BIRTH OF THE RENAISSANCE: Thoughts inspired by Piero della Francesca

01/11/2021 20:34

In Roman religion and art, Genius Loci, Spirit of Place, could occasionally be depicted as a youth holding a cornucopia, a large, hollow buckhorn filled to the brim with fruits, flowers, coins and other richesm an abundance of what you might possibly crave for.

 

 

It does not surprise me that the idea of a cornucopia in the hands of a Spirit of Place originated in Italy, a country that has given rise to delicious food, good wines and where every village, every part of its varied landscape, harbour secrets and surprises from every conceivable age.

 

Although COVID-19 was still raging unchecked across the country on the ninth of August last year, Rose and I could not refrain from accepting our friend Ghassan’s offer to spend a day in Perugia with him and his family. Ghassan is attached to the city because it was where he studied medicine when he more than forty years ago arrived in Italy from Beirut. Like several other Italian towns, Perugia has a well-established and respected university, which in its case was founded as early as 1308.

 

Perugia has a long and complicated history. The first settlements on the hill where it is located date from 1000 BCE and 600 years later it had become a walled city, one of the twelve lucumonie, city states, of the Etruscans.

 

 

As part of his travelogue Pictures from Italy Charles Dickens did in 1846 describe Perugia. It is a strange and uneven book in which Dickens seems to picture Italy as seen within a dream – an enchanted landscape as if projected through a Laterna Magica. The highlight is his Venetian visit, though there are several other observations that remain in memory. Dickens seems to be incessantly fascinated by violent contrasts and seem to be aunable to absorb the vast amount of impressions that shower him:

 

things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive, break upon the view of every turn.

 

Impressions are mounting upon Dickens, filling his brain and all too often he seems to be confused by the crowds and an unfathomable diversity. Travelling through the country his depictions occasionally appear to turn into a carousel of experiences spinning round at a breakneck speed – incomparable buildings, exquisite art, fascinating processions, stately fairs, soothing landscapes, glowing sunsets, abysmal chasms down into history, small, smoky osterias with delicious food, opulent feasts in palaces of aristocrats and religious potentates, all mixed up with dirt, poverty, beggars, lousy hotel rooms, the chiming of church bells, the odour of incense and filth.

 

 

The socially conscious author is alarmed by injustices that to him seem to be even worse than in England, more hopelessly confused and incomprehensible here than in his homeland. Dickens walks and walks, looks around, thinks and thinks, but there is no order to it all – the visual opulence, the mixture of aesthetic sophistication and grotesque tastelessness, sensitivity and meanness, deep knowledge and astonishing superficiality. Abundance and abject poverty coexist side aside innovation and decay. Dickens’s depictions are coloured by incomprehensible contrasts and constant, albeit varied, repetitions, whether it be Genoa, Rome, or, as here, Naples, a city of:

 

Polcinelli and pickpockets, buffo singers and beggars, rags, puppets, flowers, brightness, dirt, and then universal degradation.

 

Of course, we are now living in other times, globalization has made everything increasingly uniform. The modern, well-developed Italy I now live in is completely different from the poor, run-down and disease-stricken country that Dickens visited, but somehow I recognize myself in the contrast between chaos and liveliness. I am familiar with the sudden calm that engulfed Dickens after walking through Rome's crowded tourist lanes only to end up within the tranquillity of deserted, narrow alleys between crumbling, old buildings, or in abandoned, unkempt parks secluded in the middle of the city's bustle. I might then be overtaken by the mystique of Rome’s “dark spots” where moonlight illuminates stately pine trees and overgrown ruins and might with the long ago deceased Dickens share a feeling of what he called a tremendous solitude” and above all an insight that the present is a result of the past, that history is part of our current existence.

 

After visiting a number of towns and villages on his way down to Naples, Dickens hurries after his descriptions of that city up to the north. It seems as if he now is eager to leave the country behind and his portrayal of, for example, Florence becomes strangely sketchy. Arriving in Perugia, he is impressed by the colourful spectacle during a market day and the light that rests over the ancient city:

 

Perugia, strongly fortified by art and nature, on a lofty eminence, rising abruptly from the plain where purple mountains mingle with the distant sky, is glowing, on its market-day, with radiant colours.

 

 

The light and liveliness that struck Dickens seems to linger. Perugia’s dreamy atmosphere is emphasized already upon arrival. After finding a parking space during complicated tours around the foot of the city height, you enter one of the mysterious caves leading up to the city centre by means of stairs, halls and high arched corridors. After wandering through these vaults you step out into dazzling sunshine, finding yourself surrounded by stately Medieval and Renaissance buildings lining marble-covered streets, on which people quietly stroll along.

 

 

One of the city's treasures is its Palazzo del Priori. Like so many other Italian cities, fighting broke out in and around Perugia – popes, emperors and surrounding princely houses conquered and lost the city. At the same time, its bourgeoisie grew in importance and influence. Craftsmen, prelates and bankers formed interest groups and during the Middle Ages representatives of Perugia’s various craft guilds became the city´s actual rulers. Conquerors came and went, but it was the guilds that, through their Magistratura dei Priori, the Parish Leaders’ Court, ruled and administered the city. Each of the city´s forty guilds and parishes elected ten representatives each, who lived in the city hall for two months, until they were replaced by a new group of decision-makers.

 

 

The Palazzo del Priori now houses the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, an exquisite newly renovated art museum, filled with astonishing treasures. While waiting for Ghassan and his family, Rose and I visited the museum again (we had been there before). Like the suggestive, underground passages leading up to the city centre, the halls of Perugia´s art museum, with one exquisite masterpiece after another, lead to an incomparable point of light – Piero della Francesca's St. Antonio's Polyptych, which he between 1467 and 1468 painted for the church of a Franciscan women monastery.

 

 

St. Antonio is Padua's patron saint. However, as a devout Franciscan he had of course contacts with Assisi near Perugia; birthplace of Saint Francis and headquarters of the Franciscan Order. As a young man, Saint Francis was after a revolt against Perugia for a year kept as a prisoner of war in the city’s dungeons, an experience that eventually led to his “conversion” three years later.

 

 

Undoubtedly, St. Antonio di Padova (1195-1231) is, after the in my opinion incomprehensibly popular St. Pio da Pietrelcina (1887-1965), Italy's most beloved saint. Although he was canonized a year after his death and even by then enjoyed an intense cult dedicated to him, it was not until a few hundred years later that St. Antonio became even more popular. This happened after the spreading of a myth that the saint, while reading Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, became so inspired that he imagined the baby Jesus so intensely that he found the Bible he was holding in his hand had been converted into a child. It then became common for artists to depict St. Antonio with the baby Jesus in his arms and thus he became children’s special patron saint. Mothers pray to him to heal their sick children and orphaned, or abused, children seek his protection.

 

 

When Piero della Francesca painted St. Antonio next to the enthroned Madonna, he was not, as in later representations, a dreamy, young man with a child in his arms, though a robust monk holding a heavy book. St. Antonio was a learned man, a trained theologian and skilled preacher who contributed to the Franciscans’ more academic orientation.

 

 

Although St. Francis early on was inspired by Provençal troubadours and was a gifted poet, he hesitated to recommend in-depth theological studies to the members of his newly established monastic order. St. Francis feared that studies would lead to a lack of commitment when it came to selflessly serving others and living in poverty. However, when he met the thirteen years younger Antonio, St. Francis found a soulmate who shared his vision of a company of self-sacrificing, pious and poor men and women willing to dedicate their lives to helping others. Antonio was already known as a brilliant preacher and at that time a person endowed with the divine gift of eloquent speech could attract large crowds. Like today’s rock artists preachers like Antonio travelled around the country. In 1224, St. Francis entrusted the planning for the education of all brethren to Antonio – hence the heavy book in his hands, and he became instrumental for a rising reputation of the Franciscans as both learned and popular preachers.

 

 

Speaking of St. Antonio’s preaching talents, I cannot avoid mentioning a painting I once saw in Zürich. Legend has it that when Antonio came to Rimini people did not want to listen to his talk about compassion with the poor and sharing wealth, but booed him out. Disappointed, Antonio went down to the sea shore and began to spread his message across the water. While he was speaking, a crowd of fish gathered and stuck their heads out of the sea to listen. On the Swiss Arnold Böcklin's painting from 1892, a shark listens attentively to St. Antonio, only to return to its usual predatory behaviour shortly afterwards.

 

 

Piero della Francesca, like the much later Böcklin, also had his curious whims. An unexpected detail in his portrait of St. Antonio in Perugia is the depiction of how the saint’s tonsure is reflected in his polished halo.

 

 

In parentheses, Piero della Francesca was a master at reproducing such barely noticeable, extremely subtle details. A marvellous example is the small grains of dust swirling in the sunshine behind an angel in his Madonna di Senigallia.

 

 

As when you trhough Perugia's underground passages ascend from darkness to light, della Francesca's polyptych appear as a kind of journey from darkness to light, from night to dawn. Your gaze rises from the predella, which at the bottom left shows an episode from St. Antonio’s life, when he through prayer rises a child from death.

 

 

On the right side of the predella, an already deceased Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) does from her heavenly abode save a boy from drowning in a well.

 

 

Elizabeth, who also is presented next to St. Francis on the right side of the enthroned Madonna, was a daughter of King Andreas of Hungary and she became early on widowed after the death of a Bohemian regent. She gave away her wealth to the poor, had a home built for destitute women and a hospital, something that made he into a symbol of charity and the patron saint of nurses, bakers, brides, countesses, dying children, refugees, homeless people, lace-makers and widows. Her presence on della Francesca's altarpiece, intended for a Franciscan convent, is due to the fact that St. Elizabeth became a Franciscan nun.

 

The predella scenes scenes with St. Antonio and St. Elisabeth appear to be more clumsily executed than the rest of the altarpiece, something that have made art connoisseurs prone to assume they were made by della Francesca´s students. However, the middle scene of the predella is so peculiar that it might have been painted by the master himself, for here we find those qualities of della Francescas’s art that the pioneer of modern art history, Bernhard Berenson, observed in 1897:

 

he was perhaps the first to use the effects of light for their direct tonic or subduing qualities; and finally, judged as an Illustrator, it may be questioned whether another painter has ever presented a world more complete and convincing, has ever had an idea more majestic. Or endowed things with more heroic significance.

The scene takes place within a desolate, nocturnal landscape where St. Francis obtains his stigmata through a heavenly vision of a crucified Jesus. A monk, perhaps St. Antonio, sits at a short distance from the saint with an open book on his lap and looks up at the vision of the crucified Christ, which lights up the nocturnal space. The calm with which he views the miracle makes us unsure if he really sees the same thing as St. Francis. The whole scene is engulfed in a strange stillness, entirely undramatic.

Gazing upwards we perceive how the altarpiece gradually lightens up. At the centre we find the enthroned Madonna, serious and majestic like all of della Francesca’s Virgin mothers. However, he has created even better executed virgins and children than the ones on this polyptych, something that may indicate that he also left some of the work with this central part of altarpiece to one, or two, of his disciples.

The polyptych is crowned by a miracle – the part of the assemblage that seems to have been entirely executed by Piero della Francesca himself. During a restoration a few years ago, fingerprints were found in the colour, indicating that the master had applied the wonderfully clear colours while using both fingers and brushes.

A kneeling angel, clothed in a flowing robe with the same ethereal, bluish colour as the sky from which the radiating dove of the Holy Spirit sends his fruitful bundles of light down to Mary, who while humbly affirming her fate bows her head. A crystalline clear daylight envelops the scene, which takes place not in a simple Galilean house, but in an exquisite, airy palace, which behind the celestial messnger opens onto a garden. The angel's bird wings in white and subtly nuanced light blue tones emphasize its character as a natural being. However, Mary and the angel are perfect creatures from different worlds, separated by a colonnade leading to a blue- and white shaded marble wall. Sunshine falls in, making the columns shade the floor's light pink marble floor. The room behind Mary is pitch black. As the Virgin meekly receives and accepts the angel's message and the fruit-bearing rays of God, the compact darkness behind her is maybe a premonition of the sacrificial death of her son to be.

 

 

Majestic Madonnas characterized by a self-assured tranquility is one of Piero della Francesca's hallmarks. Originating from the small town of Borgo Sansepulcro in the Upper Tiber Valley, Piero was the son of a well-to-do merchant in hides. The family also owned crops with woad, a cabbage plant from which a deep blue dye, indigo, is extracted, darker than the blued shades of della Francesca's Annunciation scene, but indigo could possibly be the origin of hues in the angel's wing and Virgin's mantle. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), the great biographer of Renaissance artists, mentioned that when Piero's father died his mother was pregnant with Piero, hence the name della Francesca, From Francesca. Vasari wrote that the name was given to him because his mother “brought him up and enabled him to reach the eminence to which his destiny called him.” Actually, Piero's last name was di Benedetto. According to Vasari, the artist was throughout his life deeply attached to his mother and Borgo Sansepulcro, signing his works with Opus Petri de Burgo Sci Sepulci, Work by Petri from San Sepulcro.

 

Piero della Francesca made several frescoes and altarpieces in his home-town. Among them an early work depicting the Madonna of Compassion, who protectively holds her indigo-coloured mantle above men and women placing their trust in her. Was Piero maybe inspired by the love he had for his protective mother?

 

 

A striking feature in the Annunciation Scene of the St. The Antonio Polytych is its centrally located colonnade with a deep, perfectly executed perspective. It cannot be ruled out that Piero created such a perspective as a reflection of the divine harmony he, like many of his contemporaries, was trying to capture trough his artistry.

 

When della Francesca painted his polyptych, the central perspective was a relatively new invention and had for the first time been successfully demonstrated in 1427 through Masaccio's depiction of Trinity in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. According to Vasari, it was the ingenious architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1379-1446) who was behind this revolutionary fresco:

 

Filippo took special pains to teach the young painter Masaccio, who was a close friend of his and who did his teacher credit.

 

According to the all-knowing Vasari, the universal genius Filippo Brunelleschi did between 1415 and 1420 execute a series of painting experiments in accordance with his mathematical calculations. These paintings have now been lost, though Masaccio's fresco in Santa Maria Novella is considered to be the first completely successful result, on a large scale, of Brunelleschi's theories and instructions.

 

 

If Brunelleschi can be considered as the inventor of the central perspective, it was his friend and disciple Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) who came to provide his master's theories with an orderly and pedagogically perfect form, mainly through his influential writings De Pictura, On Painting, from 1435 and De re aedificatoria, About architecture, from 1452. Alberti was one of those intellectual and incredibly talented monsters who were produced by the Renaissance – fiction writer, mathematician, painter, linguist, architect, poet, priest, philosopher and expert in cryptology and optics. In addition, according to his admiring biographer Vasari, Alberti could “leap over a standing man [and] amused himself by taming wild horses and climbing mountains.”

 

Leon Battista was an admirable citizen, a man of culture and friend of talented men and very open and courteous with everyone. He always lived honourably and like the gentleman he was. He spent his time finding out about the world and studying the proportions of antiquities; but above all, following his natural genius, he concentrated on writing. [...]

Now none of our modern craftsmen has known how to write about these subjects, so even though very many of them have done better work than Alberti, such has been the influence of his writings on the pens and speech of scholarly men that he is commonly believed to be superior to those who were, in fact, superior to him.

 

This genius was a close good friend of Piero della Francesca and together they discussed theories con cerning proportions and perspectives, while doing various mathematical calculations. Alberti actively campaigned for his friend's great talent and did for example recommended him to the ruthless but cultured condottiero, mercenary soldier, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and convinced a wealthy man named Luigi Bacci that Piero was the right man to decorate the apse behind the high altar in Arezzo's Cathedral. Perhaps one reason why Piero della Francesca portrayed Alberti as a trumpet blower on one of the frescoes he came to make in Arezzo.

 

 

Vasari, who was born in Arezzo and owned a house opposite the cathedral, enthusiastically described della Francesca's frescoes, which depict the story of the True Cross as it was told in Jacobus de Varagine's (1230-1298) collection of more or less imaginative Christian legends – Legenda Aurea, The Golden Legend.

 

 

In fresco after fresco, della Francesca's monumental images (in some disorder) tell how Adam dies and his sons plant a seed from the Tree of Knowledge that got stuck in his throat. How the Queen of Sheba on her way to her meeting with King Solomon crosses a bridge made of wood from the tree that had grown out of the seed in Adam's throat. On the night before the battle of Pons Milvius, a bridge over the Tiber, Emperor Constantine the Great dreams of an angel showing him the True Cross telling him “in this sign you shall win.” During the battle, Constantine holds in his hand a small cross and at this sight the whole army of his opponent, his father-in-law Augustus Maximian, retreat from the battle. Constantine's mother Helene later finds the buried True Cross, after torturing a group of Jews who knew where to find it. When the rediscovered True Cross is carried into Jerusalem, a dead man is resurrected. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (575-641) defeats with the help of the True Cross a pagan Persian army at Nineveh, but when he tries to carry the True Cross back into Jerusalem and celebrate his victory, he can only do so after humiliating himself and barefoot carry it between kneeling potentates. Piero della Francesca ends his picture cycle with the Annunciation (a scene not included in Varagine's story).

 

 

What now appears as quite strange is that few writers after Vasari draw any attention to the astonishing masterpieces della Francesca had created in Arezzo's Cathedral. For example, in the detailed description of Arezzo he gave in his Italian Hours from 1909, an aesthetically acute traveller like Henry James, in spite of mentioning several other paintings, does not say anything about della Francesca´s frescoes. The popular art historian Kenneth Clark found such contemptuous oversights astonishing and wrote in his appreciative monograph on Piero della Francesca that this previously so shamefully forgotten artist now finally is considered as the truly great artist he is:

 

quietly, inexorably, almost unobserved, Piero della Francesca has taken his place as one of the greatest artists of the fifteenth century, and thus one of the greatest artists who have ever lived. […] few of our bewildering revolutions in taste would have been more incomprehensible to the aesthetes of the nineteenth century.

Pioneers in modern art such as Cezanne and Seurat were inspired by Piero della Francesca and their admiration was somewhat later shared by the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

 

I found myself for the whole afternoon in front of Piero's frescoes ... Being alone with him was almost surreal, I was immersed in the heart of painting ... I almost felt like I was penetrating the secret of the world.

 

An admiration reflected in the art of several modern masters – such as Balthus, de Chirico, Casorati and Campigli. Balthus did for example make a number of copies of della Francesca frescoes and his own art indicate a wealth of influences from the great master.

 

 

Vasari describes how in the fifteenth century he could be standing in front of Piero della Francesca's Arezzo frescoes. He only had to walk across the street in front of his house to be able to admire them, and thus appreciate their, in their time, great modernity:

 

But above every other consideration, whether of imagination or of art, is his painting of Night, with an angel in foreshortening who is flying with his head downwards, bringing the sign of victory to Constantine, who is sleeping in a pavilion, guarded by a chamberlain and some men-at-arms who are seen dimly through the darkness of the night; and with his own light the angel illuminates the pavilion, the men-at-arms, and all the surroundings. This is done with very great thought, for Piero gives us to know in this darkness how important it is to copy things as they are and to ever take them from the true model; which he did so well that he enabled the moderns to attain, by following him, to that supreme perfection wherein art is seen in our own time.

 

 

How the presence of the past nourishes the present is ubiquitous in Italy. If I read or see something in this country, associations are constantly aroused to temps perdu, lost times. Sometime during my travels in the nineties, as so often before I bought at an airport a novel unknown to me, In the Skin of a Lion. The title was apparently an allusion to a scene in the Gilgamesh Epic. As with most of my impulsive purchases, I was attracted by the cover.

 

 

It was a strange novel. Written by the Sri Lankan-Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, it takes place in Toronto in the 1930s. At the centre is a dynamite expert, Patrick Lewis, involved in the construction of a huge bridge, a tunnel and a water treatment plant, while hanging out with millionaires, immigrants, and criminals. It is a winding story, told in an unusually dynamic language. A dense tale filled with suspense, mystery, wealth, misery and a lot of violence it depicts reality in the form of a kind of collective novel, told through a magic-realistic, personal filter. The novel undeniably provides an impression of being artfully constructed, though in a positive sense. It does not hide that it is as a desk product. With its intricate structure and a variety of coincidences and encounters across class and ethnic boundaries, the novel is nevertheless in no way a disturbing work of art. Its tempo and imaginative richness of ideas contribute to a “lyrical” atmosphere impregnating the entire story.

 

 

With equal fascination I read Ondaatje's The English Patient, which he wrote in 1992, five years after In the Skin of a Lion. The latter novel is written in the same lyrical fashion, with a similar mix of well-documented history, local knowledge and real-life individuals. A seamless mixture of the present with the past. Centuries-old history breaks into the lives of the main characters while living in a completely different age, under completely different conditions. East meets West, obviously incomprehensible coincidences take place in an environment characterized by a unique Spirit of Place.

 

 

The English Patient is not about Toronto's witches’ cauldron during the city's construction, but about Piero della Francesca's landscape – the border areas between Umbria and Tuscany and takes place during the final stages of World War II, and the North African Desert War. In the novel, characters from In the Skin of the Lion reappear; people who in that novel influenced Patrick Lewis' dramatic fate – the thief and drug addict Caravaggio and the twenty-year-old Hana. Among the prominent characters in The English Patient is also a dynamitard, the Sikh sapper Kirpal (Kip) Singh, who together with the Canadians lives in a dilapidated villa where the English patient is also cared for. He is so called because he speaks an unusually sophisticated English, though he is in fact a severely burnt Hungarian, who initially suffers from memory loss but is gradually recalling a passionate love affair, which with tragic consequences took place against the backdrop of English diaspora circles and war scenes in North African deserts.

 

Ondaatje describes how among the Allied troops there are historians and art connoisseurs who assist the military leadership in identifying features of the surroundings and carry out risk assessments for soldiers, locals, as well as for the landscape and its cultural heritage. Their average age is sixty years and

 

They spoke of towns in terms of the art in them. […] if you dug deep beneath the tank ruts, you found blood-axe and spear. Monterchi, Cortona, Urbino, Arezzo, Sansepolcro, Anghiari. At Monerchi there was the Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca, located in the chapel next to the town graveyard.

 

 

It is within a badly damaged villa inside this landscape that the drama between the main characters of the novel evolves:

 

The Villa San Girolamo, built to protect inhabitants from the flesh of the devil, had the look of a besieged fortress, the limbs of most of the statues blown off during the first days of shelling. There seemed little demarcation between house and landscape, between damaged building and the burned and shelled remnants of the earth.

 

The villa, which had been inhabited by Italian aristocrats and then served as the headquarters of the German war command, housed remnants of its past life; books, works of art and a still functioning gramophone.

 

 

At one point, Kip enters Arezzo's Cathedral and directs his field binoculars at Piero della Francesca's frescoes. His gaze is fixed on the Queen of Sheba's face when she is received by King Solomon. Her majestic air of beauty and serenity, as well as the quiet meeting between East and West, moved the young man. As he in rain and cold tries to follow the directions of confusing maps and orders, while wading through flooded river crossings and under the enemy's torrential storm of steel witnesses how men and equipment are being snatched away by merciless currents, the thought of the Queen of Sheba calms him. While Kip is disarming a mine, desperately pressing himself down into the mud of a river brink, his inner vision evokes the image of the serene queen:

 

The young Sikh sapper put his cheek against the mud and thought of the Queen of Sheba´s face, the texture of her skin. There was no comfort in this river except for his desire for her, which somehow kept him warm. He would pull the veil off her hair. He would put his right hand between her neck and olive blouse. He too was tired and sad, as the wise king and the guilty queen he had seen in Arezzo two weeks earlier.

 

 

A suggestive scene describes how Kip, at the request of one of the art historians accompanying the Eighth Army, during night on his motorcycle takes him to Arezzo's Cathedral. In its nocturnal abandonment, the interior of the cathedral presents an almost eerie vastness, smelling of cold stone and old wood. Kipp quickly and efficiently rigs up hoists and ropes, thus making it possible to raise the elderly professor so he at eye level may examine della Francescas frescoes. When the exhausted professor, knee-trembling after his dizzying experience, though deeply satisfied after having his life's wish fulfilled, rests in a pew, Kip does with the help of his mechanism raise himself with his own hands:

 

Looking down he saw the mediaevalist sitting on a bench, exhausted. He was now aware of the depth of this church not its height. The liquid sense of it. The hollowness and the darkness of a well. The flare sprayed out of his hand like a wand. He pulleyed himself across to her face, his Queen of Sadness, and his brown hand reached out small against the giant neck.

 

It was with some anticipation I looked forward to the prematurely deceased Anthony Minghella's 1996 acclaimed film version of The English Patient. Unfortunately, I became somewhat disappointed when I saw it. Minghella's Oscar-winning script had made major changes to the plot, but that in itself did not have to be a shortcoming. A few years later, Minghella made an interesting reinterpretation of Patricia Highsmith's already excellent novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and made a great movie.

 

 

Minghella's version of The English Patient indicates the dangers of filming a lyrical, multi-faceted and visually strong novel. This is admittedly a great temptation, though results are often unsatisfactory, especially if the spectator has read the model. Like the multiple versions of Anna Karenina I have seen throughout the years. However, that did not hinder Minghella's film from being beautiful and in several aspects quite ingenious, though I also found it to be rather boring and occasionally too flat, at least if compared to the novel.

 

A scene that stayed in memory took place in Arezzo's Cathedral; suggestive, but too short, in which the old professor had been transformed into the attractive Hana. It is she who allows herself to be hoisted up to watch the Queen of Sheba's face. Minghella turned the scene into an erotically charged interaction between Kip and Hana.

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DlxO2frMPE&ab_channel=Movieclips

 

In the novel, Ondaatje contrasts the sublime serenity Piero della Francesca's art creates with World War II´s bloody, muddy chaos. By della Francesca, even war is stylized and beautiful, as in Arezzo's battle scenes.

 

 

Ever since childhood, della Francesca had been considered to be a genius and his interest in symmetry and geometry was deepened through his acquaintance with men like Leon Alberti. The statuary composition and depiction of figures in his paintings and frescoes are obviously inspired by mathematical speculations and the inspiration della Francesca obtained while studying ancient Roman sculptures in papal collections in Rome and of his North Italian patrons.


In the 1460s, Piero della Francesca wrote an extensive mathematical treatise, Trattato de Abaco, Dissertation on the Abacus, which he donated to a merchant in Sansepolcro, and for most of his life he worked on a textbook on proportion theory in which he proceeded from simple descriptions and geometric figures around surfaces and different planes, to then move on to increasingly complex descriptions of fixed, multidimensional structures, seen from a variety of points of view, to finally arrive at detailed calculations about the dimensions and relations of the human body. When Piero della Francesca became blind at the end of his life, he donated his two manuscripts – De quinque corporibus regularibus, On the Five Regular Bodies, and De prospectiva pingendi, On Perspective in Painting, to the son of his generous patron Federico da Montfeltro of Urbino of Urbino.

 

 

Piero della Francesca, who spoke fluent Latin, based his theories on Euclid's (325 BC-265 BC) Elements, thirteen books in which the Greek mathematician summarized all the by then known geometric knowledge. His Regular Bodies corresponded to what Plato in his dialogue Timaeus had described as the convex polyhedra which, according to him, constituted the basic structures of the Universe. Euclid, who was Plato's student, proved by a variety of mathematical calculations that there are only five such basic polyhedra. In alchemy, well known among Renaissance artists who mixed their own colours, Plato's bodies corresponded to the four classical elements, which in turn comprised a fifth structure – the Dodecahedron.

 

 

As in most of Plato's dialogues, Timaeus is a conversation between friends and as always is Socrates' the leading character of the group. The discussion begins with Socrates, who the day before had presented his ideas about the ideal form of government, a discourse Plato described in his most extensive dialogue, Politeia, the State, stating that he is not entirely satisfied with what he had said and he now asks his friends if they have anything to add. The one who speaks most is Timaeus, a wealthy aristocrat and philosopher from what is nowadays the city of Lokri in Calabria. He had recently withdrawn from his communal duties, left his home town and settled in Athens. As a mathematician and philosopher from southern Italy, Timaeus is certainly a member of Pythagoras' sect, though Plato does not say so up front. Timaeus tries to explain why he assumes Socrates' ideal State to be compatible with the inherent order of the Universe and does so through a series, for me far too complicated, descripotiuons of geometrical intricacies.

 

 

Timaeus claims that each basic element corresponds to a geometric geometrical shape – fire to a tetrahedron, air to an octahedron, water to an icosahedron, and earth to a cube. The combination of these forms forms our physical universe. Each of these perfect polyhedra is composed of triangular faces forming 30-60-90 and 45-45-90 triangles. Such faces of each element could be broken down into its component right-angled triangles, either isosceles or scalene, which if combined form all of physical matter of the Universe. Particular characteristics of matter, such as water's capacity to extinguish fire, was then related to shape and size of the constituent triangles. A fifth element is in the form of a dodecahedron, which sides are not triangular and which represents the whole of the Universe, possibly in the same manner as the basic elements are assumed to form a sphere.

 

 

According to Timaeus, knowledge of the interrelationships of geometric structures can help us understand how the Universe is constructed and thus also realize what absolute beauty and harmony really is.

 

Artists like Piero della Francesca assumed that the determination of theoretically perfect forms would provide artists with templates for measurable relationships, facilitating a reproduction of the inherent harmony of nature.

 

 

Someone who was inspired by Piero della Francesca's calculations was the Franciscan monk Luca Pacioli (1447-1517). Thirty years younger than Piero, he also came from Sansepolcro and devoted his entire life to mathematical studies. Pacioli taught at universities and academies in Perugia, Bologna, Milan, Rome and Venice. His masterpiece was De Divina Proportione, The Divine Proportions, written after he had been summoned to Milan in 1497 by Duke Ludovico Sforza, who also had employed Leonardo da Vinci. Pacioli lived together with Leonardo and taught him mathematics, while his grateful pupil illustrated several of the structures Pacioli described in his book, in which he searched for the basic structures of Creation, especially how they all were related to the so-called Golden Section. Pacioli’s influential writings were 1509 in Venice published in three parts. The third part turned out to be a direct Italian translation of Piero della Francesca's Latin manuscript De quinque corporibus regularibus, without citing the source, which when he discovered it made Vasari furious.

 

 

Piero and Pacioli were close acquaintances. In his Brera Altar, originally commissioned by Federico da Montefeltre (seen kneeling at the bottom right), Piero della Francesca portrayed his friend Pacioli as the Franciscan martyr St. Peter, standing behind St. Francis to the right of the Virgin, who has her uncommonly sleeping child in the lap.

 

 

As we have seen, the Renaissance's speculations about the “measure of all things” did not arise out of nothing, but were firmly based on millennial thinking and calculations. The Greek philosopher Protagoras' (481-420 BC) dictum that man is the measure of everything has often been used as a motto for the Renaissance's revival of centuries-old beliefs in humans' unique ability to reshape and interpret their reality on the basis of firm, universal rules. Protagoras’s exact formulation of his statement about man as the centre of Universe was: “Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.” Protagoras's writings have been lost, but his now classical utterances are preserved in one of Plato's dialogues, Theaetetus, which in the 15th century was brought to Florence by Byzantine scholars. Protagoras's opinion has often been referred to by the Latin homo mensura, a term that regularly appears in the context of what has been called Humanism.

 

When I some years ago worked at UNESCO in Paris, the Organization tried to find a motto that would interest the general public in its activities. This is common within the UN system where for example FAO has the motto Fiat Panis, Let there be bread, WFP: Saving Lives, Changing Lives, UNICEF: For Every Child, WHO: Health for All, UNDP: Empowered Lives, Resilient Nations, etc., etc. UNESCO, lacked such a descriptive motto and its Secretary General, Irina Bukova, tried to launch A New Humanism for the 21st Century:

 

Being a humanist today means adapting the strength of an age-old message to the contours of the modern world. By definition, this work is an ongoing effort that knows no end. […] This work of “self-fashioning” is a collective requirement, and here lies the importance of another critical aspect of the humanist message, which emphasizes the necessarily collective dimension of all accomplished human living. Individuals become whole in society, as members of a community.

 

According to me – somewhat too idealistic, convoluted and generalizing. Bokova's attempt at a motto was never realized, probably due to the plethora of difficulties encompassing every concept that has to do with culture and humanism.

Humanism can, for example, be associated with what has been called Human Sciences, or Humanities, a concept comprising all forms of knowledge, from philology to neuroscience, which try to understand what it means to be “human”. Generally speaking, however, the term humanism tends to be used in a more narrow sense and then refer to anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, economics, and especially linguistics.

Humanism can be narrowed down even further and the concept is then usually labelled as Secular Humanism, denoting an opinion that denies all dogmatically and religiously based explanations of the Universe and the human condition. In other words, a form of atheism which means that humans can shape their existence without taking into account any god-determined fate. Of course, a world view that was absolutely out of the question within a UNESCO, which at least while I was there, proved to be hypersensitive to any questioning, or even discussion, concerning religious dogmas, even those that opposed fundamental human rights.

What did humanism and “the measurement of all thingsmean for a Renaissance artist like Piero della Francesca? A difficult question to answer, though some clues might be discerned in his art and of course through his mathematical writings with their references to Euclid and Plato.

In his fresco depicting Constantine's Victory at the Battle of Ponte Milvio, Constantine holds up a small cross, the sight of which makes Maximian and his army flee in wild panic.

 Constantine wears a strange hat that identifies him as the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos. That this really is the Emperor is confirmed by a medal made by Antonio del Pollaiolo (1431-1498) in memory of Paliologos's entry into Florence in 1438, twenty years before Piero della Francesca began painting his frescoes in Arezzo.

Pollaiolo had witnessed the Byzantines' entry and in a sketchbook been drawing their exotic costumes and the strange animals they brought with them.

Pollaiolo also drew a profile portrait of Palaiologos, which he later used to make a commemorative medal, on the back of which he depicted the emperor on horseback, as he had previously sketched him.

 

 

Polllaiolo's image of the emperor corresponds to a painting that strangely enough is kept in the remote monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai desert.

 

 

By the way, the image of Palailogos in his fresco depicting the battle of Ponte Milvio is not Piero della Francesca's only allusion to Pollaiolo's sketches of the Byzantines' entry into Florence and their strange headdresses. Dignities and priests in the fresco The Exaltation of the Cross, which depicts how Emperor Heraclius is bringing the True Cross into Jerusalem, are equipped with high hats similar to those found in Pollaiolo's drawings.

 

 

In his film The Gospel of Matthew from 1964, Pier Paolo Pasolini was in several scenes inspired by Piero della Francesca, not the least when it came to the high priests' costumes and hats.

 

 

Why do Palailogos and the Byzantines appear in della Francesca's renderings Christianity's victory over paganism? As in Ondaatje's novels and Renaissance artists' speculations about the measure of everything, we find in della Francesca how the present and history are mixed together, or in Faulkner's words that “the past is not dead, it is not even past.”

 

The search for the Universe's inherent order was in full swing already 500 years BCE when it was common among Greek philosophers. Much of the revolutionary thinking of the Renaissance was stimulated by translations of ancient Greek texts. During the Middle Ages, such knowledge had been conveyed mainly through Latin, and to some extent, Arabic translations and interpretations. This stream of knowledge became a river when Constantinople, where Greek erudition had been kept alive for more than a thousand years, in the early 15th century became increasingly threatened by Turks and a host of other peoples who were rebelling against Byzantine rule. In the face of this worsening crisis, Greek diplomats as well as other luminaries, came to Italy, either as refugees or to try to whip up support for their efforts to keep the Muslims at bay.

 

For two centuries, it had gone downhill for the Byzantine Empire. Its capital, Constantinople, had not recovered from the terrible looting to which it had been subjected in 1204 by Western European crusaders and their greedy sponsors. Although the Byzantines had during Palaiologo's imperial dynasty succeeded in recapturing the city and partially regained power over its former empire, Constantinople was in 1346 struck by the Black Death; half of the city's inhabitants died while Oguz Turks under their Ottoman rulers relentlessly attacked the crumbling empire´s borders.

 

 

Internal power struggles and confused faith battles in both the East and the West mingled with incessant power struggles based on unlimited greed ran havoc witin both the German-Roman - and Byzantine empires. For a hundred years, the Turks had relentlessly staged a pincer manoeuvre around Constantinople. A short respite was provided when the Mongol armies of the world conqueror Timur Lenk fell on the Turks' backs and made peace with the Byzantines. However, after Timur Lenk's death in 1405, the Ottoman Turks took back what they had lost, and more.

 

Byzantine emperors had early on understood that their only hope for salvation rested with Catholic potentates in the West. In 1369, John V Palaiologos had been secretly baptized as a Catholic by the pope in Rome. His son Manuel II maintained his orthodox faith and fought incessantly against the Turks, sometimes with very expensive Venetian and Castilian support, sometimes without. When Timur Lenk kept the Turks occupied and Manuel's brothers had began to reconquer their empire, Manuel II sailed in 1399 with four large galleys and 1,200 companions to Venice, from where his large retinue continued towards England. On their way to London, the Greeks were greeted with pomp and circumstance in the northern Italian cities and Paris. Manuel II had brought with him priests and philosophers, who discussed matters of faith and ancient philosophy at the University of Sorbonne and the then famous Theological Centre in Canterbury. However, when the Ottomans in 1403 had been defeated by the Mongol rulers, Manuel II returned to Constantinople. Timur Lenk died two years after the emperor's return and the Turks retaliated with violent force, while Manuel II found that the promises of aid from the Italians, the French and the English were only empty words.

 

 

His son, John VIII Palaiologos, found no other resort than to resume his father's attempts to get Western princes and ecclesiastical potentates to assist him in his defence against the infidels. After tough negotiations, Europe's most powerful leaders agreed to organize a comprehensive church meeting in Ferrara in 1438, to revoke the schism which in 1054 had separated Eastern Orthodoxy from Catholicism. It was part of a desperate attempt by Palailogos to convince the wealthy northern Italian princes, the German-Roman Empire and the Pope's representatives that it was high time to realise a large crusade against the threatening Muslims. The call for a gathering was heard and obeyed by theologians, philosophers and princes from East and West. As Muslims generally accepted the Christian faith, several monks and priests, already subjugated by the Osman Empire, also came to Ferrara, where they met with other prelates from Europe's most remote areas – Catholic Irish monks from the West and Orthodox Muscovites from the East. When, after a couple of months of meetings, the plague hit Ferrara, the deliberations were moved to Florence.

 

After intensive debating, the delegates agreed in July 1438 to unite the Orthodox and Catholic faiths under the supremacy of the Pope in Rome. However, after Johannes Palaiolologos had returned to Constantinople in 1440, the split was once again a fact. His desperate initiative had only provoked protests and divisions at home in Byzantium. Soon everything was lost. Only 2,000 Western mercenaries, mostly from northern Italy, assisted the Greeks in their final struggle while the mighty city and its empire were lost to the Turks in 1453, five years after Palaiologo's death. Few people, however, could have predicted that the men and writings that had accompanied Palaiologos on his journey to the West would forever change the art and thinking of Europe, and perhaps even of the entire world.

 

 

Among the Byzantine scholars in Palaiologos' entourage were John Argyropoulos and Georgius Gemistus. During the Council of Florence, John Argyropoulos lectured interested intellectuals in Greek language and literature, until after four years in Italy he accompanied Palaiologos when he returned to Constantinople. By then Argyropoulos spoke fluent Italian and had obtained a doctorate from the University of Padua. After the fall of Constantinople, he returned to Florence where he taught for fourteen years, before continuing to Rome where he died in 1487, according to rumour after eating to many watermelons.

 

Under Argyropoulos´s aegis several important Italian writers and translators became well acquainted with the Greek language and its ancient writers, and not least Koiné, the Greek dialect in which the New Testament had been written. Although Georgius Gemistus stayed in Florence for a shorter period than Argyropoulos, after five or six years he had returned to his home-town of Mystras on the Peloponnesos, his influence became greater than that of Argyropoulos.

 

Argyropoulos was an expert on Aristotle, whose writings in Latin translations already had had a great impact on European scholars. Gemistus, who changed his name to Plethon to pay homage to his master, was a devoted follower of Plato, whose writings by then were virtually unknown in the West. When Marsilio Ficino, who had learned Greek from Argyropoulos got to know Plethon, he was captured by Plato and translated all the writings of the Greek philosopher into Latin. Ficino also succeeded in persuading his friend and patron, the wealthy Cosimo de Medici, to establish a Platonic Academy.

 

 

Cosimo bought a villa called La Fontanelle, later replaced by Villa di Careggi, as a haunt for his L'Accademia neoplatonica, whose members taught and studied Greek literature, translated texts into Latin and Italian, and immersed themselves in discussions about ancient philosophy. On a fresco made by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the late 1480s, we discern some members of L'Accademia . Its founder Marsilio Ficino talks to Cristoforo Landino, an expert on Latin and Greek rhetoric, the genius Agnolo Poliziano, who before the age of nineteen had translated The Iliad into Latin, and the Greek humanist Demetrios Chalkondyles, who in 1447 had come to Italy as a refugee.'

 

 

Ten years earlier, Ghirlandaio had on a fresco in the Sistine Chapel depicted Argyropoulos as a bearded man who, in a crowd watches Jesus calling Peter and Andrew to become his apostles.

 

 

It seems that several of the Florentine artists moved in the circles around L'Accademia neoplatonica and were well aware of the great importance that the Greek injection of ancient learning had for the emergence of a radical philosophy, which stressed independent, innovative thinking above a slavish devotion theological dogmas. Perhaps the most impressive tribute to the entry of ancient Greek knowledge into Florentine cultural life are the magnificent frescoes that Benozzi Gozzoli in 1459 began to paint in the Chapel of the Medici in the Riccardi Palace, where we glimpse Georgius Gemistus Plehton in the retinue of The Three Magi.

 

 

The fresco was in fact a tribute to John VIII Palaiologos and created in memory of the Byzantine emperor´s 1438 triumphant entry into Florence. Although Constantinople was lost to Christianity and John VIII was long dead and buried when Gozzoli made his fresco, it is a tribute to Greek learning that with the Byzantine emperor made its entrance into Florence and for ever changed it´s intellectual outlook. It is probably not far-fetched to connect a depiction of the Three Magis´ arrival at Jesus' birthplace as a hint to how the Greeks donated their gifts of knowledge to what would be the Renaissance´s flourishing in Florence.

 

 

It is mainly by Gemistus Plethon that we find Humanism in full bloom. His thinking, thoroughly based on Plato's writings, constituted the last branches of a tradition that stubbornly had survived for more than a thousand years of Christian dominance. The philosophers and writers who had tried to keep ancient education alive were generally, both by themselves and their opponents, called, Hellenes. Several Hellenes had over the centuries been accused of organizing secret societies to preserve Greek, “pagan” ideologies that asserted free will and critical thinking against Christian dogma, and there is ample evidence that dogmatic Christians’ allegations basically had been true.

 

The great Byzantine author and philosopher Michael Psellos (1018-1078), who exercised great influence over several emperors, was a diligent writer of both history and philosophy, and as such he perfected the art of rewriting and describing “heretical” thoughts in such a manner that it appeared as he refuted them by carefully accounting for the delusions they exposed, when he, as a matter fact, spread and commented upon them.

 

 

Following in the footsteps of Psellos and Plato, Gemistus Plethon argued that eternal, cosmic laws governed human existence, and in his most detailed writing Nómōn syngraphḗ or Nómoi, the Book of Laws, he tried to present and explain those natural laws, whether they were benevolent or not. Plethon described a Universe that is basically perfect, eternal, and without beginning or end. The human soul is, just like the gods (if they now exist), immortal, originally good and reincarnated into a succession of moribund and resurrected bodies. When Plethon, during his stay in Italy fearlessly exposed such insights to an audience educated in the limited world of Catholicism, which rather than abiding to any cosmic laws were governed by dogmas established by an almighty church and political rulers, he either terrified or enchanted his audiences.

 

While in Florence, Plethon wrote De differentiis Platonis et Aristotelis, On the Differences Between Aristotle and Plato. He wrote the book during a time of illness “with no other purpose than to correct various misconceptions” concerning the teachings of the two philosophers, “to comfort myself and please those who are followers of Plato.” In his writings, Plethon claims that God is the creator of “every conceivable, existing and separate substance… and thus our entire universe.” Like Psellos before him, Plethon taught views that could be perceived as heretical and anti-Christian, but he did so in such a manner that he seemed to share the common view of God, which in fact, at least in conservative, Byzantine circles, forbade any speculation about His true nature, as it had been established during various councils.

 

 

Plethon described the fundamental difference between Plato and Aristotle by explaining that God for the latter was only the ultimate cause of movement and change, while Plato's God was identical with the all-encompassing existence of Universe and the natural laws that governs it all. Plethon's argumentation is quite akin of the one Spinoza provided two hundred years later, even the mathematically based “realism” that made the Dutch philosopher claim that “all matter is God”.

 

Plehon's Nómoi was after his death burned by hostile priests, although his personal summary is preserved. He gave it to the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Joseph II, who on Gozzoli's fresco in the Medici Riccardi Palace leads the triumphal procession of the Three Magi. In Nómoi, Plethon described how man has been able to compensate for his limitations and intellectual shortcomings by constantly developing technical tools and appliances, while writing books which preserved insights and thoughts. Accordingly, our ability to change and understand the nature of the world is constantly evolving. An ability that constitutes the basis for Plethon's positive belief in how human existence is gradually being improved by increasingly effective and fairer laws. What Plethon advocates is not, as often has been claimed, the establishment a political ideology leading up to the creation of a totalitarian utopia, but rather a plea for a progressive decoding of the secrets of Universe. An effort that will free us humans from delusions and superstitions, which manipulative despots and fundamentalists use to exercise their destructive power over our way of thinking.

 

After returning from his Florentine sojourn, Gemistus Plethon isolated himself in his home-town of Mystras on Peleponnesos, not far from the former Sparta, where he gathered a circle of faithful disciples around himself and in his writings defended his faith in Plato and other antique philosophers from increasingly intense dogmatic attacks he was subjected to from conservative monks and prelates living in Constantinople and on Mount Athos. These defenders of obscurantism stubbornly clung to the thesis that God reveals himself and communicates his knowledge through inner experiences and mysticism. Accordingly it was useless to explore the nature and rules of Universe. The true nature of God and his creation is revealed through the Bible and how it has been interpreted by dogmas established by the Church Councils. Denying this could only lead to heresy, atheism and anarchy. To them, philosophers like Plethon, with their soft spot for Greek paganism and Persian Zorastrianism, posed a grave threat to the true Christian religion, and they were suspected, perhaps rightly, of trying to establish a syncretistic mixture of religions and philosophies — in other words, they acted as wolves in sheep's clothing.

 

 

The reading of Siniossoglu's excellent study Radical Platonism in Byzantium made me re-read Plato's dialogue Theatetus. Unfortunately, I have occasionally been influenced by perceptions that have concentrated on the totalitarian nonsense that philosophers like St. Paul, Nietzsche, Marx or Plato have hatched, making me ignore a wealth of insights that these philosophers could have provided me with if I had been more open-minded and attentive in my reading of their books. Like while listening to music it is important for me to be able to open up to philosophy and not let any preconceived notions hinder me from enjoying what is really good and challenging.

 

 

Theatetus's layout is superb, worthy of an excellent play, or a fascinating film. In the port city of Megara, the old friends Euclid and Terpsion meet in its town square. They have not seen each other for several years and Terpsion, who has just arrived from Athens, can tell Euclid that he in that town had encountered their mutual friend Theatetus, who mortally wounded after a battle at Corinth had returned to the city and furthermore was seriously infected with dysentery. In this context, Terpsion says that several years earlier, just before Socrates had been sentenced to death, he had visited a gymnasium, or gym as it now is called. In one of its porticos he had met with Socrates and a philosopher named Theodorus, a student of Protagoras and when Terpsion had sat down with them, young Theatetus appeared, sweaty after his gymnastic exercises. According to Terpsion, Theatetus was a bright but rather ugly, young man, “he actually reminds me of Socrates”. Socrates, appreciated Theatetus’s youthful enthusiasm and curiosity, enjoying listening to his observations while contrasting them with Theodorus's more thoughtful reflections.

 

A conversation unfolded, which, according to Terpsion, differed from the speeches he, as a lawyer, had been forced to listen to during court proceedings, where everyone clung to preconceived opinions. On the other hand, any conversation that included a genius like Socrates constituted an exquisite pleasure. During such lively discussions, original insights and opinions developed, constantly changing in an exciting and unexpected way.

 

 

When the elated Terpsion had returned home, he decided to write down, as accurately as possible, what he had listened to in the gymnasium´s portico. He had presented what he had written to Socrates, who read the whole thing with great interest while correcting and commenting upon everything. Terpsion had had that scripture lying around for several years, but now when Theatetus was dying and Socrates and Theodorus were dead, it might be high time to listen to what Euclid thought about it all. Together, the two friends went home to Terpsion where they listened to how his slave read aloud what Terpsion had written and that was the dialogue Plato claimed to reproduce.

 

 

Through this sophisticated background story, Plato avoids claiming that it is his own opinions that he is presenting, while Socrates is provided with an opportunity to compare the young Theatetus´s intuitive knowledge with Theodorus's more “mature” points of view, which nevertheless are coloured by Protagoras's teachings. What are they talking about? Well, whether is possible to achieve an accurate understanding of the Universe. Is it correct to assert, like Protagoras, that all knowledge is unique to each individual human being? That everything is relative, that “man is the measure of everything?” Socrates claims that human knowledge is only a small fraction of an extremely complicated reality. Foxes have one kind of knowledge, badgers another and so do humans. But – no dog and no ordinary person is a measure of anything unless he understands it.”

 

 

Each of us perceives the reality around us based on the ability of our own senses and those differ from person to person. We are furthermore affected by our environment and upbringing. What we have heard, seen and read.

 

The conversation spins on from one perception to another. Protagora's theorem that man is the measure of everything is scrutinized from all kind of angles, affirmed and denied. The discussion is incessantly amusing and stimulating. In the end, Socrates's view seems to be that there can be no denying that wise men exist (Plato was, like so many other ancient Greeks philosophers, blatantly misogynic), though it is clearly not easy to pass a definite judgement about what is true or false. However, some things and opinions are “better” than others, but whether they are “more true” remains an open question. However, Socrates considers himself to be like a doctor who, through his experience, can recommend remedies he assumes are more benevolent than harmful. Everything changes, everything flows, but one thing remains the same throughout the ages and that is that if we try to do good for others and they perceive it that way, then it is certain that good deeds benefit both them and us.

 

In me Plato´s Theatetus aroused associations to Piero della Francesca´s art. At one point in the dialogue, Socrates mentions his mother:

 

Haven´t you heard that my mother Phainarete was a good, sturdy midwife? […] barren women are not recipients of the gift of midwifery, because human nature is too weak to become skilled in matters of which it has no experience. […] isn’t it necessary, in fact, that midwives are better than others recognizing whether, or not women are pregnant […] and that’s no end to their abilities; their chants and the drugs they administer can induce labour and relieve the pains, as they see fit; and can bring on a miscarriage, if that seems best. And have you also noticed that they know all there is to know about pairing types of women and men to produce the best children.

 

 

Socrates then declares that he from his mother has inherited the best qualities of a midwife – he has become able to assess whether a person can come up with any valuable thoughts. He has enough experience to be able to do so because he has read texts and listened to wise men and thus got to know the words that stimulate a development of original thoughts. He is also able to halt a debate if it goes off track and in addition to all this, he has learned to discern who among his friends and acquaintances may be paired with others to give rise to the most rewarding conversations.

 

There is probably no connection, though Piero della Francesca is one of the few artists who has created a truly majestic depiction of a pregnant woman. As Ondaatje mentioned above, della Francesca's fresco Madonna del Parto, the Madonna of Birth, can be admired next to the cemetery outside the village of Monerchi. He created it in the chapel of the cemetery, next to the place where he had buried his beloved mother. I visited Monerchi with Rose and our friends Jaqueline and Joe when we in a torrential shower were on our way to Arezzo to admire Piero della Francesca's frescoes.

 

 

La Madonna del Parto is yet another of Piero's stately, triumphant female figures. An example of what Bernhard Berenson considered to be della Francesca's ability to create a parallel reality, which seems to be more real, more universal than the one we live in, something achieved through his almost uncanny, skilful manner of transmitting a sense of imperturbability.

 

In della Francesca's art we witness how something new is born, based on his knowledge and experience firmly rooted in a thousand-year-old tradition, but let us now for the time being leave philosophy and art aside and enter the world of crime.

 

On February 6, 1975, a desperate appeal was broadcast over all Italian radio and television channels:

 

Don´t touch the colours,” the spokesman said. “Cover the paintings with velvet fabric and wrap them in the kind of plastic material that is used to keep ice cream cold. Keep the paintings cool and dry” and he further noted that the Flagellation was particularly fragile. 

 

Just a few hours after the authorities' appeal, a young lady did, at the market in Pesaro, at her boyfriend's request purchase several metres of velvet fabrics. It was the carpenter Elio Pazzaglia who had asked her to buy the textiles. However, the girl had already listened to the authorities' appeal and knew that two of Piero della Francesca's paintings and a portrait painted by Rafael had been stolen and now had to be protected by the thieves. Concerned, the young lady turned to her mother, who called a relative, a retired carabinieri, who alerted the Italian State's Command for Protection of the Cultural Heritage.

At ten o'clock in the evening of the fifth of February 1975, the carpenter Elio Pazzaglia and three companions had through the scaffolding in front of the Prince's Palace in Urbino after breaking a window, entered one of the halls and from their frames cut out Piero della Francesca's Senigallia Madonna and Flagellation of Christ, as well as a portrait painted by Raphael, called The Mute One. The palace lacked an electronic alarm system, but at half past two in the morning the theft had been discovered by the night watchman, a national alarm was activated and after a few hours a hunt for the art thieves was in full swing.

However, it turned out to be difficult to save the paintings. The perpetrators had disappeared in Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Like much in Italy, the whole story was soon lost in a tangle of Mafiosi, abysmal leftists and shady businessmen. It took a year before the paintings turned up again, unscathed and wrapped in velvet fabric and cooling plastic.

Intermediary between perpetrators and authorities appers to have been a shady art dealer from Rimini, with business in Bologna and contacts with the terrorist group Brigate Rosse. He negotiated a ransom of one billion lira per work of art (equivalent of 1.5 million USD), an imaginary sum that the State could not possibly pay out and a planned exchange failed completely. Nevertheless, a second attempt at a deal was made. The art dealer managed to make the thieves await an exchange in a hotel room in Locarno in southern Switzerland, a well-known centre for murky deals. Balena, the art dealer, had promised contacts with a Swiss millionaire, but instead the carabinieri showed up, catching the thieves and saving the paintings. Despite his involvement in the affair, Balena apparently managed to avoid to be involved in any legal aftermath. In any case, a week after being salvaged, the paintings were returned to Urbino, where the carbinieri´s armoured car was received by a jubilant crowd.

Apart from being stolen, and even then it was in a poor condition, Flagellation of Christ is without a doubt Piero della Francesca's most puzzling painting. Several books have been written about it, presenting several imaginative and often contraindicative attempts to interpret it. Despite its warm colours, it is a cool image, divided into two levels. In the foreground, three men are engaged in a discussion, apparently completely uninterested in the whipping of Christ that takes place in the background. The frigid torture of Jesus appears as if it was part of an established rite, following fixed rules, completely lacking any signs of violence and suffering. The flagellation of Christ takes place in an open, antique marble-decorated gallery, and is watched by a figure sitting on a folding chair. It is obviously not Pontius Pilate, but possibly Palaiologos, who is depicted in profile and with the same hat he has on the Arezzo fresco, Pollaiolo's medal and the painting in the Sinai monastery.

 

 

But, what does Palaiologos have to do with a presentation of the flagellation of Jesus? Did he not try to save Christianity from the Muslim onslaught? He can thus not be a representation a Pontius Pilate. who actually was part of an effort to annihilate Christianity. Nevertheless, here is Palaiologos seemingly unmoved watching how Jesus is tormented by a gang of insensitive executioners, who for sure are no followers of Jesus' teachings. Perhaps these tormentors are representing the Oguz Turks who threatened Palaiologos´s capital and after his death finally conquered Constantinople. But why is the emperor a passive observer? Perhaps because he was helpless, without the assistance of the three figures who seemingly unaffected by Christ's suffering discuss something in the foreground?

 

 

Who these men represent has been proposed several times. It was Kenneth Clark who in 1950 came up with a theory indicating that the Flagellation of Christ, just like the Arezzo frescoes, in a historical/legendary disguise represented a piece of extremely important, contemporary history. Clark linked the paintings to the fall of Constantinople and the preparations made by Pope Pius II for a crusade against the Turks. When the Flagellation was created, sometime in the 1460s, such a crusade was at the very centre of the political plans of the Italian small states’ and the German-Roman Empire, and not the least so for the intellectual condottiere Federico da Montefeltro, Urbino's prince and customer of the painting

 

If that could be the case, Clark interpreted the discussing men in the paintings foreground as a bearded Greek philosopher involved in a conversation with an Italian prince and a third, mediating participant in the debate. The famous ethnologist Carlo Ginzburg, who writes extensively about medieval and modern heretical sects, went further than Clark and identified the people as politicians contemporary with Piero della Francesca. According to Ginzburg, the bearded man would then be Cardinal Giovanni Bessarion, who had the pope's ear and was eager for a crusade, in the process of trying to convince the man in green, Giovanni Bacci, who ordered the frescoes in Arezzo and tried to persuade his friend Federico da Montefeltro to participate in and fund an anti-Turkish crusade.

 

 

That Bessarion appears in this context may be due to the fact that he was closely acquainted with Federico da Montefeltro, who even had included Bassarion's portrait among the twenty-eight “famous men” whose portraits he had chosen to decorate his studiolo, study chamber. The sight of these illustrious men would inspire the old mercenary while he was reading the writings he considered most worthy of an in-depth study. As in della Francesca's art, these portraits mix the present with the past, as well as near and far. Here Euclid, Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas and Gregory the Great mingle with modern scholars like Bessarion and Enea Piccolomini. Moses and Solomon are found side by side with Homer and Virgil. Ancient poets mingle with Dante and Petrarca.

 

 

Bessarion was born in Trebizond, a port town on the south-east coast of the Black Sea. After studies in Constantinople, he joined Gemistus Plethon's Academy in Mystras and then accompanied his master on his journey to Italy, where Bessarion remained until his death in 1472. Bessarion's Roman villa, where he headed a Platonic Academy, like the one in Florence, remains and is actually not far from our Roman apartment.

For Bessarion, Plethon was an unrivalled master and Plato almost divine. Furthermore was Bessarion himself already during his lifetime by his followers considered to be “a reincarnation of Plato”.

If Piero della Francesca in his Flagellation of Christ actually had portrayed contemporary personalities, such as Bessarion and Bacci, the third man in the foreground's discussion group could be Thomas Palaiologos, younger brother of Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire. When Piero della Francesca painted the Flagellation, Thomas Palaiologos was exiled in Venice. Carlo Ginzburg explained that Thomas Palaiologos is depicted barefooted since he has not yet become emperor.

Ginzburg's theory might be correct, though it appears as somewhat too speculative for my liking. I willingly admit´that the Flagellation of Christ may allude to crusader plans and that the background symbolizes Constantinople's suffering under the Turks, which Palaiologos was unable to prevent, though I am inclined to simply consider the people in the foreground to be an Italian prince and a Byzantine emperor, whose discussion is mediated by an angel symbolizing their Christian duty to reconquer Constantinople from the Muslims, and that the man in the middle is an angel, whose heavenly origin is demonstrated by the fact that he his barefoot, like most angels depicted by della Francesca, and there are quite a few. Additionally, the golden-haired figure bears no resemblance at all to Thomas Palaiologos, but with several of the angelic figures that appear in other della Francesca paintings.

 

 

That the bearded man wearing a brown cloak and a rather strange headdress could represent a Byzantine emperor is underlined by the fact that he does not look like Bessarion (his portrait can be found in the same building as the painting) but instead reminds of how Benozzo Gozzoli depicted John VIII Palaiologos on his magnificent fresco in the Medici Riccardi Palace.

 

 

This apotheosis of how Greek knowledge makes its entrance into Florence, a moment which also constituted the Medici's proudest moment since they were the generous hosts of this conference that would unite East and West and which brought Greek learning to the Renaissance, which that under Medici's aegis would be born in Florence.

 

 

Benozzo Gozzoli began his frescoes in the Riccardi Chapel twenty years after Palaiologos's entry into Florence, six years after the fall of Constantinople and nine years before 1468 when Piero della Francesca is believed to have painted the Flagellation of Christ.

 

When the Florentines witnessed the triumphant entrance of the exotically costumed Byzantines in 1438, Benozzo Gozzoli was eighteen years old and deservedly loved and appreciated by his master Fra Angelico.”

 

Although Gozzoli made his frescoes long after Palaiologos's entry into Florence, they are filled with portraits of people who were active at the time and he depicted himself next to the bearded Gemistus Plethon. It is not impossible that Gozzoli came to know Plethon, or at least associated with his disciples. Opus de Benotii d…, Work by Benootii d ..., it says on red red cap Gozzoli wears as he as a young man rides beside Plethon. 

 

 

The festive impression from the triumphal procession must have lingered with Gozzoli because it is difficult to imagine a more magnificent and elated representation of a triumphal procession, where each member of the brilliant company is identifiable. In the lead is the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Joseph II, who rides a mule, followed by the handsome John VIII Palaiologos on a white stallion. 

 

 

The third Mago would probably have been the German-Roman emperor Sigismund, though he had died the year before the conference. Pope Eugene IV was also unable to attend since he had just before the event been deposed by a hostile faction within the Catholic Church, the so-called Ecclesiastical General Assembly based in Basel. How Gozzoli solved the problem with the third Magi remains unknown, though in 1469 he painted in his place the young Lorenzo Medici, who would later to be called Il Magnifico, the Magnificent.

 

 

Lorenzo Medici was not even born in 1438, but Gozzoli painted him as he appeared in 1469 during a festive tournament held when the heir to the power and wealth of the Medicis at the age of twenty was going to be married. Lorenzo became known as an active member and generous benefactor of the Florentine Platonic Academy and especially its new, young leader Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, became especially dear to him. della Mirandola appear as the embodiment of the absolute pinnacle of the Florentine Renaissance as a beacon in art and philosophy. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who here on a fresco by Cosimo Roselli is seen as protectively flanked by the Platonic academicians Marsilio Ficino and Agnolo Poliziano, was already at a very young age known for his extensive learning and knowledgable reading of Jewish Kabbalah and Greek philosophy, as it had been mediated by Gemistus Plethon.

 

 

In 1488, della Mirandola published his book Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has been called a Renaissance Manifesto. della Mirandola claimed that man is different from other beings in that he is free to think whatever he wants, is self-aware and thus able to exercise power over others and his natural environment. Humans are to, within the limits set by God, satisfy their desires, regardless of what the Church's time-limited hegemony and dogmas dictate.

 

 

However, it was not only philosophers who were impressed by the ancient  Greek  philosophy, transmitted by men like Gemistus Plethon. Even an unusually brutal ruthless and unfaithful warlord and mercenary, who already during his lifetime was feared and slandered – Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta – read and admired the Greek philosopher. We glimpse him on Gozzolo's fresco, though he is better known from Piero della Francesca's portrait of him.

 

 

Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta was, as it is currently called in the US, a gun for hire. Twice he joined the powerful Este family and twice he betrayed them for customers who paid him better. He behaved in the same manner in his dealings with Pope Pius II. Malatesta was considered to be one of the most skilful commanders of his time, but even according to contemporary historian Francesco Guicciardini, he was describeds as despicable person prone to “rape, adultery and incest, an enemy to every form of peace and well-being.” Someone who wholeheartedly hated Maltesta was Pope Pius II (Enea Silvio Piccolomini), the only pope who has written his memoirs. In his Comentarii, Pius II makes an attack on Maltesta, which in its unique rage is worth quoting, especially since the man Pius II describes as a grotesque beast had read both Plato and Gemistus Plethon, written passionate love poetry and been a generous employer of both Leon Battista Alberti and Piero della Francesca:

 

Sigismondo belonged to the noble Malatesta family, although he was born out of wedlock; he was very vigorous in body and mind and gifted with great eloquence and military prowess. Whatever he was inclined to do, he seemed to be born for. However, bad inclinations always had the upper hand: he was to such a point a slave to avarice that he did not hesitate, I do not say to plunder, but to steal; in his lust he was so unrestrained that he went as far as violating his own daughters and sons. As a young man he dressed himself up as a woman and played the part of the female in the company of effeminated men. There was no marriage that sacred to him. He defiled holy virgins and had intercourse with Jewish women. Boys and girls who did not consent to his vile desires he had killed or cruelly whipped. When it came to cruelty he exceeded any barbarian. His gory hands inflicted heinous punishments on both the guilty and the innocent. He oppressed the poor, he snatched goods from the rich; and he did not spare widows and orphans either. No one could live safely under his rule. Wealth was not enough, nor a beautiful wife, nor any children of pleasant appearance, to avoid Malatesta transforming their possessor into an offender. The truth was rare on his lips; an excellent teacher when it came to simulating and dissimulating, a perfidious and perjuring man ... Such was Sigismund: intolerant to any peace, devoted to pleasures, although capable of enduring any kind of toil and greedy for war, a bad man among all the men who have lived and will live in this world, a dishonour to Italy and a shame of our century.

 

 

It was probably Pius II's aggressive anathema and the hatred of his notorious infidelity aroused in powerful men like Francesco Sforza of Milan, which forced Maltesta to seek support from the Venetians. To offer protection to his dominion, Rimini and its surrounding areas, the Venetians demanded that he, on their behalf, recaptured the Despostate of Morea, which included the Peloponnese peninsula and which until 1463 had been a province within the Byzantine Empire, actually the last area of the former empire to fall into the hands of the Turks. Morea's capital was Mystras, wher of Plethon's Academy was situated. The philosopher had died in Mystras around the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

 

On May 7, 1464, after his men had been blessed by Cardinal Bessarion in the Venetian Basilica of San Marco, Malatesta sailed to Greece with seven large galleys, soon followed by six more, with a total of 1,200 horses and 4,000 men, fewer than the 3,000. riders and 5,000 infantrymen he had been promised. In addition, the soldiers' morale was extremely bad. Delayed salaries, lack of supplies and fodder made them loot and rape the local population, which instead of considering them as liberators sought protection and support from the Turkish conquerors.

 

 

Through draconian measures – mass executions among his own men, the removal of officers and the concession of free looting of strongholds conquered from the Turks, Malatesta tried to overcome the wretched discipline and finally succeeded in conquering Mystras. However, as the city was besieged by a far superior Turkish army, combined with a miserable weather, shortages and contagious diseases raged among Malatesta's exhausted troops, they were soon forced to desperately withdraw from the Turkish encirclement and leave the country.

 

Malatesta brought with him Gemistus Plethon's ashes, which he on his return to Rimini entombed within his Tempio Malatestiano “so that the great Teacher may be among free men.”

 

 

The cathedral of Rimini, was renovated by Malatesta and in that connecton he had Leon Battista Alberti create a completely unique and revolutionary, classical façade. The religious building thus no longer had the character of a Christian church and was therefore called a “temple” instead of a “cathedral”. Of course, Malatesta's constant nemesis, Pius II, resented this and declared that the godless Malatesta had turned Rimini´s cathedral into a mausoleum and a memorial dedicated to himself. 

 

The pope actually had some justification for his opinion. The sculptor Agostino di Duccio, who like Piero della Francesca was brought from Perugia, adorned the interior of the cathedral with elegant reliefs depicting unusually lightly dressed angels and Roman deities.

 

 

Piero della Francesca made a fresco showing how Malatesta worships St. Sigismund of Burgundy, patron saint of Bohemia , though the saint actually has the features of the German-Roman emperor Sigismund of Hungary. During a visit to Rimini in 1433, this emperor had knighted Malatesta and what on della Francesca's fresco may seem like the adoration of a saint is in fact a picture of how Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta swears an oath of allegiance to his namesake and feudal lord.

 

 

A nice detail is della Francesca's portrayal of Malatesta's veneration of Sigismund is his depiction of the duke´s two greyhounds. The white one waits faithfully for his master, while the black vigilantly raises his head and pricks up his ears.

 

 

After Piero della Francesca had finished St. Antonio's Polyptych in 1468, which Rose and I had admired in Perugia, he entered in the service of Malatesta's  arch  enemy,  the  condottiero  Federico da Montefeltro, ruler of Urbino. Like Maltesta, da Montefeltro was a skilled and ruthless mercenary who made his services available to the anyone who paid him the best. He was suspected of coming to power by having his half-brother murdered, but despite his brutal desire for power, da Montefeltro was a more likeable person than Malatesta. It seems that the large number of writers and artists who were attracted to his court had a sincere respect and admiration for da Montefeltro, who in his youth had received a solid humanistic upbringing from his uncle Vittorino da Feltre, known for his innovative pedagogical methods. Among the twenty-eight portraits of famous men that Federico kept in his studiolo, he had included Vittorino d Feltre, and there he also had a portrait of Pius II, Malatesta's relentless enemy.

 

 

Despite his fierce reputation and disfigured appearance, he had broken his nose during a tournament in his youth and lost his right eye, da Montefeltro was much loved by his wife Battista Sforza, his seven daughters and three sons.

 

 

Piero della Francesca also appreciated him and discussed philosophy and mathematics with the educated mercenary. It was at his request that della Francesca had created the mysterious  Flagellation of Christ. When da Montefeltro died in 1482, Piero della Francesca retired to his home-town, Sansepolcro, the artist was then virtually blind and could after a couple of years no longer paint. Piero della Francesca died on October 12, 1492, the same day that Columbus landed on the Caribbean island of Guanahani, which he named San Salvador, and thus began the European conquest of America.

 

As so often before, this blog post resulted in a long-winding journey. It began with a description of a visit to Perugia and ended with the death of Piero della Francesca. The meaning of the journey is not much more than a statement that an Italian sojourn easily gives rise to feelings that time and space flow together, that the present includes the past, that everything is much more multifaceted than it seems to be at a first confrontation. A few hours in Perugia turned out to be filled with influences from widely differing places and time periods – present and Renaissance, Constantinople and Florence, and much more than that.

 

 

Berenson, Bernhard (1960) The Italian Painters of the Renaissance. Glasgow: Fontana. Cattabini, Alfredo (2018) Santi D’Italia: Vita, leggende, iconografia, patronati, culto. Milano: Mondadori. Clark, Kenneth (1969) Piero della Francesca. London: Phaidon Press. Dickens, Charles (1998) Pictures from Italy. London: Penguin Classics. Ginzburg, Carlo (2001) Indagini su Piero: Il Battesimo. Il ciclo di Arezzo. La flagellazione di Urbino. Con l'aggiunta di quattro appendici. Torino: Einaudi. Halimi, Suzy (2014) ”A new humanism? Heritage and future prospects,” International Review of Education, Volume 60, Issue 3.  James, Henry (1995) Italian Hours. London: Penguin Classics. Law, Stephen (2011) Humanism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mirandola, Pico della (2016) Oration on the Dignity of Man. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nardone, Domenico (2011) ”La spedizione in Morea di Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (1464-1466),”  https://wwwbisanzioit.blogspot.com/2011/10/la-spedizione-in-morea-di-sigismondo.htmlOliveri, Vincenzo (2015) Albergo Muralto camera 116. Loreto: Controvento Editrice. Ondaatje, Michael (1987) In the Skin of a Lion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Ondaatje, Michael (2004) The English Patient. London: Bloomsbury. Pauli, Tatjana (1999) Piero della Francesca: The neglected master of the Renaissance – his life in Paintings. London/New York: Dorling Kinderley. Plato (2004) Theatetus. London: Penguin Classics. Plato (2008) Timaeus and Critias. London: Penguin Classics. Siniossoglou, Niketas (2016) Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Phleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Vasari, Giorgio (1971) Lives of the Artists: A Selection. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. Voragine, Jacobus de (2012) The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Zuffi, Stefano et.al. (2006) L’Umanesimo: La Grande Storia dell’Arte, 16. Milano: Mondadori. Williamson, Hugh Ross (1974) Lorenzo the Magnificent. London: Michael Joseph Ltd.

 

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