Sunday, August 4, 2013




Alberti's facade design for Santa Maria Novella is executed in 1470, almost 30 years after Piero has left Florence.  Piero designs a similar church, however, in the fresco cycle in San Francesco in Arezzo (1452-66) in the scene of the Finding of the True Cross and Resurrection of the Dead Man.

Piero creates a church that resembles a faux-marble temple front, with pediment, atop a tripartite rectangle. Within the pediment he paints a circle and places three prominent circles above three arches outlined in white. Santa Maria Novella has a temple front for a facade and Alberti places another temple front within the larger one. The pediment in Santa Maria Novella also has a circle and there are three large circles inscribed in the area below it:  one for the rose window and the other two made of green and white inlaid marble; below those appear rounded inlay arches outlined in white marble.

Who's zooming who here?  Did Piero know about Alberti's commission when he painted the fictive church in the 1460's? Or did Alberti see Piero's design before completing Santa Maria Novella? They are not identical by any means and one might suppose that because each of these men is writing treatises about perspective and math in art, that their creations would reflect a period interest in symmetry and perfect mathematical shapes in church facades. But when you compare the landscape painted behind the fictive church by Piero with the actual landscape to be seen behind Santa Maria Novella from some angles, the resemblance is uncanny.

Another consideration is that they were both following a church design already in place in the hills above Florence, that of San Miniato al Monte. San Miniato is a Tuscan Romanesque church of the 11th century and it, too, adopts large swaths of marble in geometric formations arranged symmetrically on a temple front:
Two large circles are there, the pedimental structure at the top, and the arches below outlined in white marble. San Miniato's date is 1063 and both artists would have been familiar with its smooth aesthetic as they looked up from the river in Florence in the fifteenth century.
San Miniato's namesake was a hermit said to have been martyred in the Roman amphitheater of Florence by having his head cut off. He is also said to have picked up his head and miraculously carried it up the hill to his cave, the spot where the church was founded. The church facade that Piero chooses to create forms the background for the miracle of the testing of the true cross. After Helena finds the true cross in Jerusalem, she wishes to make sure it is the right one; one of her followers holds the cross over dead people until one sits up in his grave, sure sign of the power of the cross:
Is Piero relying on his own remembrance of San Miniato and the miracle that took place on the spot where the church was built in creating his own scene of a miraculous resurrection?

Is he showing Alberti that he could be as fine an architect as the Florentine?

One other piece of architecture that appears in Piero's fresco cycle has its source in Florence as well. The lunette painting of the Exaltation of the Cross on the top left side of the chapel in Arezzo has two reddish towers on the right that form part of the wall of Piero's fictive Jerusalem:
The crenellations in groups of four, surmounting corbel arches with armory windows beneath, are particular 13th-century features that at first glance appear to resemble Palazzo Vecchio (1294-1314) in Florence:
But then it becomes clear that Piero may have another Florentine building in mind, Palazzo Spini-Ferroni, a medieval house (1289) that still exists on the river. Palazzo Spini-Ferroni has the corbel arches close to the crenellations just as Piero has painted them in his red towers. The archery windows are also slightly below the corbel arches as in the fresco towers.

Palazzo Spini-Ferroni was the site of a famous Franciscan miracle, the story of a boy who falls out of the building and is presumed dead, only to be resurrected by Francis posthumously.  It is a story told by another fresco painter, Ghirlandaio in his Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinita,Florence, in 1485:
In Ghirlandaio's painting the Palazzo is only shown in the left background three stories up and from the side away from the river, but the sitting boy and Francis in the sky are prominent in the foreground. Does Piero wish to please his Franciscan patrons by the reference to a more recent miracle than that of San Miniato in the body of the building that shapes his Jerusalem, site of the miraculous return of the true cross in his fresco story? He doesn't want us to miss the towers; he sets the white hat between the two and directs the lines of the wall and the cross towards them.

He also doubles the towers in presenting Jerusalem's wall. The repeated towers are common in ramparts of city-states in the fifteenth century for defense. For Piero, in this painting, is the tower and its echo a way of remembering the walls of another city beyond Arezzo, the city of Piero's own transformation, resurrection, and site of a desirous return? Porta San Niccolo still stands as a remnant of the city wall Piero would have encountered in Florence in 1439:
The Exaltation Jerusalem is one way Piero pays homage to the artistic center that instructed and protected him.

One other way is in the images of reflection that appear in several of his works:
Constantine's battle in this fresco cycle:

The Baptism of Christ in London, 1450:

St. Jerome in Penitence (Berlin, Staatliche Museen, 1449-1451, overpainted then overcleaned, but the reflection still stands):
 Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife (1472, Uffizi):
and the Nativity (1470, National Gallery, London):
In all of these works Piero paints reflections of sky, clouds, trees, people, and buildings in a river that winds around in the background of the painting. In the 15th century often features placed in the back of painted scenes refer to the past: the further things are from the foreground, the further back in time. Here the reflections are repeated by the artist because his own artistic career is a reflection of what he has learned in his past about art, in the great city of art, Florence:

The reflections in his work are painted into rivers because his formative years are spent in the city of this river, the Arno:

His experiences in Florence provide for years of literal reflection in the whole body of his work.

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