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Piero della Francesca in America.

Piero della Francesca in America

The Frick Collection

New York, New York

February 12-May 19, 2013

Exhibitions at The Frick Collection in New York may be consistently small, but they are always choice and never disappoint. This applied most certainly to Piero della Francesca in America, which was held in the oval room of the Frick. Any exhibition that attempts to collate all of the available Piero material in the United States and house it in one space deserves credit on these merits alone. However, this presentation, as is typical of the Frick, also displayed a solid scholarly reevaluation of the remains of the Saint Augustine Altarpiece (1454-1469), both as a key work in Piero's career and as a hallmark of his early style.

Guest curated by Nathaniel Silver, the exhibition was accompanied by enlightening lectures, made available subsequently on-line, and a catalogue that exhaustively presents ideas not expressed in the show. Moreover, computer stations allowed the viewer to explore the extant altarpiece panels in the context of their original placement in the church of Sant' Agostino in Borgo San Sepolcro. Without this resource, an understanding of the initial presentation may indeed have been lost, because the surviving fragments collected here--only a third of the altarpiece remains--were displayed in the modern way, that is to say, at eye level. While this allowed the viewer to pay close attention to each of the panels, this arrangement does not reflect the manner in which worshippers originally viewed the altarpiece.

The paintings were exhibited in a single room, hung on three walls. One wall was devoted to a photomontage of the known panels of the St. Augustine Altarpiece assembled according to the latest reconstruction (Fig. 1). This was particularly useful because it allowed the pieces that are not in the show (Saint Michael the Archangel from the National Gallery in London and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino from the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan) to have a presence in the exhibition. It also demonstrated how the missing central panel, perhaps a Madonna and Child Enthroned, or a Coronation of the Virgin, leaves a gaping hole in our understanding of the totality of the work.

Although brilliantly conceived, the photomontage would have had a more direct impact on the viewer had it been life-size--some twelve feet across--rather than the diminished scale used for demonstration purposes; certainly there was room on the wall for such a display. Nonetheless, when one encountered the empty crowning panels, the incomplete series of arched panels below them, and the meager remnants of the predella scenes one realized just how much of the altarpiece exists as a hypothesis.

There has never been much debate about the placement of the extant major panels since Millard Meiss, knowing only three of them, offered the original reconstruction in 1941. (1) Kenneth Clark added to the discussion in 1947 when he noticed that a panel representing Saint Augustine in Lisbon, Portugal belonged to that ensemble (Fig. 2). (2) Clark questioned, however, the authorship of the small scenes which cascade down the cope of the bishop, suggesting they were by the hand of a workshop assistant.

The predella panels remain a thorny issue: we still do not know how many there were, where they may have been placed, or if Piero's workshop assisted in their execution. However, the Frick reconstruction goes a long way to establishing a reasonable explanation of how the extant predella panels may have interacted with the figures represented in the principal panels above.

In an innovative stroke, this exhibition posited that some of the smaller panels with individual saints were set on the bases of piers, visible either on the front or on the sides of the altarpiece. For instance, it has been noted that the light source for the Saint Apollonia (borrowed from the National Gallery in Washington) is at a different angle from the others. Exhibition curators have conjectured that the Saint Apollonia originally might have been placed on the left side of the left pier, facing a church window, and only obliquely visible to the congregation. The artist may have been fusing the reality of the window placement with the reality of Saint Apollonia's painted location.

Other sections of the altarpiece on view included three works owned by the Frick--a Crucifixion, almost certainly but a fragment of the original, a male saint often in the past identified as Leonard, and a Saint Monica, the last being a requirement for an Augustinian church. These pieces were recognized as part of the original ensemble by Roberto Longhi in 1947, who suggested his own reconstruction. (3) The original placement of all these pieces has remained problematic, even with the excellent curatorial research of past and current art historians.

Identifying the male saint in the Frick panel, now called John the Evangelist, has been a labor for art historians. Scholars like Creighton Gilbert have maintained that the figure is Saint Simon. (4) James Banker claimed in 1987 that it was instead St. Peter. (5) Others, including Longhi, have asserted that it is Saint Andrew. Current opinion seems to indicate a preference for Saint John the Evangelist, a position maintained by Meiss as far back as 1941 and now reaffirmed by this exhibition.

In addition to the Frick and Washington paintings, the museum gathered from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon the Saint Augustine that Clark had so ingeniously configured with the other panels, as well as a complete Piero altarpiece from the Clark Collection in Williamstown, Massachusetts, The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (c. 1460-70). Both were smart choices. The Virgin and Child Enthroned took pride of place by being located at the center of the longest wall. Saint John and Saint Augustine from the Saint Augustine Altarpiece were placed on either side, but discreetly distant so that no one could mistakenly consider them as belonging to the Clark altarpiece (Fig. 3). The Virgin and Child Enthroned added a necessary focus to the show, anchoring a complete Piero altarpiece in the viewer's mind before contemplating the fragments of the Saint Augustine Altarpiece. All the paintings exhibited Piero at his best, sharing that majestic solemnity and vivid solidity that makes his works so memorable.

The Lisbon loan was a major coup. Its richly ornamented surface drew attention away from the other more stoically conceived panels and focused it on the titular saint of the church originally housing the altarpiece. Viewers could decide for themselves whether or not the small panels on the cope were by the master's hand or by an assistant, as Clark maintained.

It is a testament to Piero's greatness that the remnants of an ensemble still provoke general wonder and scholarly assessment many centuries after its dismemberment. The Saint Augustine Altarpiece was probably finished in 1470 and transferred to a different church in 1555, where it remained for about a hundred years. Sometime after 1652, it was cut up, and the pieces circulated to various collectors and dealers until they entered public collections in the early twentieth century. Fortunately several have ended up in the Frick, making this institution the natural starting point for any Piero exhibition in America.

Looking at the scattered fragments assembled here, one could only bemoan how much more impressive the entirety would have been had the other European panels been able to travel (a Frick press release hinted that they were too fragile to do so). (6) Perhaps to deemphasize their omission, the exhibit was named Piero della Francesca in America, not entirely an accurate title even so. The nearly contemporary Gardner Museum fresco of Hercules was not included, although it must be acknowledged that it would have been out of place given the focus on sacred altarpieces here. As a fresco, it also may have been too fragile to travel. Omissions aside, this presentation was a landmark: the first museum exhibition in the United States devoted to this Italian master. Thanks to Silver's meticulous scholarship and the able assistance of the Frick staff, Piero della Francesca in America was a most rare and rewarding museum event.

John B. Nici

Queens College

ENDNOTES

(1.) Millard Meiss, "A Documented Altarpiece by Piero della Francesca," Art Bulletin 23 (1941): 53.

(2.) Kenneth Clark, "Piero della Francesca's Altarpiece," The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 89 (1947): 204.

(3.) Roberto Longhi, "Piero della Francesca's St. Augustine Altarpiece," The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 89 (1947): 285-286.

(4.) Creighton Gilbert, Change in Piero della Francesca (Locust Valley, New York: J.J. Augustin, 1968), 87-88.

(5.) James R. Banker, "Piero della Francesca's S. Agostino Altar-Piece: Some New Documents," The Burlington Magazine 129 (1987): 645.

(6.) The Frick Collection, "Piero della Francesca in America: Frick to Present First U.S. Exhibition on this Remarkable Renaissance Artist," Press Release from The Frick Collection, accessed 15 April 2013, http://www.frick.org/sites/default/files/pdf/press/Press_Release_Piero_heading_0.pdf.
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Author:Nici, John B.
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2014
Words:1480
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