Piero della Francesca in America

The Frick Collection


12 February to 19 May 2013


For those of you in the NYC area, there’s a most unusual and wonderful small exhibition at the Frick, Piero della Francesca in America.  Piero (1411/13–1492) was a Quattrocento painter who was heir to DomenicoVeneziano’s manifestation of the early Renaissance in Florence.  (Piero, whose home was in the Tuscan town of Borgo Santo Sepolcro [now Sansepolcro, worked for Domenico in Florence in the 1440s.)  While a bit later in the Italian Renaissance than my sweet spot (the first two or three decades of the Quattrocento in Florence  is for me one of the most exciting moments in all of the history of art, and produced work [e.g., Donatello, Masaccio, Brunelleschi] that I have cherished and studied extensive.  [Those of you not already familiar with it—or who are heading to Florence at some point—may want to check out my extensive Guide to Florence, on my website, www.RLRubens.com, Under “Travel,” “Italy.”]), Piero used his exquisite sense of color and light to create, in an accurately perspectival world, figures of great power, presence, and psychological sophistication.  This show at the Frick has seven paintings by Piero.


On the off-chance you do not know the Frick, this exhibit provides an excuse for you to rectify that bad oversight on your part.  The Frick Collection is housed in the 1913-14 mansion (at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue) done by Carrière & Hastings (the Beaux-Arts architects most famous for their turn of the century design of the NY Public Library) as the residence for Henry Clay and Adelaide Childs Frick—and importantly re-designed as a museum by the even more renowned John Russell Pope in 1931-35 (perhaps most famous for the Jefferson Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC).  The beautiful, glass-roofed interior courtyard, with its central fountain, is one of the most serenely beautiful spaces in NYC [q.v., the Frick’s online virtual tour of it].  The Frick’s collection is very small, but it contains major paintings by Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, Hals, Rubens, van Ruisdael, Turner, and Whistler, among others.




Piero della Francesca in America, organized by Nathaniel Silver, brings together six of the seven extant panels from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece (a large polyptych commissioned in 1454 and completed in 1469, originally in the Augustinian church in Borgo Santo Sepolcro, until it was disassembled ca. 1555), the largest number from this important work ever assembled for an exhibition.  The seventh painting in the show is the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels.  [You can view online images from the show on the Frick’s website, or you can see individual images (and brief discussions from the Frick) by clicking on the titles in the descriptions below.]


There are two large full length figures from the upper tier of the altarpiece.  The first is of the church’s patron saint, Saint Augustine (Augustine of Hippo, 354-430), who was the inspiration for the Augustinian order.  (For those of you who do not know, Augustine was an amazingly interesting figure.  His Confessions make rather wonderful reading, not least because in it he recounts his personal journey to the Church: before receiving his calling, Augustine was a noted whoremaster and reprobate, who [in Book VII] recalls his famous prayer: “God grant me chastity...but not yet.”  When finally ready for it, he eventually becomes an important theologian and philosopher—a major source of bringing the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus into Christianity.)  The painting, Saint Augustine, was done in oil and tempera on poplar panel, and is part of the collection of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.  Augustine’s face is fabulous—suggesting the depth, intensity and grandeur of the man; his vestments emphasize opulence and importance.  It is heavily restored, and suffers from an extremely high-gloss varnish.  His mantle is edged with fascinating scenes from the life of Jesus, from the annunciation to the crucifixion; and these small, almost impressionistic evocations of the scenes depicted are the most wonderful aspect of this monumental figure.




The other full length figure is the elderly Saint John the Evangelist, in oil and tempera with traces of gold on poplar panel, from The Frick Collection.  It is in what I find to be a better state of restoration.  He is a far more contemplative person, pictured reading a book—although the presence of so many books in all of these paintings is most certainly a reference to the scholarly attributes of Augustine, to whom the church was dedicated.  Most fascinating is the depth and sculptural power of the folds of St John’s robes—making me certain that Piero must have been familiar with the Campanile sculptures of prophets (and especially Il Popolano) by Donatello in Florence, which from me is quite a compliment to Piero (although to be accurate, I must add that the underlying physical presence of the man beneath the drapery does not have sculptural presence found in Donatello’s works).  (I know of no other of Piero’s works that have this level of intensity in their drapery, by the way.)




All four of the smaller paintings in the show are described in the Frick Website as having, “gold backgrounds, identifying them as panels that decorated the frame of the Sant’Agostino altarpiece. Its gilded surfaces reflected the candlelight, making these figures appear as divine visions within a glittering surround.”   All four are done in oil and tempera with gold on poplar panels. The first three of these wonderful works are in the permanent collection of the Frick.


The first, Saint Monica, is of Augustine’s mother!  It is quite wonderful.  I can’t help wondering, though, how the sourness of her countenance may relate to her disapproval of her son’s earlier hedonistic adventures:  she is said to have been credited for bringing about his “salvation” from his former life of sin by her prayers.  In relation to this, it should be noted that the white scroll she is displaying is the Order’s rules of conduct!




The Crucifixion, is a quite beautiful work which would have been located directly below the central image, now lost.




The unknown man in Augustinian habit, is speculatively identified as Saint Leonard (?).  It is noteworthy for the personality that is evident in the face.




The only of the four not part of the Frick’s permanent collection is the Saint Apollonia, which comes from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  Apollonia is beautiful in her virginal innocence, holding one of her teeth in the tongs in her right hand.  (In her martyrdom, her teeth were broken to torment her.  The Frick Website speculates that, “Light falls across Apollonia from the left, not the right as in the other paintings. This suggests that she was located on the side of the frame where she may have been illuminated by sunlight from a rear window.”




The only painting not from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece is the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, 1460–70, an oil (and tempera?) on poplar panel, transferred to fabric on panel, from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown.  It is a compete altarpiece in itself,  intended for a church or a private residence.  We found this to be the least interesting piece in the show




To have all this work by Piero della Francesca in New York for our viewing pleasure is a rare treat, and I urge you to take advantage of it.


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