Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 8, 2014
Piero della Francesca in America: From Sansepolcro to the East Coast Exh. cat. New York: Frick Collection, 2013. 149 pp.; 80 color ills. Paper $27.50 (9780912114576)
Piero della Francesca in America
Exhibition schedule: Frick Collection, New York, February 12–May 19, 2013
Piero della Francesca. Saint John the Evangelist (1454–1469). Oil and tempera on poplar panel, thinned and cradled. 52.7 x 24.5 inches. The Frick Collection, New York.

It is a long way from the Tuscan town of Borgo San Sepolcro to the sumptuous interior of the Frick Collection, where six of the panel paintings by the famously enigmatic Piero della Francesca for the high altar of Sant’Agostino were reunited. Yet the preciosity of these mid-quattrocento works in oil and tempera, some resplendent with gold leaf and fictive jewel-encrusted fabrics, was deceptively compatible with the luxurious neo-classical setting. That the secular venue and Piero’s religious images share a monumental imperturbability belies, however, the radically different ways in which the paintings would have been seen and understood by their originally intended audience in early modern Italy or even by viewers in 1936, when, with the cultish fervor for Piero still in vogue, Helen Clay Frick began to acquire his works on behalf of the collection established by her father. The show provided a welcome opportunity to ponder such issues with regard to the display of sacred art in a grand mansion on Fifth Avenue—and a rare chance to commune stateside with an ensemble of works by a singular Renaissance painter.

Announced as the first exhibition in the United States devoted to the artist, Piero della Francesca in America presented the Frick’s four panel paintings from the polyptych of 1454–69 at Sant’Agostino: Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Leonard, Saint Monica, and The Crucifixion. Joining them in the museum’s Oval Room were two works for the altarpiece on loan: Saint Apollonia (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and Saint Augustine (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon). The seventh painting was the mesmerizing, sculptural Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (Francine and Sterling Clark Institute, Williamstown), which functioned as a surrogate for the lost central panel of the same subject for the Sant’Agostino polyptych. The pilasters subdividing the dark velvet walls of the Oval Room created delineated spaces for the panels (with their ovoid physiognomies!) on display, and its decorative embellishment complemented the painted architecture all’antica of the Saint Augustine, Saint John, and Virgin and Child. A large hypothetical reconstruction of the altarpiece by Nathaniel Silver (after Machtelt Israëls) prominently hung where one longed to see another surviving panel for it: the beautiful but fragile Saint Michael at the National Gallery, London. (The polyptych’s Saint Nicholas of Tolentino at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, also did not travel to New York.) Silver, a former Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Frick, was the guest curator and editor of the catalogue, which is well illustrated and reasonably priced. Titled Piero della Francesca in America: From Sansepolcro to the East Coast, it features essays by Silver, Israëls, James Banker, an appendix by Giacomo Guazzini and Elena Squillantini with reconstructions of Piero’s work for Sant’Agostino, and catalogue entries for the panels by the curator. During the show’s run the Frick scheduled an ambitious series of public lectures and ticketed seminars, including one by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, the doyenne of Piero studies and a pioneer in the digital reconstruction of his work.

The title of the exhibition, Piero della Francesca in America, suggests, however, an agenda other than that actually experienced by visitors to the Frick. While the museum did in fact bring together works by the artist in American collections (except for the Lisbon piece), the title also implies a consideration of Piero within the larger context of American collecting and taste. Issues associated with this theme were not addressed in any of the wall texts. One must turn to the catalogue—inconveniently placed on a high lectern in a busy passageway in the Garden Court—for the fascinating opening chapter by Silver on Helen Clay Frick’s determined quest for paintings by Piero years after her father’s refusal to purchase The Crucifixion. The omission of readily accessible information for the viewer about the centuries-long journey of the panels from Italy to the United States, and the zeal with which they were eventually collected, constitutes a missed opportunity given the name of the exhibition and the mission of the Center for the History of Collecting housed in the Frick Art Reference Library (FARL), itself founded by the indomitable Miss Frick. Silver’s account, which includes photographs of her travel scrapbooks, would surely have been of great interest to the museum’s new and repeat visitors as well as to students. Additional information not addressed in the wall panels and otherwise buried in the catalogue could have been presented via innovative graphics to distill the long, complex history of the panels on view: their installation by Piero ca. 1469 in a polyptych frame of the 1420s, facts associated with the Augustinian order and the lay patron, the reason for the disassembly of the altarpiece in 1555, the provenance of the panels as independent works of art, their desirability in the United Kingdom in the 1800s and later in the United States, the impact of technology in the form of the automobile and photography on Miss Frick’s own investigations, and so forth. There is plenty of room on the walls of the Garden Court for such didactic materials in discreet tonalities that would have minimal visual effect on its tranquility or detract from the works on display in the adjacent room.

The full title of the catalogue, Piero della Francesca in America: From Sansepolcro to the East Coast, reveals another curatorial objective: to contextualize Piero’s work in relation to his hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro. The solution to providing a sense of place for the paintings—usually displayed at the Frick as independent works of art devoid of explanatory adjacent text—consisted of the valuable reconstruction of the polyptych hung with the panels in the Oval Room, along with wall text located on the Garden Court side framing the entrance to the Oval Room with two small photos and text describing San Sepolcro as home to relics from the Holy Sepulchre itself and as a mercantile center, as well as computer programming about polyptychs, with reconstructions of the apse of Sant’Agostino, located in the somewhat hidden and therefore under-used tiny Media Room off the court’s east side. Although one label in the poorly lighted Oval Room mentioned the illumination by candles of the panels in their original setting, and the computer program simulates light sources, not addressed is the activation of the altarpiece through spectator involvement on the part of the patron, the monks, and the original audience with regard to religious symbolism, ritual with chanting and music, and gleaming liturgical instruments and vestments in motion before their luminous painted counterparts. (Such issues were examined in the excellent Devotion by Design at the National Gallery in London, 2011.)

The exhibition catalogue builds on the scholarship generated during and after the quincentennial of Piero’s death in 1992 and reflects the general discipline shift of recent decades toward both contextualization and the history of collecting and taste. (For the latter see Caroline Elam’s superb Roger Fry and the Re-Evaluation of Piero della Francesca, a published lecture given at the Frick in 2004 [New York: The Frick Collection, The Council of The Frick Collection Lecture Series].) Banker’s essay is exemplary in its masterful, lucid explanation of ecclesiastical and lay patronage and of Piero’s involvement with earlier commissions at Sant’Agostino. Silver’s chapter on Piero and image-making provides an excellent summary of the role of Borgo San Sepolcro as a pilgrimage destination, a center of the trade in the woad plant used to make indigo, and the location of walnut trees and the sacred polychromatic sculpture made from them—well known to Piero. Israëls’s reconstructions of various altarpieces are a useful contribution. However, information relevant to Sant’Agostino, its altarpiece, and polyptych design generally is scattered among the chapters, making for a rather frustrating and choppy read. One wishes that the catalogue had merged the contributions of the authors into one synthetic essay, similar to the approach used by Linda Wolk-Simon for the publication accompanying her exhibition Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006).

Silver’s catalogue entries are meticulous, but an introduction to them summarizing the history of Sant’Agostino’s polyptych and relevant patronage, embedded elsewhere in the catalogue, would be useful. Puzzling is his lack of attention to Piero’s early use of oil (with tempera) so brilliantly manipulated in the Saint Augustine. Finally, Silver includes a catalogue entry for Piero’s Hercules (ca. 1470) at the Gardner Museum in Boston, which may not be loaned and is not part of the show. As a work for the artist’s own house, the fresco is relevant to San Sepolcro but not to Sant’Agostino or its altarpiece per se. Missing are entries for the London Saint Michael and the Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in Milan, also not in the show but important surviving components. This choice reflects the larger difficulties of realizing the multivalent agenda of Piero della Francesco in America. Nonetheless, the exhibition and its catalogue offered something for everyone: blissful reverie for cognoscenti of the Piero trail; much information on a wide variety of engaging topics; and, perhaps most importantly, an introduction for many to an extraordinary painter at a museum of great importance to the collecting of Italian Renaissance art in America.

Charlotte Nichols
Associate Professor, College of Communication and the Arts, Seton Hall University