Carlo Ginzburg’s biographical “investigation ” into the art of Piero della Francesca, Indagini su Piero, was translated into English as The Enigma of Piero. The translated title strikes a very true chord: there is an opacity or reticence or unknowability to Piero and his artistic style is the formal equivalent of a blank affect. This is registered in both the impassive, expressionless visages he depicts, but also in the broad, simplified, static formal language used to depict them.
The remoteness of Piero’s style is best seen by comparing it to that of his contemporary, Andrea Mantegna. Since the 15th century, Mantegna has been faulted for his cold, lapidary style of painting, his intellectual distance and an excess of gravitas.
However, pictures like the Cristo Scorto, the Agony in the Garden and the Man of Sorrows depict a raw emotionality meant to elicit an empathetic response from their viewer. The edges may be exact and hard, but they reveal the contours of the human body.
By contrast, Piero’s work is devoid of such passions and his figures, from the Baptism through the unfinished Nativity, resemble simple volumes hewn from ashy, cold, stone. Earlier, I described Piero’s painting style as laconic, when, in fact, mute might be more accurate. The act of speech is almost never depicted, leaving the figures to communicate with each other through gestures with their lips sealed.
The avoidance of the representation of speech might have posed problems for the narrative components of the paintings, but Piero compensates for that omission in unexpected ways. As Michael Baxandall has observed, for Piero, feet are social, and if one attends to their representation in his painting, one realizes that a great deal of animated interaction takes place below the knee.
Finally, to complete the Mantegna comparison, Piero’s figures are beyond lapidary–the body is generalized and anecdotal detail kept to a bare minimum. As he demonstrates in De Prospectiva Pigendi, his figures are conceived of as geometric volumes plotted on a spatial continuum.
Piero’s remoteness and imperturbable resistance to expressionism, are not, however, Ginzburg’s topic. His Italian title might have been better translated as Investigating Piero or The Unsolved Case of Piero. The allusion to mystery novels and police forensics is deliberate–the mysteries requiring investigation revolve around lacunae in the historical record about patrons, textual sources, circumstances of production, and chronology, which the historian/detective “solves ” by sifting through the evidence.
The evidence, which is to say, the period documentation of Piero’s art, is relatively scanty. When confronted with this problem while writing his admirable biography of Piero, historian James Banker delved into the archives and with great diligence, discovered over 100 hitherto unknown records concerning Piero. Ginzburg, chooses a different approach: fills in the gaps in the record with lawyerly speculation, “logical” inferences and hunches.
The validity of this methodology aside, Ginzburg has nothing nothing to say about Piero’s laconic style or any other artistic concern or issue. He apparently finds a picture like the Flagellation of Christ to be fully comprehensible once one knows who is in it, who owned it, who saw it and when. To follow Ginzburg’s argument to its logical conclusion, there is nothing enigmatic about Piero’s art–or old pictures in general.
Carlo Ginzburg, Indagini su Piero (Einaudi, 1985) translated as The Engima of Piero (Routledge, 1988; 2nd revised edition 1994).
James Banker, Piero della Francesca, Artist and Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Michael Baxandall, Words for Pictures (Yale, 1997).