Chief of the Church Militant, and the banner he bears in his right hand might be a spear every bit as lethal as the one languishing in the sleeping sentry’s implausibly sturdy grasp. “Look at me, look at my wounds,” Our Saviour seems to say, “look what you, you sinners, have done to me!” Oh, yes, there will be Hell to pay. We flinch before that unflinching gaze, and remind ourselves that under the terms of Christ’s covenant to us, only those who love him with total selflessness and at the highest pitch of passion will be saved; the rest will be, in his eye, either Judas or Barabbas.
But what would Piero himself – the sentry in brown armour, second from the left, is said to be a self-portrait – say to all this? The Church in his own time wielded an iron fist in an iron glove, and was as fond of fiery retribution as its founder: think of Savonarola, think of Giordano Bruno; think of the thousands of other poor wretches, the nameless ones, consigned to the living flames. In a world ruled by cruelty, the fortunate ones turn their attention to the realm of the imagination and the mind. Piero’s contemporaries knew him as a mathematician and a geometer, and seem to have taken his frescoes more as demonstrations of abstract theories than as art for art’s sake. Certainly the hand of Euclid is everywhere evident in these works – consider the intricacy of the vanishing points in the Flagellation, the architectural solidity of the Madonna di Senigallia, the hierarchical triangular arrangement of the figures in the Resurrection.
Yet what artist would not wish his figures to live, however rigid the rules by which he manipulates them, however taut the strings that make them dance? The vital force in the Resurrection is the contrast between the vigour and might of the awakened God, and the pathos of the sentries at his feet, sprawled in the disarray of human, all too human sleep. What happens here is what happens in all great art: something, somehow, is transformed. As Rilke has it in his poem Archaic Torso of Apollo,
denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
The essence of art is change, transition, transmutation. In 1523 Rosso Fiorentino departed the city of his birth, the city from which he took his nickname, and set out for Rome, accompanied by an assistant, one Battistino, and a pet ape. Rosso was very fond of the ape, but the ape, it seems, only had eyes for the probably younger and more dashing Battistino.
The move to Rome had profound consequences, according to Vasari, who observed that “he who changes his … place of habitation seems to change his nature, talents, character, and personal habits, insomuch that sometimes he seems to be not the same man but another, and all dazed and stupefied.” What stupefied and dazed Rosso all the more was his encounter in Rome with the work of Michelangelo, which commanded him: Du mußt dein Leben ändern. And not only his life must he alter, but along with it his art. It was the birth of a Mannerist.
But it may have been another experience in the Eternal City that wrought the most radical transformation in Rosso’s view of the world, and of the manner in which art is made out of the things of the world. When in 1527 the mutinous soldiery of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked the city of Rome, “poor Rosso,” Vasari tells us, “was taken prisoner by the Germans and used very ill.” It is no accident, surely, that in his work from that time onwards, his figures fall back, pale and appalled, before the overwhelming onslaught of the world’s terrors. He still wants to make gorgeous objects, as is evident from the loving way in which he lays down his colours, those throbbing rusted reds and silver-blues and chocolatey browns, but always his demon whispers to him hoarsely – it is from laughing that he is hoarse – that the time is far too far out of kilter for the former verities, the old niceties, to obtain any longer.
Rosso’s mind is a madhouse and his task is to depict its inmates who are locked away there. In his Deposition of 1528 – barely a year after the Sack of Rome – which hangs in the church of San Lorenzo at Sansepolcro, those inmates have taken over. Compared with this work, his more famous version of the same subject, painted in Volterra in 1521, is positively sunny.
I first saw the Deposition one grey March afternoon a quarter of a century ago, when I travelled to Sansepolcro with two Italian friends to visit Piero’s fresco Resurrection. As we left the Museo Civico, my friend Max mentioned Rosso Fiorentino and asked if I had seen the work of his here in the town. To my embarrassment, I had to confess that I knew no more of Rosso than his name. So we turned off from the main square and walked a few hundred meters to the little Church of San Lorenzo, wedged into a corner of a narrow backstreet. As we entered there, I felt for a moment somewhat like Dante, passing as I was from Piero’s Easter Morning into Rosso’s infernal depths.
Rosso was born in Florence on March 8, 1494. It was a critical year generally for Italy and in particular for the Tuscan city state. Throughout the quattrocento, Florence had risen steadily in power and influence. Lorenzo de’ Medici, “Il Magnifico,” that great and wily diplomatist, had maintained a balance of power between the Italian states, but at his death in 1492 the fragile peace collapsed. Two years later, Charles VIII of France marched into Italy to lay claim to the kingdom of Naples. The ensuing turmoil did not end until 1559, with the treaty of Le Cateau-Cambrésis. Rosso lived all his life through a time of terror.
After his traumatic experiences in Rome in 1527 he fled to Perugia. On September 23 that year the Confraternity of Santa Croce in Florence commissioned him to paint a picture on the subject of the taking down of Christ’s corpse from the cross. During his lifetime he was to make at least three versions of the same scene, but the one that catches most terrifyingly the bloody horror of that moment of a darkling afternoon on Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, is without doubt the Sansepolcro Deposition.
At first, seen from the back of the dim little church, the Deposition might be a depiction of a mighty storm – a hard-edged Turner, perhaps – so tempestuous is the composition and so violent the dark-toned colours. The waxen figure of Christ, with his enormous, vaulted chest – Rosso obviously knew that crucifixion victims for the most part die from suffocation – set in the centre of the picture looks like a mummy stripped of its binding-cloth. Surrounding the Christus are a swirl of figures in varied extremes of sorrow and distress. The one that catches the eye, however, is the extraordinary, ape-like creature at the back, with a stave, or perhaps a spear, resting jauntily on his shoulder, and holding what seems to be a shield in his left hand. Who or what can he be? Is he the spirit of death, whom Rosso would remember stalking the streets of Rome in that terrible year of 1527? Or is he just the pet ape who was sweet on Battistino the apprentice?
The Deposition is one of the most appalling pictures ever painted. It combines horror, grief, fury, and an uncanny beauty, all under a patina of limpid colour and sumptuous textures – look at the gold cloth across the lap of the woman in the left lower foreground, or the elaborately folded turban of the old man who is trying to comfort Mary, the richness of which only adds to the horror of the scene.
As I stood speechless before the picture, the hairs bristling at the back of my neck, my friend Beatrice beckoned me forward to show me something – although a security barrier has since been erected, in those days one could still approach the picture to within touching distance. “Look,” she murmured, “it’s a – what do you call it? – a marguerite.” And sure enough, there it was, down in the extreme left-hand corner, a tiny, single, perfectly executed daisy. Gazing at it, I seemed to hear the dark laughter of Rosso’s ape-demon coming to me down through the centuries, and I thought of a couplet from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets:
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Beauty and terror: these are the poles not only of Rosso’s moment at the Place of the Skull, but also of Piero’s rendering of the first Easter Morning. Both scenes, after all, display Good Friday’s still bleeding wounds.
 for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life. (translation by the editors).