Renaissance Art

Saint Apollonia by Piero della Francesca at the Frick is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

The Daily Pic: Why Piero della Francesca goes for the gold.

(National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

The Daily Pic’s last hit at Piero della Francesca is his little panel of Saint Apollonia, from the bottom register of his Saint Augustine Altarpiece, six of whose surviving panels are now on view at the Frick Collection in New York. (Because four of them belong to the Frick.)

Piero had a problem: How do you show a bunch of different figures, at different scales, when the rules of avant-garde art tell you that the ideal picture opens up a single, continuous space for your viewer to get lost in? Yesterday, we saw one of his answers: Turn some subsidiary scenes into embroidered panels on a cloak. Today, here’s another: Give other scenes you want to include golden backgrounds, so you can say they don’t make any claims to illusionism, and so don’t have to follow its rules. Not only that, but the golden backgrounds establish the pictures as belonging to an archaic (recent) past, when those rules didn’t even exist. They are icons, not illusions.

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