Piero Della Francesca: exploring a legend in Forli

Polyptych of the Misericordia

One of the many great joys of having an Italian wife is the not infrequent trips to see La Bella Italia. Recently that took me to the small, yet not all together uninteresting, city of Forli’. It’s not on the main tourist trail but it has in recent years been putting on a series of crowd pulling exhibitions. The present ‘Exploring a legend’ in the converted convent Dominican church and now Musei di San Domenico is on Piero della Francesca.

Our understanding and appreciation for Piero della Francesca owes a lot to Roberto Longhi. His 1927 monograph was instrumental in representing him as the leading painter of the Quattrocento. No less a figure than the late Lord Kenneth Clark of Civilisation opined that it could hardly be improved upon. It is classic of art-historical literature and crucially re-establishes Piero firmly as a painter rather than as the mathematical and geometrist to which Vasari had labelled him. Art lovers in the UK are fortunate indeed that the National Gallery in London has three of his works, including the superb Baptism of Christ.

There are just four works by Piero in the show – a small number compared to the large volume of canvasses displayed. That’s understandable given how few of his works can travel. The more observant art fan might recognise one of those as the recently cleaned St Jerome Panel from the Accademia in Venice. But the standout work which embodied the stillness and this unique ability to capture light in a moment of time was the central panel from Polyptych of the Misericordia, which I’ve chosen as picture above. The other two include the artist’s earliest-known work, a Madonna and Child framed by a window and St Apollonia from Washington.

What makes this exhibition work only really happens in just the first two rooms on the upper floor. Had that standard been the case over the whole show, then it would have been nothing short of magical. What happens here is to place the works of Piero into the context of his time and to see how he is imitated and built upon. It is strong company as Piero is placed alongside Renaissance heavyweights, including Fra Angelico’s colorful devotional scenes, Paolo Uccello’s geometrically precise altar pieces, Da Messina, Lippi and others. As a more upbeat review in the WSJ attests, the idea is to show the growth of a ‘cultura pierfrancescana’ throughout Italy, as far north as Venice and, as far south as Sicily.

The later rooms attempt, in my view not very successfully, to link Piero to present day. How do you separate out della Francesca rather than other influences? Much of what is displayed doesn’t work – despite canvasses by Degas and Seurat, I fail to see the thread which links them. If there is a link it might be so gossamer thin as to have all the translucent quality of a fishing line – yet none of its durability. There is a connection with some of the monumental Italian canvasses, such Silvana Cenni by Felice Casorati, but they just do little for me. It was notable how quickly the other visitors breezed through these later sections. You can however make the most of this by also seeing a sensational statue of Hebe by Canova from the permanent collection.

If you believe, as I do, that time is the great sieve of quality; then Piero has nothing to fear. Quality will out. All it took was Longhi to make us see that. He can stand alone and needs no link with the present day. In any case it’s not established on the basis of these canvasses. What’s significant is both the quality of works and his impact on those who came immediately after him. That’s especially true of the superb Pieta’ by Bellini lent by the Vatican, which you can see for yourself below. I can’t wait to do the ‘Piero trail’ next year…!

Bellini lamentation


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