Piero della Francesca: A quiet revolutionary | National Gallery

Piero della Francesca: A quiet revolutionary | National Gallery


Hello everybody, I hope you can hear me. Please put your hand up
if you need me to shout more. I’m Caroline Campbell, I’m the Director
of Collections and Research here at the National Gallery and I’m very pleased that
as many of you like this great picture as much as I do. That’s testament by the numbers
in the room. Today, the subject of our lunchtime talk is Piero della Francesca’s
great ‘Baptism of Christ’ painted, as I’ll go and describe,
I think in the late 1430s in the town of Sansepolcro, Piero’s hometown,
on the borders of Tuscany and the Marche. And we all love pictures
not just for their art historical value, but because of what they do to us. And what I love about this picture – and this is probably
shared by some of you – is that, do any of you know
that wonderful hymn by the American Quaker, Whittier which talks about
a still, small voice of calm? When I stand in front of this picture, however strange I’m feeling,
whatever bad a day I’m having, I feel that there’s a still,
small voice of calm in there with me. And what I think is remarkable
about Piero della Francesca is that he was
a very revolutionary painter, – we’re highlighting that
in this temporary display in Room 60 – but he was a very quiet revolutionary. When you look at his painting,
it’s hard necessarily to understand quite how innovative
and how radical this was in the context of Italy in the late 1430s and it’s that
what I want to talk about today. But I want to begin the talk
by really describing to you a little bit about what’s in the picture. It’s a very, very simple composition and that’s what gives it
its strength, its quietness and also its enduring quality, the fact that it talks to us as much today as it did to people in the middle years
of the 15th century. So, here we see
one of the central moments in the life of Christ, a story that is told
in all four of the Gospels, and that’s the moment of Christ’s baptism. When you think about the life of Christ, it’s one of the episodes
that really shows you that Christ, whatever your faith
or whatever your lack of faith, that Christ the historical figure was somebody of incredible humility. This is because
he was said to be the son of God, he was said to come down
and be a king on Earth, but what king would really
let themselves be baptised? It’s a sign really of the fact that
although he’s a God, he’s also a man. And you see in Piero’s picture,
Christ who’s standing in a river – supposedly the River Jordan,
but I’ll come back to that a bit later – is having water poured over his head by his cousin, John the Baptist
who’s wearing the penitential robes which shows that he’s been,
as we know from the bible, spending years
eating nothing but locusts and honey in the desert. And above the figure of Christ,
as you can see in the picture, is the dove representing the holy spirits and, quite unusually,
in a picture of this date, we don’t have the figure of God the Father directly represented
in this painted panel. But we know,
if we know the story from the Gospels, that this is the moment when
God the Father is said to have said, “This is my beloved son
with whom I am well pleased.” So, it’s the moment at which Christ
who, until this point, had a very, very normal childhood, apart from his very unusual birth in the circumstances of the stable
in Bethlehem, is shown by his father
to be the king who will come. The king, in fact, whose resurrection we who are Christians
celebrate at this time of the year moving on from Easter
to the moment of Christ’s ascension. So, that’s the episode
that’s being represented in the painting, very, very simple. But I think you’ll all have seen that
there are some rather strange things in Piero’s depiction of it. One of the strangest things
I always think about this picture is the fact that Christ is not
the only person who’s being baptised, you can see there’s a man
who’s ready to come next after him who’s taking off his clothes so that he can be naked
for the moment of immersion in the water. And then if you look behind that, you will see some even stranger figures wearing very, very unusual costumes at the back of the picture, wearing hats that in the 15th century would’ve identified these individuals
as being Greek. So that’s one of the very odd things
about Piero’s picture that I’ll come back to later. And the other
is the presence of the angels who are closest to me
on this side of the painting. They’re really remarkable figures, they also endow the picture
with a sense of calm and quietness which is so remarkable about it, but they’re also rather brightly coloured and they’re in colours
which are important in their significance. Blue and red and a red that’s faded to a type of pink,
mixed with white, of course. One of the angels,
the one who’s in the middle and the one who’s got a garland of flowers
around his or her head, is looking rather perturbed,
looking surprised at what’s happening. This also, in a way,
encourages us the viewer to engage with
what’s happening in the picture and see it as not necessarily
something that’s very normative, but something that is strange, something that’s unusual and remarkable. The other thing that I think
is very curious about Piero’s angels is that there’s a sense of
human companionship between them. I’m sure you love, as I do, the episode here where you have
the angel who’s putting his arm on his companion’s elbow,
on his shoulder even, so that he can see better what’s going on
in the scene in front of him. I love that detail. And the other remarkable fact
I want to draw your attention to that’s quite unusual, is the presence of the large tree
in the foreground of the picture, the tree that is where
the angels are under and it also is a connection vertically
to the body of Christ. I’ll come back to that tree later because it’s one of the strangest things
about this very, very unusual and interesting picture. So, turning from what we see to what the artist did to make this image. Piero della Francesca is an artist who probably needs
very little introduction to an audience in London
in the 21st century, although that wouldn’t have been true
for many people in the last 580 odd years
since this work was painted. Piero was born
in the small town of Sansepolcro, a place that you can still visit – I hugely recommend a visit
if you haven’t been there already – on the borders of Tuscany and the Marche,
the mountainous area of central Italy. Sansepolcro was a town that had
a very fair sense of independence, it also had a very strong sense
of its identity and that identity is still true
when you visit Sansepolcro today, though the reason that
most people visit it now – though not in the 15th century –
was because of Piero della Francesca. Many people go on
what’s called The Piero Trail, going around parts of Tuscany looking at his great pictures. And there’s nowhere better to see them
than in his hometown. So, Piero comes from a family which is not a traditional family
for an artist. His father is a merchant and a tanner and we know that, initially,
his father seems to have intended that Piero would follow
the same sort of career path. We know that he attended a school
in the town where he learnt the things
that a merchant was supposed to do and among that
was a basic grasp of mathematics. Piero takes that on in spades, Piero, apart from being a great painter, is one of the greatest mathematicians
of the Renaissance. In fact, we wouldn’t know Euclid,
the Greek geomatry and mathematician, if it really wasn’t for the work
that Piero did. So, apart from painting, we know that Piero writes
at least three mathematical treatises which are written
and circulated in his lifetime and published by his friend
and probably assistant, Luca Pacioli, after his death. Piero is very much a man of his town, he’s born in Sansepolcro, we know he dies there in 1492, the same year that Columbus
sailed across the Atlantic to America. In his way, Piero is discovering
and making new worlds too, but he’s doing that
in his mind and in our minds in a way that is possibly
as revolutionary and as impactful as that of Columbus. Piero, although he’s very much
attached to his town, he does travel. We know that he spends periods
working at some of the great courts of central Italy, we know that he’s in Rome,
we also know that he’s in Florence. But what, I think, is very interesting for the way
we like to look at the Renaissance as a place of certain key city centres – Bruges in the northern Netherlands, Florence and Rome in Italy,
and Venice as well – is that Piero,
although he’s connected to these worlds, is also sitting somewhat apart from it. He follows his own path rather than following a path
that anyone makes for him. So, that is one of
the very interesting and unusual things about Piero della Francesca. He seems to combine his career as a theoretician and as a painter
in tandem. He’s known as being a painter
who’s quite dilatory and quite slow to work and people don’t seem to mind,
it seems, from the contractual evidence, that it might have taken him
seven or ten or even more years to complete a painting. They knew that when he did,
they would get something that was really remarkable and special. So, what do we know about this painting
and where it was intended to be? Because I think
when thinking of Renaissance paintings, but particularly of Piero della Francesca, place has a huge impact on how he paints. This can be seen very clearly in the work that he makes
as a fresco painter. Of course, his greatest painting
is the cycle of pictures of ‘The True Cross’
that he painted in Arezzo in the Church of San Francesco which you can visit after a beautiful
and wonderful restoration about 20 years ago, and see them very, very well. But Piero, whether he’s painting
on a wall or a panel, is very much thinking of the space
that he’s making it for. We know that this painting
was done for a small church in Sansepolcro that at that point
stood just outside the town, it was the church of St John the Baptist. So, it’s quite curious that we see the figure of the baptism of Christ
represented here, but I think
it’s appropriate for the church because Christ’s baptism after all,
is the most important event in John the Baptist’s life. So, it’s made for
what’s a very small church. You can visit the church today, it’s a museum of stained glass, but when you go into it, you’re struck by
what a little space this is. It seems very much at odds with the monumentality of this painting. You will think it even stranger when I tell you that
we know this painting was commissioned or the idea of it
was in the head of the patron in around the year 1419, but the painting
isn’t actually completed, we think, until after 1437. If that is the case, rather than it being made in the 1440s, it’s a painting made by Piero when he cannot have been
any more than 20, when he was
an extremely young man indeed. He trains in Sansepolcro, he trains with a pretty mediocre painter. For him, he’s commissioned
on making banners, on making some heraldic paintings
in the 1430s, but this does seem to be
his very, very earliest work. And, as I said,
it’s made for the small church and it’s possible
because two other paintings survived that seem to have been
part of the same commission, part of the same altarpiece. But they’re by a different artist,
they look incredibly different – they’re painted
on a gilded background – they’re by another painter
born in Sansepolcro, Matteo di Giovanni, whose great ‘Assumption of the Virgin’
you can actually see if you step out after this talk into Room 59 next door. But you can see the paintings
that seem to have been made as part of this commission by Matteo if you visit the museum in Sansepolcro. And if you go, you’ll be really struck
because they’re completely different, they have none of the joined up aesthetic or the coolness that we see
in Piero’s painting, they’re incredibly traditional
in a way that this painting is not. When we think of the Renaissance
and the idea of progress that we often have related to it, it also seems strange that you would have
two totally different types of work as part of the same altarpiece. But these seem to have been done
after Piero had made his painting, definitely after Piero
had made his painting, and what’s not clear
whether Piero was intending initially to make the side panels,
to make the rest of the altarpiece and whether he moved on
or whether that came as a second stage. That’s one of the many things
about this picture we’re not sure about. What we are sure about is that
the painting was made on poplar and it was painted using egg tempera, that very traditional way
of binding your paint medium with egg which meant you had to decide
what you were going to do as you were painting. If you left it too long, your medium, your paint,
your pigment mixed with egg would dry and you wouldn’t be able
to do anything with it. That’s rather fascinating because when you look
at this picture closely, you can see that there are
a certain number of changes that the artist made which are invisible
when you come and look at it closely with the naked eye. And particularly you can see that
although he planned it quite carefully, and we know this
from the infrared reflectography, we’ve looked at this with this technique which enables us sometimes
to see underdrawing or underlayers of the painting, and we know that Piero did do
a rather detailed underdrawing using a liquid medium
which was quite common at that time. He made a lot of little changes to it as he went along so, it clearly wasn’t
absolutely fixed in his head as he worked on it. And as he painted it too,
he made little changes as well. If you come and look carefully
at the painting afterwards, or look at this
when you’re watching it on YouTube, you’ll be able to see that
there are places where the figures, the figures of the angels,
are painted over the landscape. You can look very carefully
and see the landscape beneath. For instance, the blue cloth of the angel closest to Christ in the picture. It’s really fascinating, through this,
to be able to reconstruct how he worked. I was saying that Piero
is a great mathematician, he’s interested,
as every painter of the 15th century is, every radical painter, in the relatively
novel theory of perspective, something which had been invented
we think probably in the Islamic world. If you’re interested in this subject,
there’s a wonderful book by Hans Belting called ‘Florence and Baghdad’
which looks at this very question. But we do know that
in the 15th century in Italy, painters used perspective
for the first time as a really clear pictorial device and Piero is very definitely
thinking about this as he works on this picture. It’s an almost
picture-perfect postcard example of recession and space,
and a vanishing point as well. The relationship
between landscape and figures is very careful in this picture and that’s, I think, another reason
why Piero carefully made use of these perspectival theories. It’s interesting
that Piero as a mathematician is really not very interested. He writes on perspective, but he’s more interested
in slightly more esoteric questions. The perspective in this picture
is quite conventional for the time. But what Piero uses that to do
is something very special. He makes the scene of Christ’s baptism
in the River Jordan seem as if it’s not happening
in the Holy Land 1,500 years before he painted it, well, 1,437 – not quite, but you know what I mean,
in that sort of ball park. He makes it seem as though
it’s happening in the moment, so the landscape in the picture
is not just any old landscape, it’s a landscape which very particularly
connects it to Sansepolcro. There’s a town in the background
you might be able to see just between Christ and the angels, it doesn’t seem to be a portrait exactly
of Sansepolcro, but it looks like the town. And the relationship of the town
to the mountains behind it and in front is also not dissimilar
to how Sansepolcro appears if you come at it from a certain angle from the town of Anghiari. So, if you go to Sansepolcro,
try this and see if it works, I think you’ll find that it does. So, the baptism of Christ, therefore, is taking place in Piero’s own world, that of 1430s Tuscany. There are all sorts of things,
apart from the town, which really make you aware of that fact. I was talking about the tree
in the foreground which is very unusual, the tree with the wonderful,
very, very blond trunk. That’s not any old tree,
that’s a walnut tree and we know that walnuts then, as now, are very much cultivated
in this part of Italy. In fact, there’s a wonderful story
about the foundation of Sansepolcro because the name of the town
means ‘holy sepulchre’ and the foundation myth of Sansepolcro was that in the 11th century, two pilgrims
coming back from the Holy Land with lots of relics
of the true cross and other things, rested under a tree very near
where the town of Sansepolcro is today. And, miraculously,
because it is a miracle, their relics went up
into the tree beside them and that’s why they decided
to found a city where they had rested. So, Piero’s placement of the walnut tree is, again, making this connection between his world and the world of Christ
represented in the painting. He’s saying they’re not separate,
but they continue and that if you are a believer, Christ’s world
is always everywhere around you. The tree is one of the interesting things
I wanted to mention, the other thing that’s very odd
about this painting, and relates to its specific
commission circumstances in the town, are these strange figures I mentioned
at the beginning in the background who you can see
just behind the young man who’s taking off his clothes
ready for baptism. I said that these were figures
who were wearing what would at the time
have been recognised probably as Greek or Byzantine dress. Something I should remind you of
that in the 1430s there was this very, very misguided,
but worthy idea to bring the Byzantine
and the Western churches together. This was a combination,
as these things often are, of political and religious reasons. There were these ecumenical councils
that were held in Italy in the 1430s, not very, very far from Sansepolcro. And it’s at this moment
that you often see depictions of people
wearing contemporary Greek costume turning up in painting. The Byzantine emperor had come,
as part of this council, with a huge entourage. Artists were fascinated by it and drew it. Pisanello made lots of drawings of them which were then copied
and spread throughout Italy. I think that Piero
must have known some of these and that’s what he’s referring to here. There’s a very, very long literature
about who these figures might be and I’m not going to go into this
at great depth today, but I just want to mention
that it could be – and it’s been suggested – that this is also a reference to the Magi
or to the Three Kings who, of course,
had been present at Christ’s birth and who had also come from the East. But it clearly meant something
to Piero and his commissioners because it’s important and prominent
in the painting. Other things
that mean specific things to you if you lived in Sansepolcro are not just the walnut tree, but all the greenery
that’s such a prominent feature at the front of the painting. A botanist has looked at these and I think I’m not wrong by saying that there are
at least seven indigenous plants here which are still found in the region
and they’ve been very carefully selected. My botanical knowledge is not brilliant so I’m not going to get it wrong
by telling you what these are now, but it’s interesting that
they’re not just generic species, they’re something very specific. One of the plants has a rather large leaf and quite a strong stem and others have suggested that
that’s meant to represent indigo which was a crop that was
being grown around Sansepolcro in the 15th century. Indigo, of course,
is used to make blue pigment which was used in painting at that time though it wasn’t as brilliant
as the ultramarine which Piero uses here in his painting,
for instance, for the robe of the angel
closest to the front. Unpacking this picture
makes us think about many elements of it, but I’ve deliberately
not mentioned until now the thing which is strangest and oddest
about this painting and that’s in the foreground. I’m sure you’ve all wondered: why does the river stop or seem to stop and not go over the feet of Christ? It’s very, very odd indeed. And also, why are the hills behind reflected in the bits of the river
that we can see just behind Christ’s feet? Unfortunately,
I haven’t got any great answer to this great conundrum myself except I would tell you
to look at other paintings of the baptism of Christ
in the 15th century. Often they show Christ standing,
as it were, at the edge of the water rather than directly in it, so, that may be
what Piero has intended to do here. It’s also been suggested that the water
which seems to stop at Christ’s feet could be to show that Christ’s baptism
is the greatest miracle and the miracle which is responsible,
in a way, for humankind’s salvation. That may be
why Piero leaves it like this here, but it’s one of the many features
of this painting that I think we’re never going to
satisfactorily really understand. Because one of the great things about
a wonderful painting such as this is that it is, in some ways,
totally unknowable and we’re encouraged by that
to come back to it time and time again and look at it afresh. That is something which people
have been doing in the National Gallery since the 1860s. I said somewhere in my talk that Piero
disappeared from history for a long time, he was a very famous artist
in his lifetime and when he died in 1492, he was not only well known, his family was prestigious
and his family were rich. But for most of the 16th, 17th, 18th
and indeed early 19th centuries, he was only known to those very few people who travelled to go to Sansepolcro which then, as today, is not possibly
the easiest part of Tuscany to reach. In the early 19th century,
a number of Anglo-Saxon travellers came to Sansepolcro
and marvelled at this painting, which, by this point, had been removed
from the small church for which it was made and was in what was about to become
the cathedral of the city which is still in the centre of the town
and you can visit it. This painting was basically on a side wall together with the two paintings
by Matteo di Giovanni which I mentioned earlier which were certainly part
of the altarpiece from the 1460s. At this point, the painting
was bought from Sansepolcro, it was purchased
by a British museum official called Robinson who was really
the founder, in all sense and purposes, of the South Kensington Museums,
what became the V&A. He was involved not just
in purchasing paintings and objects for the V&A’s collection, but for forming a collection
for a railway magnate called Matthew Uzielli who, despite his Italian-sounding name, was very much
based in England and in London. We know that the baptism
comes to London in 1860 and it’s exhibited
with Uzielli’s collection at the South Kensington Museum. The next year, he dies and his paintings
are sold at an auction in London and Charles Eastlake,
who was at that point, the first Director
of the National Gallery, saw it in the sale
and immediately wanted to purchase it. Eastlake, like other
leading art historians of his day, was aware that Piero
was a revolutionary talent who stood somewhat outside the worlds
of Florence and Rome, although he had his part with them, and he desperately wanted to be able to
buy this painting for the nation. But when he looked at it,
he writes in his diaries and he writes in letters, that he’s not sure that he wants to buy it because he’s not sure that
the condition is absolutely brilliant. If you’ve read a lot of
Eastlake’s correspondence as I have, often that shorthand is for something
he really, really wants for himself. I think we can imagine
his internal struggle as he decides
should he keep it for his collection or should he renege his interest in it and instead acquire it
for the National Gallery? I’m glad to say, like in many other cases, Eastlake’s public spiritedness came out and the picture was bought
for the National Gallery where it has been on display ever since except for its brief departure
during the Second World War with the rest of
the National Gallery pictures in Manod. The painting has always been,
since the 1860s, one of the most loved pictures
in the collection. I think there’s a particular loving
that people in Britain and America have often had
with the paintings of Piero. And, in fact,
you can see Piero better in London than you can do anywhere in the world except for Arezzo
in the ‘True Cross’ cycle, Sansepolcro and also in Urbino. But we have three paintings by Piero here, we’ve got three of them in this room,
all of them: the baptism here, ‘The Nativity’,
which seems to be Piero’s last painting which is just here by my side which we know was painted
for his family house, and the ‘Saint Michael’
on the other side of del Pollaiolo which is part of a complex altarpiece
he makes in the middle of his career also for Sansepolcro. So, there’s hardly anywhere in the world
that you can see Piero better than actually in this room
in the National Gallery and there’s probably nowhere,
except Sansepolcro itself, that you can appreciate the relationship
that this great painter had with his hometown. I think that’s where
I’m going to leave you today. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you
about a painting that is a personal favourite and I know is a favourite
of many of yours. One of the things we struggle with
at the National Gallery is where exactly to hang this painting. For many years, many of you will remember, it’s been in a wonderful,
private chapel by itself which has, I must say,
encouraged the sense of contemplation which this work
really implicitly makes you feel when you stand in front of it. However, the downside of that was that Piero really seemed
like an isolated genius whereas we know that
he was very strongly connected to all the highest
artistic and intellectual talents and challenges of his time. And it’s to make that point
that we’ve included it in this room together with paintings not just by Piero, but by his great contemporary
and other fantastic mathematician, Paolo Uccello, who at the moment,
is facing him off, as it were, on the other side of the wall. But really, I don’t think
there’s anywhere in the world apart from the National Gallery where you can appreciate
the importance that mathematics made to painters of the 15th century in the work of Uccello, but particularly,
more than anyone, Piero della Francesca. Thank you.

14 thoughts on “Piero della Francesca: A quiet revolutionary | National Gallery

  1. i'm liking the idea that you can go off on your own, after dealing with the various hassles and fissures of nowadays life, to meditate on things.. items such as this. as for the religious sentiments – they really mean nought more than storyboards to a wider theme. that said, as imparted, imbued with faith or devoid of it – the all inclusive is fine by me.
    does mathematics play a part in his art?
    perspective utilized in painterly depictions… is this pre-optic r.e to scale representations of a hearth scene and/or portraiture?
    the river stops? perhaps it's merely a fjording over the water way? or is it baptismal font?

  2. You ought to show more the painting itself! Focus on the whole painting and extensive closeup details! Think "Why a VIDEO?"

  3. Wow what an incredible commentary on this iconic painting. The curator has such a wealth of knowledge and accessible style. I’ve been to Borgo San Sepulchro and looked at Piero’s Resurrection, and also the True Cross cycle in Arezzo so it was good to learn more about this other great work.

  4. Love these talks. Piero is a personal favourite since I saw his frescos in Arezzo. Hope to see the National Gallery one day!

  5. too much digressions unfortunately, you need to focus on what's happening in the painting , its architecture, shapes and colors choices, better luck next time we hope 😉

  6. Dear Ms Campbell, If ever you see this comment, I wonder if you could help me with what I've always found strange: why are the colours so pale? PS Thanks so much for the revelation about arab science and persrective.  It was a total surprise! Paul Scaman.

  7. We live in wonderous times in that a poor artist in the woods of Alabama can sit in on a lecture at the National gallery in London , Thank you so much.

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