Cognoscenti 94 : Reading Piero

Travellers joining us to visit the world of Piero della Francesca in September have been asking if we might recommend reading. Where do you start? One recent book, which I do recommend here to the serious enquirer, has itself a “select bibliography” which runs to 14 pages! Well here are a few, very varied, personal encounters you may choose to follow up. (The city pictured by Piero above is his hometown, Borgo Sansepolcro, which we will be visiting.)

There are picture books and introductory guide-books to the paintings, there are general biographies, and then there are original and particular explorations (like the little Piero and His City by Luigi Andreini).

Pictorial guides are perhaps best found at the locations, their reproductions reminding us of what we’ve been looking at. The lower book on the left, however, is not. It is a heavy, majestic volume which might threaten a lightweight coffee table and certainly your baggage allowance. It is the fully explained and wonderfully photographed record of Piero della Francesca: The Legend of the True Cross in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo. Written by top experts including the superintendent of their restoration (Carlo Bertelli and Anna Maria Maetzke), published by Skira Editore in 2001, its 278 hardback pages are in print at around £40. A beautiful book back home, to remind you of what you saw in this one building in Arezzo, and be the envy of your friends who leaf through it on your coffee table.

For the proper, rounded life-and-work, an expert account by Marilyn Aronberg-Lavin, Piero della Francesca (Phaidon, 2002, paperback around £18) follows the well-known book by Kenneth Clark – same publisher, same simple title, 65 years earlier but still accessible. However two other new books are very interesting. James Banker’s  Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man, (Oxford UP, 2014 about £20 hardback) and Larry Witham’s Piero’s Light: In Search of Piero Della Francesca: A Renaissance Painter and the Revolution in Art, Science, and Religion (Pegasus, 2015 paperback at around £11). Both of these books locate Piero, rather differently but very well, in his cultural context. Banker is a serious Piero scholar. Witham’s attempts to see Piero himself as scholar as much as painter and to draw lines of inspiration through subsequent centuries up to modern neuro-science I find less convincing.

Then there are the odd treats for those who like a bit more, and each of these, unlike the above, fits in the pocket.

John Pope-Henessy’s lectures, The Piero della Francesca Trail (Thames & Hudson, 1991), interesting not least for its contrarian view on the Flagellation in Urbino. It is not too easy to find, but it has been reprinted with the Aldous Huxley Piero essay “The Best Picture” (Little Bookroom, New York, 2005). Hubert Damisch’s A Childhood Memory by Piero della Francesca (Stanford University Press, 2007) is a post-modern echo of Freud on Leonardo, and a read not undertaken lightly. Keith Christiansen’s little Personal Encounters is a Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue (NY, 2014, c.£13) and very particular. The picture on his cover (seen at the start of this post, S. Girolamo and a donor) and a very early Madonna and child are subjects of two of his four nice brief essays. Both these (small, minor) paintings are currently exhibited in a show in Italy which I discuss elsewhere, and one of the essays is published by that exhibition online.

The great Carlo Ginzburg‘s Enigma of Piero (Verso, 2002, in print paperback c. £18) is personal, provocative and brilliant sleuthing. (I have my own thoughts on ‘enigmas’ here.) Much more simply, Luigi Andreini brings his subject home in Piero and His City; it is slight but of real local interest and, I think, only available in Sansepolcro itself (introduced by James Banker and translated by Maureen Banker).

Finally, to put our understanding of Piero in a greater context, a book which, a generation ago, revisioned how we looked at such things is Michael Baxandall’s classic Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, (Oxford UP , paperback 1988, today around £8), and a fine more contemporary context is painted by Evelyn Welch’s Art in Renaissance Italy 1350-1500, (Oxford UP, paperback, 2000 £16 and not to be confused with John T. Paoletti’s oft reprinted book of the same title).

But hang on, this isn’t a course to be tested – it’s a holiday, and there’s certainly no need to do homework. The tales of the different works will be discussed when we get there, but most importantly they will all come alive in our experiencing them, in the places where Piero himself lived and worked, and still today a world away from the mass throngs of tourists.

Oh, and then, of course, there’s the imagination of novelists and filmmakers – you remember Juliette Binoche swinging on a rope from the Arezzo rafters in The English Patient? This rather different story is found here!


8 March 2016, slightly updated 1 August 2016.


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