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James Watson

Watsonworks

Masterpiece &
Mystery

• We know who painted it


• Approximately when
• More or less where

But The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca


(1413/20c-1492) continues to mystify
Exhibited in the ducal palace in Urbino, central Italy, is a painting which
has been the focus of more critical attention and conjecture than perhaps
any other in the history of art.

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Painted by Piero della Francesca, The Flagellation is a masterpiece and a
conundrum, domestically small in size, monumental in its spatial effect.
There was no evidence of its existence before 1744 when it appears in
the inventory of the sacristy of the cathedral of Urbino.

Its frame was lost; indeed so was the painting, in 1979, or rather
stolen, then returned by the thieves once a ransom had been paid.

The painting has suffered damage: the wood surface is split in three
places and has undergone restorations in 1951-2 and 1966-7. It has
even been the subject of attack, the name ‘Maria’ scratched into the
lower left corner. For all that, few works of art are so worth a
pilgrimage as this one.

At least we have a signature, rare for Piero. On the base of Pilate’s


throne is written OPUS PETRI DE BURGOS SCI SEPULCRI. The lost
frame is said to have carried an inscription from the 2nd Psalm,
‘convenerunt in unum’ (the rulers take counsel together).

Getting there
Visitors to Urbino will probably already have seen Piero’s frescoes in
the church of San Francesco in Arezzo,
and they will still be in a state of stunned
awe after inspecting The Cycle of The
True Cross.

Even today Urbino is not easy to get to:


a car is a must; but the town is striking,
clambering over two hills and down
wooded valleys. It is dominated by the
legacy of the legendary Montrefeltro
family whose court was the model for
Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the
Courtier (1528).

Duke Federico, condottiere, patron of the


arts, was probably a friend of Piero. He commissioned the artist to
paint the Triumphs diptych, portraits of Federico and his wife Battista
(Uffizo, Florence), and the Montefeltro Altarpiece (Brera, Milan).

Two scenes in one


The ducal palace, now the National Gallery of the Marches, houses
a single example of Piero’s work. A mere 58 x 81 centimetres, The
Flagellation was plainly intended to be hung in a domestic interior.

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It records record both a profoundly significant event in the history of
Christianity and another, in the foreground, that is more personal; a
situation relating to the times in which the picture was painted.

The Flagellation has prompted differences of opinion over when Piero


painted it, but this we do know: Piero was in Urbino in 1469. He was
there to discuss the completion of an altar painting for the Corpus
Domini brotherhood. This had been begun by Paolo Uccello (1196/7-
1475) and seems not have pleased the brothers.

We also know that Duke Federico (left) visited Piero’s


home town of San Sepolcro in 1470. It is
likely they met on both occasions, though
there is no actual evidence to suggest that
The Flagellation was commissioned by, or for,
the Duke.

Conjectures and clues


So we are guessing, and will probably continue to
guess, who was the donor of the painting and
for whom it was intended; though there have
been plenty of theories.

We are obliged to fall back on the clues we can decipher in the picture,
the main mystery of which is the connection (if there is a connection)
between the event – the flagellation of Christ – taking place to our left
and the three, seemingly unrelated and unidentified, figures to our
right.

In Piero della Francesca (1) Alessandro Angelini puts the matter


simply, though not too helpfully: ‘This painting contains subtle
references to the situation of the time, which is very difficult for us to
understand today.’

The figures to our right seem to exist in a separate dimension, but


Piero’s miraculous use of perspective ties the two scenes into a
common experience: while the time zones differ, the location is
shared.

There is no controversy about the subtle complexities of the painting;


indeed as Marilyn Aronberg Lavin says in her 2002 study of Piero (2),
the spatial environment created by Piero is ‘so complex that it was not
fully understood until the 1950s’.

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Postural replications
In addition to the unifying element of perspective, we soon note
resemblances between the two sets of figures in terms of posture and
positioning:

The central figure in the scene to the right rests on his right foot, his
left a step forward (contrapposto). This echoes both the Christ figure
and the bronze statue on the column behind Christ.

Also, the figure with his back to us in the Flagellation scene (see the
full picture on page 1) not only stands in the same manner as the
bearded figure wearing the mushroom-shaped goatskin hat in the right
grouping but their hand gestures, with upturned palms, mirror each
other.

It could be argued that the far right figure, in profile, bears a


resemblance to the flagellator to Christ’s right. My own earliest theory
of explanation was that the three figures to the right were, in the
context of their own time, involved in a conspiracy paralleling Christ’s
own betrayal. This interpretation, compared with others, is no longer
convincing.

As Birgit Laskowski (3) points out, ‘No other work by Piero is


surrounded by such a range of interpretations’, but she observes that
in Renaissance art ‘figures in the foreground increasingly took on the
roles of commentators, witnesses and mediators between the observer
and the events in the picture’.

The Ginsburg take


Carlo Ginzburg is only one of many academic sleuths who have set out
to unravel the mystery, and his exposition takes the form of a full-
length book, The Enigma of Piero: Piero della Francesca (4). The
Introduction by Peter Burke is actually subtitled, ‘Carlo Ginzburg, art
detective’.

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The author is referred to as a ‘plain’ historian rather than an art
historian. The benefit, as Burke sees it, ‘shows the advantage of taking
art history away from the art historians (or to be fairer and more
exact, of sharing it with them)’; meaning that generalists such as
Ginzburg might approach analysis from a broader field of knowledge.

Ginzberg’s particular focus is to examine context, specifically the


nature and practice of art patronage. As he says in his Preface, his
perspective is two-fold:

I am concerned with their [the pictures’] commissioning and


with their iconography. I say nothing of the strictly formal
aspects of the paintings, for, being a historian rather than
an art historian, I lack the qualifications to do so.

Needless to say, Ginzburg’s speculations have provoked dissent,


mainly because of his tendency to elide fact with conjecture. He even
purports to tell the reader what one of the three figures to our right is
saying to the other two! Again, to be fair, he does refer to his own
‘chain of conjectures’.

As one might expect, Burke says Ginzburg’s ‘hypotheses are at once


ingenious, economical and plausible’. In contrast, John Pope-Henessy
in The Piero della Francesca Trail (5) talks of ‘a mythomaniacal study,
filled with imaginary history, by Carl Ginsberg’.

The identification of the figures on the right of the picture is what


divides commentators. One claim has been that the central figure is
Duke Oddantonio, half-brother
and predecessor of Federico,
between two evil
councillors.The explanation,
coming from the 18th century,
is no longer given credence.

Familiar faces
Ginsburg’s thesis does sound
more plausible, at least in his
identification of the figure on
the far right, in profile; a
figure that he argues also
makes an appearance in Piero’s Madonna of the Misericordia
(Pinacoteca, Sansepolcro) and again in profile standing to the left of
Chosroes in The Victory of Heraclius in The Legend of the True Cross
(S. Francesco, Arezzo).

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Left, The Misericordia; right, The Execution of Chosroes

Ginsburg argues that we are seeing in The


Flagellation three generations of the same
family, the Baccis, patrons first to the artist Bicci di Lorenzo, then to
Piero; whose purse and desire for immortality through art, made the
Arezzo frescoes possible.

He is most certain about naming Giovanni Bacci as


the figure in profile, conforming as the painting
does to the tradition of representing the donor in
the picture he has paid for.

Ginsburg is of the view that The Flagellation could


have been commissioned by Giovanni and
presented as a gift to Duke Federico.

The enigma persists


The figures are standing together, but they seem to be staring past
each other rather than communicating; and isn’t the barefoot figure in
the centre rather more like an angel, or a
ghost, than a living person – an Arcadian as
Kenneth Clark (6) described him?

I have a reproduction of this picture in my


bedroom and there is scarcely a day goes by
without my spotting something I’d not noticed
before. Usually it is an observation without
explanation. My original interpretation, before
reading Ginzburg’s conjectural identification of
the Baccis, was that what is happening in the

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scene on the right, is a replication, symbolically related to the
Flagellation scene.

This remains a probability, but the motivation is not betrayal but


something much more affirmative.

Economies of composition; echoes and resemblances


A dilemma Piero presents us with is whether we are considering style
or content. One of the artist’s abiding characteristics is his re-use,
often in the same work, of similar gestures, postures and positioning.
James Beck (7) says, ‘Piero, like figural artists of every generation,
reused his own inventions time and time again’.

A perfect example of this is to be


found in The Madonna del Parto, of the
birth (Museum, Monterchi), left, where
the posture of the angels is replicated,
though in reverse.

Even so, knowing as we do the


thought that went into Piero’s
creations, we can surmise that his
echoed postures concerned meaning
as well as compositional convenience.

Of course in searching for clues we can


also be misled by resemblances.
Across the canon of Piero’s work
similar faces recur time and again.

The right hand figure in profile, dressed in the


blue velvet gown, may look like Ginzburg’s
Giovanni Bacci as represented in other works by
Piero, but the identification does not explain the
picture.

Indeed it has to be asked why a member of the


Bacci family in faraway Arezzo should ommission
a painting for the Montelfetro family in the first
place.

Just the same, Philip Hendy (8) says it is ‘hard to


believe that it was not painted either for Federico
or for some member of his court’.

Further clues

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Focus for a moment on the bearded figure in the right grouping. He is
exotically dressed in the tradition of Christianity’s Byzantine empire.

This demonstrates an abiding interest of Piero – his use of styles of


dress and head gear which he had seen displayed in Florence when
representatives of the Eastern and Western churches, faced with the
prospect of a Turkish invasion of the East, met in counsel in 1439.

Piero was at the time assisting Domencio Veneziano (d. 1461) in


painting frescoes in the church of St. Egidio. The event brought about
little reconciliation and no solution but its splendour remained in the
memories of all those present to witness it – most of all, the artists.

In the words of Marilyn Lavin:

The streets were full of crowds of pompous council


members from both sides of the table. John Paleologus,
the reigning Byzantine emperor, along with many Eastern
church officials and their attendants, could be inspected at
close range in all their grand regalia. Costume sketches
made at meetings and processions left deep marks on the
Italian sartorial imagination for many generations to
come.

The mushroom hat of the bearded figure in The Flagellation has an


exact predecessor in The Exultation of the True Cross in the Arezzo
frescoes; and there is
more than a passing
resemblance to the
purple-gowned Bishop
Zacharias.

Detail, Exultation
of the True Cross,
Arezzo frescoes

Lavin suggests that


‘Along with artists such
as Pisanello, Piero must
have made notes’ of the
Greeks’ extraordinary
appearance, for later in his career some ‘of his most compelling figures
wear the coloured coats, with extended sleeves, and exotic hats and
scarves of the Eastern visitors’.

The style of Greek dress is visually arresting, but its longevity is of


special significance. The Greeks had maintained the same style for

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centuries, suggesting a connection both with the Roman world and the
days of Christ.

Jane Bridgeman contributes a fascinating chapter on dress in Piero’s


work, in the Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca (9),
stating that ‘Piero’s manipulation of dress for iconographic purposes is
exceptionally eloquent’ and this ‘is nowhere more apparently
perplexing’ than in The Flagellation.

Piero’s use of Byzantine clothing is, believes Bridgeman, not about


historical accuracy but ‘a means by which he could imbue his subject
matter with an aura of antiquity and dignity’; the quest for a sense of
timelessness.

Silks for status


Bridgeman dismisses claims by some commentators that luxurious
garments featured in Piero’s works are Flemish in origin; rather, silk-
weaving thrived in Florence and Venice.

However, ‘In mercantile republics such as Florence and Venice the


public use of splendid silks by wealthy private citizens was ideologically
suspect, a stance reflected in public art, where male donors in
particular are always dressed in garments of woollen cloth, and even
saints are dressed modestly’.

Where costly silk flourishes is in paintings ‘from other areas of Italy


and notably from princely courts: Mantegna’s portrayal of the Gonzaga
court is an obvious
example’; and of course,
silk features in Piero’s
rendering of the
encounter between the
Queen of Sheba and King
Solomon in the Arezzo
frescoes (left).

In short, silk signifies


aristocratic, courtly
status; or that of high-
ranking officials. The long
gown, or vestito, ‘was
worn in Italy for events
of significance’; the wide sleeves and open cuffs were ‘perceived as
conferring dignity’.

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The portraitist
It is useful to remind ourselves at this point what a great portraitist
Piero was. The fact that so many faces in his work are familiar to us
may suggest that what we are seeing are not merely archetypes, but
real people.

We can hazard guesses that in several of the artist’s works he includes


a self portrait: is the kneeling figure, full face upturned, beneath the
Madonna’s sheltering cloak in the Misericordia altarpiece (below, left) a
portrait of the artist; is it Piero we see in the Arezzo frescoes in the
guise of a groom in Sheba Worships the Wood of the True Cross?

Is the sleeping soldier in The Resurrection (Pinacoteca, San Sepolcro)


a self portrait?

Sleeping soldier,
Resurrection (San Sepolcro)

If the probability is yes, then we are justified


in seeking out other portraits of real people,
their identities now forgotten.

Let us return, then, to the figures to the right


of the Flagellation scene and focus on the
barefoot, blond youth, his head framed in the
deep green of laurel leaves.

He is not of this world, not any longer, but he


seems to be the subject of the discourse between the older men: they
talk across him, but about him. Could this be a scene about loss and
consolation?

Companions in sorrow
Marian Lavin (10) makes a confident identification of
the two men. She points us towards a bronze bust of

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Lodovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, attributed to Donatello and
wrought between 1445 and 1447.

There is definitely a resemblance between the Donatello profile (above


left) and Piero’s figure to the right of the group. He is lavishly clad in
silk, appropriately for an aristocrat and a member of a princely court.

A clue to the identity of the left figure is the black hair and forked
beard. In Italian barba nera is the name for an astrologer. According
to Lavin, the man in discourse with
Lodovico is Ottaviano Ubaldini,
nephew and prime minister to
Federico Montefeltro.

Her justification? – the


connections between Mantua and
Urbino in the 15th century, via
marriages, business and
friendships.

Ludovico and Ottaviano met at


school and throughout their lives they corresponded with one another.
A humanist, intellectual and well-known astrologer, Ottaviano was
selected to cast the horoscope for the consummation of the union
between the Gonzaga’s granddaughter and Federico’s son, Guidobaldo
da Montefeltro.

Lavin next points out that the two men ‘were companions in sorrow’,
for in 1458 Ottaviano’s teenage son and heir, Bernardino, died of the
plague after a visit to Naples. In Ludovico’s case, there was another
death of a young boy, Vangelista, his dead brother’s son and
Ludovico’s favourite of all the children at his court.

Lavin quotes the court chronicler’s description of Vangelista. He was


‘blond and beautiful beyond belief, so beautiful that everyone spoke of
it’. He was sixteen. Between 1458 and 1460 Vangelista contracted a

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disease from which he suffered for two years: ‘It left him monstrously
crippled and incapacitated, and caused him to lose all his beauty.’

Lavin affirms, ‘The painting shows the two men searching for
consolation’. She refers to the ‘unearthly gaze’ of the blond youth in
the painting:

He is an allegory of the beloved son who, they must


believe, will overcome physical decay, as Christ overcame
his physical torment. As Christ remains unblemished by
his Flagellation, so the memorial of the worldly son is
whole and beautiful. As Christ is surmounted by a
triumphal column with a statue signifying glory, so the
allegory of the beloved son is wreathed in laurel by the
distant tree behind the wall.

Lavin concludes, ‘The subject of the painting


is thus not a simple Flagellation but a
message of consolation’. Philip Hendy had
earlier confirmed his opinion of the allegorical
nature of the painting, suggesting that a
better title for it would be, An Allegory, with
the Flagellation of Christ.

The church in peril


A parallel narrative which does not
exclude Lavin’s interpretation carries
us out into the realm of politics and
religion, allowing us to conjecture about the quotation from
the second psalm reported to have been on the missing
picture frame – ‘convenerunt in unum’, ‘the rulers take counsel
together’.

Birgit Laskowski writes:

Here the quotation could be interpreted with two


meanings: in the rear part of the painting, Christ’s
enemies are gathering, and in the foreground the princes
of Italy are gathering in order to oppose the threat to
Christianity presented by the Turks.

Laskowski refers to the policies of Federico Montefeltro in around 1470


which ‘were chiefly aimed at finally dissolving the estranged league of
the various Italian royal houses and founding a new one during the
following years.

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‘By the spring of 1470, the prerequisites for a new Italian league had
been fulfilled and the princes had “taken counsel together”.’ All these
aspects suggest, writes Laskowski, ‘that The Flagellation dates from
about or after 1470’.

This could be regarded as a viable secondary text, though the theme


of ‘taking counsel together’ does not explain the existence of the
ethereal blond youth, unless, of course, he, like Christ, is a symbol of
the vulnerable Christian church.

Both these explanations relate to context, Lavin’s more specific, more


personalised than Laskowski’s; more attuned to the spiritual. She
writes of the laurel leaves that surround the youth’s head removing
him ‘to a symbolic realm’ as the personification of the beloved son,
‘who, like Christ will rise to glory, helped by the love and
remembrance of those who pray for him and for themselves’.

Lavin writes:

The enigmatic separation of the two groups of figures…


serves a quite specific purpose. Piero lavished his
considerable mathematic skills on the little panel to create a
compelling pictorial space for a work of private devotion and
remembrance, whose theme is consolation.

The Flagellation as art


May the conjecturing about identity and message continue, though we
might usefully keep in mind Pope-Hennessy’s comment towards the
end of The Piero della Francesca Trail. Referring to his ‘own heterodox
view’ the author declares that ‘Piero’s paintings, great works as they
are, represent no more than they appear to represent and mean no
more than they appear to mean’.

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Which suggests that we can return to The Flagellation and simply get
on with delighting in factors that are no enigma, simply artistic
pleasure: the creation of space, the light, the brilliance of the colour.

The masterly use of perspective turns a flat surface into an experience


of depth in which we can move and breath. In the words of Lavin, the
composition of The Flagellation is ‘one of the most complex
architectural settings of the fifteenth century’. Pilate’s house is a
palace, full of the classical detail that was to become characteristic of
Renaissance architecture.

However, as Lavin points


out, ‘at the time of the
paintings this advanced form
of classical style existed only
in theory. Nothing of the sort
had yet been built’.

If there is mystery
concerning the painting’s
narrative connection
between the figures in The
Flagellation there is also
remarkable clarity.

Lavin writes:

What Piero did was quite astonishing. He made it


possible to discover the totally rational construction
that makes an unnatural phenomenon look real.

Anthony Bertram (11) concedes that explanation will always be


conjecture, but admiringly concludes:

The mystery of the whole picture remains, a mystery


within a form of absolute clarity; a form which we can
only enter as into a crystal silence where all our
speculations are inadequate: the picture exists in its
own power and we must be content to accept it.

***

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This paper is selected and adapted from the author’s full work,
Piero della Francesca: A Journey Through His Art, available as
a text-disc.

REFERENCES

(1) Angelini, Alessandro, Piero della Francesca (Italy: Scala, 1985).


(2) Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg, Piero della Francesca (UK:
Thames and Hudson, 1992).
(3) Laskowski, Birgit, Piero della Francesca 1416/17-
1492, translated from the German by Fiona Hulse (Germany:
Konemann, 1998).
(4) Ginsburg, Carlo, The Enigma of Piero: Piero della
Francesca (UK/US: Verso, 2000).
(5) Pope-Hennessy, John, The Piero della Francesca Trail
(UK/US: Thames and Hudson, 1992; The Little
Bookroom,2002).
(6) Clark, Kenneth, Piero della Francesca (UK: Monograph,
1951; Phaidon, 2nd edition, 1969).
(7) Beck, James H. Italian Renaissance Painting (US/UK:
Harper and Row, 1981).
(8) Hendy, Philip, Piero della Francesca and the Early
Renaissance (UK: Weidefeld and Nicolson, 1968).
(9) Wood, Jeryldene M, (ed), The Cambridge Companion
to Piero della Francesca (US/UK: Cambridge University Press,
2002).
(10) Lavin,Marilyn Aronberg, Piero della Francesca (UK/US:
Phaidon Press, 2002).
(11) Anthony Bertram, Supportive Notes, Master Painters
3: Piero della Francesca, Slidestrip History of Western Art,
Visual Publications (UK: 1968 and 1997).

PIERO: A BRIEF CHRONOLOGY


*Dates that are documented.

Born in Sansepolcro (1415-20) Works with Domenico Veneziano in Florence


(1439)*
Paints Baptism of Christ (1440)* National Gallery, London
Signs contract for Polyptych of the Misericordia (1445)* Municipal Art
Gallery, Sansepolcro
St. Jerome and Donor (1445-48), Accademia, Venice; and work on the
Misericordia

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Lost frescoes in Ferrara (1449)
Penance of St. Jerome (1450)* State Museum, Berlin
Sigismondo Malatesta and St. Sigismond (1451)* Malatestiano, Rimini;
Portrait of Sigismondo, Louvre, Paris
The Flagellation (1552), National Gallery of the Marches, Urbino; further
work on Polyptych

First frescoes of The Legend of The True Cross in San Francesco, Arezzo
(1452-56); Madonna del Parto (1455), Monterchi
Frescoes in the Vatican, Rome, now lost (1458-59)*
Piero’s mother dies (6 November 1459)
Completion of The Legend of The True Cross (1462-64) and of the St.
Anthony Polyptych, (465-70), National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia
Diptych of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino (1465), Uffizi, Florence
St. Augustine Polyptych (1465-70)
Madonna of Senigallia (1470-72), National Gallery of the Marches, Urbino
The Pala Montefeltro: Madonna and Child, Angels, Saints and Federico
Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1472-74), Brera
Gallery, Milan
Madonna and Child Enthroned with Four
Angels (1475-82), Clark Art Institute,
Williamstown, USA
The Adoration of the Child (1475), National
Gallery, London
Piero concentrates on his theories, Trattato del
abaco (on arithmetic), Libellus de quinque
corporibus regolaribus (on solid geometry),
dedicated to Guidobaldo, son of Montefeltro, and De
Perspectiva Pingendi (on the theory of perspective
in painting)
Piero dies in Sansepolcro, 12 October 1492.

Detail, Prophet, Arezzo frescoes

About the author


James Watson has had a lifelong love of Italian
Renaissance art. While working with the British Council in
Milan he wrote on contemporary Italian artists for Studio
magazine. Later, as a journalist, he
wrote art reviews and profiles of
artists. He became a teacher in
further and higher education and
has had several books published,
fiction and academic. For further
information, see his website:
www.Watsonworks.co.uk. You
can follow his blog on the arts,
literature, film and media at
Watsonworksblog.blogspot.com.

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***

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