On 7 December 2018, Russian Orthodox St Catherine’s Day, the monographic exhibition Piero della Francesca opens in the State Hermitage, bringing together works by one of the most celebrated 14th-century masters from art collections in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Britain.
The exhibition provides a rare opportunity for people to acquaint themselves with this artist’s oeuvre, as there are no works by Piero della Francesca in Russian museum collections. The majority of the master’s important paintings are in Italy, in places less often visited by tourists: Urbino, Arezzo and Sansepolcro. The exhibition has been organized with the support of the public joint-stock petroleum refining company Rosneft.
The “discovery” of Piero della Francesca took place only in the middle of the 19th century. Prior to that, his works were often attributed to other artists or, scattered as they were in provincial towns of Italy, failed to attract especial attention. Nowadays there is great interest in Piero della Francesca and the artist himself is seen as a key figure in the Italian Quattrocento.
Piero della Francesca (1412(?)–1492) was born in the small settlement of Borgo Santo Sepolcro (now the town of Sansepolcro). He worked in various Italian artistic centres – Florence, Ferrara, Rimini, Rome, Urbina and Perugia – but always preferred to return to his native Borgo Santo Sepolcro or Arezzo, the chief town of the province. Piero played a prominent role in the life of Borgo, being repeatedly elected to various public positions. In the building of the local administration he painted a fresco of the Resurrection that became a symbol of the town.
Piero della Francesca worked at the courts of many Italian rulers, including the papal curia. Around the year 1450 Piero was in Ferrara, where he would have been able to acquaint himself with Netherlandish painting and in particular the works of Rogier van der Weyden, who had been invited to the city by the Marquis, Lionello d’Este. He may also have met with artists from the Low Countries at the court of the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro. From the northerners Piero adopted precision in the depiction of nature and the technique of painting in oils that was new to Italy.
The pinnacle of Piero’s work as a monumental artist, and indeed of the entire Quattrocento in general, is the cycle of frescoes on the Legend of the True Cross that he painted in the basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo between 1458 and 1466. Never before had such a cycle appeared in Renaissance art, marked by such clarity and correlation of all the forms to one another, an unusual colour scheme and precise perspective. The exhibition includes a film by Italian documentary-makers devoted to the Legend of the True Cross.
Piero della Francesca was also a portraitist. The names of the master’s clients are not always known, but the most important of them was undoubtedly Federico da Montefeltro. Piero produced a superb double portrait of the Duke and his wife with allegorical scenes of the couple’s triumphs on the other side of the panel (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Federico was not only the ruler of Urbino but also one of Italy’s most successful condottieri. Such mercenary military commanders were a typical phenomenon of the Renaissance era.
We can also get an idea of such people from the Portrait of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (Louvre, Paris). When Piero painted his likeness in the early 1450s, Sigismondo was at the height of his fame. The strict profile view of his models was suggested to Piero by medals. When they were mastering the new genre of the era, the portrait, the medallists’ art and works of Classical Antiquity became important for Renaissance artists. In the portrait in the Louvre, the ruler of Rimini is presented from just that angel of view, which made it possible to bring out the subject’s most typical characteristics: an attractive face with coarse features testifying to strength and an indomitable will. Sigismondo is wearing sumptuous clothing, but without adornments, because he is an embodiment of simplicity and restraint.
Piero employed the same compositional scheme when recording the appearance of Federico da Montefeltro’s son, Guidobaldo. His portrait is kept in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. It is hard to imagine this charming youngster with fine features and blonde hair streaked with gold where the light catches it growing up to become a tyrannical duke, a condottiere, and at the same time someone who commissioned art from Raphael.
In Borgo Santo Sepolcro, Piero della Francesca produced a large altarpiece for the Augustinian Convent. The central panel has not survived, while the four side panels became dispersed to different collections. The Hermitage has managed to reunite three of them at the exhibition: Saint Augustine (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), The Archangel Michael (National Gallery, London) and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan). All the figures are shown on the same scale. Each of them loons up unshakeable as a rock, irrespective of who they are – bishop, warrior or monk. In his depiction of Augustine, Piero displayed his talent as a miniaturist: the saints mitre and dalmatic, decorated with embroidered Gospel stories, are reproduced with such a sense of authenticity that Piero can rival the Netherlandish artist in their ability to convey the materiality of things. Nicholas of Tolentino has such an individual look that the artist may well have had a monk pose for him who caught his attention with an exceptionally stout figure and an expressive face. The Archangel Michael is not so much a warrior, the “Prince of the Heavenly Host, standard-bearer of the most Holy Trinity”, as a bejewelled courtly knight who embodies the artist’s own conception of perfect youthful good looks.
Piero’s art is devoid of heightened emotionality and dynamism. It exemplifies the main principle of the Renaissance: the human being, full of beauty and dignity, is the centre of the universe and the surrounding world is harmonious. Piero’s indisputable masterpiece – the Madonna di Senigallia (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino) – dates from the late period in the artist’s career. The name of the picture comes from the location of the church for which it was painted. The Madonna di Senigallia can be viewed as the quintessence of Piero’s oeuvre. The main principles of his art are reflected in it particularly distinctly: the mathematical perception of shapes, carefully judged proportionality in the relationship of the figures, objects and space, a high degree of generalization and a consistent treatment of questions of lighting. The refined colour scheme is also beautiful, with the master giving preference to light, joyful hues.
In his final years, blindness prevented Piero della Francesca from working as a painter and he engaged in theoretical researches: his treatises on mathematics and geometry should be ranked alongside the contributions made in that field by Leon Battista Alberti, Luca Pacioli and Leonardo da Vinci.
Piero della Francesca was one of the first to discover the laws of perspective. His works include a unique manuscript On Perspective in Painting that is in the collection of the Fondazione Palazzo Magnani and provides a basis for an understanding of the whole of perspective and the essence of the visual illusions of the Renaissance.
It is important to note that the bulk of the expenses for the preparation of the exhibition have been covered by the general sponsor – the petroleum refining company Rosneft. Rosneft’s activities are an example of socially responsible business. The company actively supports significant events in Russia’s cultural life. It provides funding for projects that determine the cultural look of the country, influence national identity and form an understanding of high culture in society. The State Hermitage expresses its gratitude to Rosneft for its collaboration, invaluable support for the museum and the opportunity to show visitors works by one of the most celebrated artists of the 15th century.
The exhibition curator is Tatiana Kirillovna Kustodieva, Candidate of Art Studies, leading researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Art.
Architecture Reflecting Culture: The Alhambra
Throughout history civilizations have been overtaken by successors. These in turn decline and fall as time marches on. Often all that remain are monuments, an occasional palace or temple often a tomb, usually in ruins unless of relatively current vintage.
The ancient Egyptians built massive pyramids to bury their pharaohs, projects lasting a lifetime and ensuring a reliable source of income for the workers and others involved.
The Greeks favored exquisitely proportioned temples and statuary rendered with a skill that was not matched again until the Renaissance. One would be remiss not to mention their vast output of the mind from philosophy and logic to the poetry and drama played out in the amphitheaters.
If Roman entertainment relied on blood and gore, it was part of a culture of brutal wars, subjugation and suppression of foreign peoples welded into an empire. Then there was Roman law, even if it applied only to citizens.
Of more recent vintage are the great cathedrals of Europe like Chartres, tall, massive, constructed in a span of time unimaginable in our era of haste. Preceding them were the great mosques of the Muslim era decorated in geometric shapes and colors to dazzle the eye. Damascus and Isfahan come to mind.
Then there are the Nasrid kings of Grenada in southern Spain, al Andalus to these descendants of North African Berbers and Arabs who ruled there for several centuries. A time when the three Abrahamic religions coexisted in relative harmony it saw the flowering of a civilization noted for its mixture of opposites.
The city of Cordoba with its great mosque was an early fruit of this admixture becoming the largest city in Europe during the 10th century, although civil wars had diminished it considerably by the 13th century. Yet the 13th century began the growth of a city on a hill now called Alhambra probably due to the reddish color (alhamra in Arabic) of the rock face. Housing some 40,000 citizens then, not many of the buildings survive. Notable are the defensive citadel Alcazaba, three palaces — the Mexuar, the Comares and the Court of the Lions — and an encircling wall with battlements and towers. The great mosque was replaced by a Franciscan monastery in the 15th century and is now a parador — a government-run hotel that was formerly a castle or palace or the like.
The Courtyard of the Lions is justly famous as the symbol of Alhambra. The twelve lions at the center appear to be holding up a water basin right in the center of a network of channels … on the periphery, colonnades supporting delicately carved arches form an abbey-like cloister. But the walls in the adjoining rooms hold their own surprise in intricately carved geometries of colored tiles and plasterwork. Glancing up, the ceilings are designed to take your breath away. Even more intricately constructed, they comprise thousands of meticulously carved sections of wood rising layer upon layer to feast the eye as small apertures allow in shafts of sunlight or moonlight. Watercourses run through many rooms spilling across portals into pools among enclosed gardens melding interior with exterior and joining it with nature.
The architect LeCorbusier called it ‘the intelligent, just and magnificent interplay of volumes made harmonious by daylight.’ Henri Matisse exclaimed, ‘The Alhambra is a marvel’ and Washington Irving captured imaginations throughout the western world with his 1832 book, The Alhambra. At the time going to rack and ruin, his romantic vision helped to trigger an effort to preserve the precious gem.
Now a magnet for tourists, it remains a precious reminder of what an intermingling of cultures can produce — just as the Taj Mahal does in India where Mughal emperors often married Hindu Rajput princesses and Shah Jahan (whose mother Manmati was one) built his own marvel.
Don’t avoid what is easy – diplomacy meets art
Individuals should and need to feel like they have the right to want. That is the message that artist Anastasia Lemberg-Lvova is continuously expressing through her artwork. Exemplifying socially-engaged art, Lemberg-Lvova aims to be a part of a much broader political movement which discusses important historical and modern-day social processes through creative means.
The second-wave feminist movements from the 1960s is one example of such a powerful movement. With their infamous quote, ‘The personal is political’, authored by millions of voices of women collectively rather than one feminist author, the message that every individual has the right to a voice was heavily stressed. As personal experiences took center stage and the individual became a political platform during the feminist movements, crowds of individuals also gained new meanings of courageous collectivity. Ultimately, the movement gave opportunity for previously ignored and taken-for-granted personal circumstances to be framed in a bigger picture – a picture that women as minorities were often left out of.
Continuing to portray the central message that movements such as the feminist strikes and many other historical crusades have fought for, Lemberg-Lvova uses her own art to focus on the younger European generation, highlighting the vast diverseness of the voices that live in Europe and sending a bold message that evidences a heterogeneity which needs to be more thoroughly discussed amongst the European community. With her projects, she is able to recognise the ways in which the systemic infrastructures that exist around the individual leave them feeling insecure or insignificant in relation to their voice and its right to exist in public. By initiating healthy conversation and focusing on this very elemental act of daring to express one’s desires towards public space, she has created a platform that encourages individuals to learn to voice their opinions more often, ultimately leading the person to be engaged as the multiplicities of voices are amplified to lead to more diverse discussion and perhaps outcomes.
Her exhibition, ‘Don’t Avoid What is Easy’, on show from August 14th – September 9th at the Freedom Gallery in Tallinn, Estonia, is thus the result of 2 years of research conducted mainly through interviews of younger generation individuals during her own expenditures through Europe. Although seemingly humble in its outcome as portraits, there is a strong message behind Lemberg-Lvova’s work, depicting the notion that we should feel more confident to voice our opinions about our public surroundings, Lemberg-Lvova uses art and representations to give a voice to over 100 participants from 24 European countries.
By painting vibrant oil portraits of a selected 7 individuals whom she interviewed, she touches on the concept of art and its political capacity by explaining “There will be portraits of participants with a visual interpretation of their wish as the background. The experience of, as we often say, “putting a face to a name” has a profound effect and is more intuitively understood than just going through text or trying to grasp abstract ideas. Painting as a form of expression is immensely malleable and useful when getting ideas across.”The desire to initiate discussion and give it a platform within the context of a gallery means Lemberg-Lvova’s art is inherently social and public. These qualities make for an intriguing space where the audience can identify small changes that resemble the tip of a much bigger iceberg– or at least the ignition of confidence and curiosity.
This focus on the first and easiest step sometimes being the hardest is something of great importance for Lemberg-Lvova as she explains “An inhabitant of a city logically has the right to express ideas or wishes when it comes to their surroundings – it is, after all, their home. But they are often stuck in the belief of not being able to change anything. In this instance, I am not talking about taking action or creating a plan. This is about the simplest first step that does not require anything – feeling like one is entitled to express a wish. It doesn’t have to lead anywhere; just remember that you have the right to want something. What follows is a different matter, but it is clear that nothing will happen without this first step.”
An interactive wall installation where participant answers are projected for all to see will pay homage to the importance that Lemberg-Lvova holds for communities to listen to the expressions of their surrounding civilians. She explains “From an early age, our heads are flooded with subliminal messaging and that often diminishes internal self-worth. Let me explain this from the point of view of a woman – a frame of reference I am most familiar with. As a woman one feels that unless they have perfect dazzlingly white teeth, flawless hair, a tiny waist and the right kind of shoes they are not worthy of expressing an opinion. Because if you do not fulfill all of the criteria above, no one will listen to you or even consider you worthy of attention. This is a cliché, yet it exists because it is true. It describes the reality of many women, because we are surrounded by sources reaffirming it – adverts, friends, sometimes parents or spouses, fitness centers and the list goes on. At the exhibition, I am striving to fill the space with messaging that reiterates one’s right to express their wishes whoever they are.”
Her message is clear – we should not avoid formulating our wishes in matters that concern us. Her persistence to initiate discussion and to give it a platform within the context of a gallery means her art is inherently social and public. These qualities make for an intriguing meeting space for the artist as well as her audience amongst each other.
Open Studio at Kogo Gallery, Widget Factory (Aparaaditehas), Tartu, Estonia: 08.07-01.08
Exhibition “Don’t Avoid What is Easy – Diplomacy meets art”at Vabaduse Gallery: 14.08-09.09
*Valeriya Billich also contributed to this article. Photos:Mariia Nedosekova
Life of a Bon Vivant
Uncertainty and summer saunter in with its retinue of rules, so I am told. While philistines slip into their shorts. Gentlemen don’t do that. At least the ones I know, or rather, admire. I am strongly of the opinion that summer requires meticulous management and planning. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the sartorial preferences, dietary habits, and recreational regime. Additionally, and rather, increasingly significant nowadays, at the bar cabinet, which must gracefully welcome fresh grog.
Change, I am reminded of being told is a perpetual challenge. This is true now more than ever before. This summer shall be different for me; No travel to new or old destinations, no steeps into rich heritage which are pulsing with an unparalleled artistic spirit, no gastronomic sensations and beautifully landscaped parks and gardens that beautifully manicured and most of all, a restricted consumption regime of spirits and smokes. There is no doubt about the fact that the perfection of a sufficient dose of sensual stimulation shall be missed, dearly.
In times of such glaring uncertainty, many of us find ourselves in the rigour of isolation. Yet one mustn’t drown in sorrow, for that pernicious jump into the rabbit hole of total despair will drive to insanity. Instead, in the spirit of making hay while the sun shines, I find myself deeply grasped in my hobbies and interests of art, culture, fashion, and even interior design. In furtherance of my interests and passions, I plan future trips to the European continent for study and debaucherously pleasurable activities while my folks worry about the thickness of their chequebook.
Despite countless hours spent on my multiple whims and fancies devoting time to the daily duties is an art. An art that is similar to the fine tailoring abilities of the talented gentlemen with the extraordinary skill of Hunstman, Savile Row. Managing the split of time is learned and perfected over time, like the of cutting cloth. This skill, over which I have achieved mastery, I am lucky to say, I received at birth from my mother who hails from a decorated family of army officers. For me, it runs my veins to be fastidious. For novices, here’s a hint; Avoid morning lie-ins, afternoon naps, and daytime Netflix binges while leaving tasks to complete after the evening meal. Have some self-discipline, dude.
These days after supper, I find myself sitting back in my armchair engrossed in a new book with either a Cohiba or something out from my patriarch’s prized whiskey collection, resting on my mahogany piecrust tripod table helping me fulfil the senses. Millennial Chilling is not for me. I have often been told that I am an old soul trapped in a new body. To me, that is madness, but I often see the method in it. That is because, I do not find any sense of gratification or contentment in doing nothing but, for those who do, remember, one simply can’t make love seven days a week, much as one’s partner might desire it. Other forms of vigorous exercise are sometimes required.
While I happily drown myself in pursuit of knowledge, I turn to the literary world to share my final thoughts to share a contrary tale. The words of Ernest Hemingway: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. For me, contrarily, the gleeful effect of the fine cognac and Erik Satie’s mastery on the piano has its drowning effect. You hear only what you wish to hear much like my most favoured ruler, Napoleon. To that, I’ll drink.
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