Renaissance Art

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

The Daily Pic: Piero della Francesca bets on embroidery.

(Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon)

Another image by Piero della Francesca, from his St. Augustine Altarpiece and now on view at the Frick Collection in New York. This time it’s the saint himself, looking suitably stern.

As will be obvious to anyone who has read my PhD dissertation – that would be my supervisor, three examiners (maybe), and my proofreading ex-wife – what interests me here are the little “embroidered” scenes on the edge of Augustine’s robe. Known to specialists as quadri riportati (“transferred pictures”) these scenes are “carried over” into the fictive decorative textiles in the picture, in order to keep intact the illusion of a single, continuous space that Piero creates in the rest of his altarpiece, and that flows between and around all its main panels.

Although Piero doesn’t want to lose the narrative, theological content of these scenes from the life of Christ, he couldn’t very well have them as views into their own, very separate little worlds, as an earlier painter would have done. And note the trouble he goes to to keep the scenes suitably interrupted by the shadows and folds of the cloak they are on, even at the risk of illegibility – illusionism trumps narrativity. (Although note also how much the subjects in question are about events that transpire in specific places – Mary’s “reading room”, Gethsemane, Pilate’s palace etc.) Here’s a thought: Maybe the three scenes entirely hidden by the folds on the cloak’s left-hand side would have had their subjects included in the separate “predella” panels at the bottom of the whole altarpiece. (Read more on them tomorrow. Oh, and another thought on yesterday's post: I wonder if the binding on Saint Augustine's book would have seemed Middle Eastern. Many bindings that look Renaissance to us were in fact Islamic.)

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