During October last year Norrie and I went to Italy. I have a long held affection for Italy because as a family we spent several holidays there when I was a child. However, all that is long ago and as we always went to the same place, there are many parts of the country I havent seen. It is not an orginal idea that painters thrive on all there is to see in Italy! It is so rich in cultural history that on occasions it feels like walking through a 3D History of Art lecture. I had been to Venice on a Titian trail when still at Art School, Rome with Norrie to look at Caravaggio and once or twice to Florence but I have never been to the Piero della Francesca area of eastern Tuscany and so was very excited to be asked to go just there by a beekeeping friend of Norrie’s.
Piero della Francesca rather frightened me during my art education. I think it was something to do with the sort of people who admire his painting. Ernest mathematicians rave about the proportions and so coming from a hothouse home town, I was sure I wasn’t clever enough to understand the rather stiff painting where figures gaze out in an other world stare. In preparation I noticed that Iris Murdock had taken a detour to Sansepolcro to see the Resurrection, that Aldous Huxley had described the same painting as the Best painting in the World and that British Army officer Tony Clarke, having read the Huxley essay, had delayed the allied advance allowing the Germans to withdraw without bombardment and making sure that the painting remained undamaged. These snippets of information reinforced both the conviction that these were difficult paintings but also filled me with excitement and anticipation in equal measure.
Sansepolcro was our local town and so it was on the first day that we needed to shop and I was able to gratify my curiosity. The paintings are not held in the cathedral as I expected but in the Museo Civico which was being refurbished. As time goes by I find that when looking at painting it is more rewarding to look at few for longer, not tramping the pavement from show to show as I did as an art student. Looking harder and for longer is even more rewarding with a sketchbook to enable careful consideration and makes looking at painting very exciting. So I went equipped with small notebook and great curiosity.
On that day the first picture I looked at was Polyptych of Misericordia or the The Madonna of Mercy. The picture is of the madonna with arms outstretched embracing her flock, the body of the church. Composed of circles, parts of circles and ellipses it gives a very clear message of the role of Mary within the faith of the fifteenth century. I went to Sansepolcro on that day with people who have a Christian faith, something I don’t share. It is interesting to look at an image conceived to communicate a message that doesn’t connect with your own convictions. But the fascinating thing is that the human quality of the portraits and the geometry makes the painting both accessible, universal and tender. I loved it.