Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, 1467, Monterchi, Cappella delCimitero

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.

Andrea Mantegna, Cristo Scorto, Milano, Pinacoteca di Brera

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.

Piero della Francesca, Annunciation, 1452/66, Arezzo, San Francesco.

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.

Piero della Francesca, Exaltation of the True Cross, 1452/66, Arezzo, San Francesco

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 della Francesca, De Prospectiva Pigendi, 1474.

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.


Piero della Francesca, Flagellazione di Cristo, 1455, Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche.


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).


POP ART AND THE COLD WAR I: Jasper Johns’ Flags


One night I dreamed I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did. I worked on that painting a long time. It’s a very rotten painting— physically rotten—because I began it in house enamel paint, which you paint furniture with, and it wouldn’t dry quickly enough. Then I had in my head this idea of something I had read or heard about: wax encaustic.
— Jasper Johns, 1955,

Jasper Johns chose to paint the flag in a nation that has an entire Legal Code devoted the the proper display and handling of the flag and requires school children to swear a daily fealty oath to the flag, and secondly, “to the republic for which it stands.” He chose to paint the “living symbol” of the nation at the height of the Cold War, a historical period marked by government-sponsored inquisitions, witch hunts, blacklists, loyalty oaths, censorship, and espionage. The established careers and reputations of Elia Kazan, Dalton Trumbo, Lillian Helman, Ring Lardner and Herschel Bernardi, the voice of Charlie the Tuna, were destroyed on account of suspected Communist sympathies perceived in their work. Johns chose to paint the flag at the onset of his career, before he had savings and a professional network to support him should he be accused of un-American activity. To put it more directly, Johns risked much when he elected to paint the flag.

Johns’ dream about painting the flag is the artist’s explanation of his unusual choice in subject matter. In placing that choice in the  locating that choice  within an unconscious, passive, psychological context, as opposed to a conscious political one, Johns can deflect potentially risky questions about his motives. In the dream he doesn’t fashion the flag for any practical or ceremonial purpose, he merely represents it.

Johns wants the viewer to see the flag as an image and not as a symbol. The belabored design and overworked brushwork stress the flag’s status as a crafted image, while the, uneven, tactile, encaustic layer and applied to an unframed supports which makes the flag seem to project forwards into a third dimension, foregrounds the work’s status as object.  The image-ness and object-ness of Johns’ Flag ask the viewer to see the painting, and not see through it to a discursive symbolically-coded meaning.

Propaganda is structured around a reflexive, unthinking response to a simple, immediately recognized image. Insofar as Johns’ flags disrupt that process, they have a political function and should not be understood as empty ontological conundrums.


The pilgrimage church at Wies owes its creation to a miracle. After a weepy, neglected, carved effigy of the scourged Christ began restoring sight and curing illnesses in 1738, a pilgrimage grew up almost overnight, flooding the tiny Bavarian village in the Oberammergau with tourists. By 1745, the Premonstratensian monks of Steingaden, who owned the site, undertook to replace the small wooden chapel housing the miraculous image with more dignified structure capable of accommodating the numerous visitors flocking to Wies. To that end, in 1745, they hired renowned architect to Dominikus Zimmermann (1685 -1766) to design and direct the construction of a new church.

VERY FEW CHURCHES were built de novo in the early modern period. Most ecclesiastical architectural commissions involved restoring, rebuilding, refurbishing and/or re-decorating pre-existing churches. The forms and fabrics of many of those venerable buildings had historic and symbolic connotations, which had to be recapitulated, preserved or at least noted in the new work Given these usual constraints on the design process, one can imagine Zimmermann’s reaction to being handed a blank slate by a wealthy patron. Seizing the opportunity, he designed an entirely modern building, every cubic inch of which was harmonized and coordinated to create a unified setting sufficiently glorious for the spectacle of divine intervention in the profane world that the miraculous image effected.

Wies gave Zimmermann the chance to refine and develop the pilgrimage church solution he had created at Steinhausen in the late 1720s. Both have ovular central plans with timber domes supported by a ring of free standing composite supports, a typology with early Christian origins. At Wies, an elongated, tunnel-like choir with a two-story gallery projects from the east end, focusing attention on the miraculous image preserved on the high altar. The interior is indirectly illuminated by a multiplicity of pculi, hidden and visible.

Dominikus entrusted his brother, Johann Baptist Zimmermann, with the painting of the central domed ceiling, as he had at Steinhausen. The fresco unusually depicts the Last Judgement—Wies’ dedication to an obscure object with no pictorial tradition, necessitated iconographical innovation. At the center of the composition appears the rainbow upon which Christ sits in judgement, as specified in the Book of Revelation. Johann Baptist used the it as visual metaphor for the church decoration as a whole: it is composed of vibrant, soft colors; it is shaped like an arch, a visual shorthand for architecture; it is at once symmetrical and asymmetrical; and it literally bridges the architectural and pictorial realms of the building, therefore symbolically bridging the sacred and the profane worlds, just as relics and miraculous objects do.

Although he worked as an altar builder and marbler for the first 20 years of his career, and referred to himself in an inscription inside the Wieskirche as baumeister, by 1745 Zimmermann was primarily sought out for his skills as a master stuccateur. Polychromed stuccowork as a medium falls somewhere between fresco and sculpture—3D painting if you will—and Zimmermann uses stucco as a transition from the highly sculptural architectural and painted portions of the interior. Like wall frescoes, it is an medium with an exacting schedule—the stuccateur lays on a much wet plaster as he can shape and paint in the brief period before it dries and hardens. Once hard, the colors and forms bind permanently to the plaster and cannot be changed or altered without chipping it all out and beginning anew. Both fresco and stucco are performances that demands physical agility and a quick, sure touch.
Zimmermann clearly felt the building of the church to be a life-defining experience. After the nine years on the site overseeing the construction, and carrying out the extensive stucco work himself, upon its completion in 1753, he permanently relocated to Steingaden, spending the remaining decade of his life in close proximity to his masterpiece at Wies.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna



The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna

In 1285, the Florentine confraternity of the Laudesi commissioned the workshop of Duccio di Buoninsegna to paint an image of the Virgin and Child for the chapel they sponsored in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Like the other urban confraternities, the Laudesi provided care and services for each other at the time of a member’s demise, overseeing funeral rites, financially assisting surviving family members and collectively praying for the soul of the deceased. The latter took the form of laude, or hymns sung by the group in praise of the Virgin, begging her intercession on behalf of the defunct member. The singing of the lauds and other confraternity activities were performed in the group’s chapel, under the supervision of the Dominican friars. The panel painting of the Virgin and Child commissioned of Duccio was, therefore, was destined to serve as the visual focus of a devotional, musical performance by a prestigious, civic-minded group, conducted in a large stone-vaulted chapel.

Continue reading AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna


Anachronistic and teleological notions about one-point perspective and its relationship to optical reality or the observation of space have led to a mass denigration of earlier pictorial strategies for rendering volumes, situating them, and specifying their relationships to each other. However, if one has spent any time in a medieval hill-top commune, such as Siena, San Gimingnano, Volterra, Assisi or Cortona, one knows that the enchanting jumble of sweet and savory-colored buildings, tiled rooves, jagged walls, myriad towers, gothic windows, crenellations, and empty loggie seen everywhere in trecento painting, correspond rather accurately to one’s visual experience urban architecture and topography in such places.

To put it more plainly, Siena looks like Ambriogio Lorenzetti’s Good Goverment in the City and the 14thc. renderings of the built environment are, on balance, fairly accurate. One couldn’t extrapolate a groundplan of the structures seen in any of these images, the way one can with Piero’s Flagellation, but then again they were never intended to have a cartological application. A similar case can be made for the representation of the contado—the rural or uncultivated topography landscape beyond the city walls.

14th c. Italian Silk Textiles

Trecento Italian Silk Textiles
Trecento Italian Silk Textiles

This post provides context for an earlier post on Simone Martini’s representation of luxury garments.

These silk brocades, damask, and lampas weave silk textiles were produced in Siena, Lucca, Venice and other Italian centers during the trecento. Designs were often copied from Islamic textiles, which were highly-coveted in the West and extravagantly cut against the bias, partly because the garment would fall better and partly because the wearer wanted to advertise the fact that s/he could afford such luxuries.

Italian fashions were expensive, but, on the whole, restrained and elegant (Giorgio Armani and Miuccia Prada are the heirs to this legacy). It was in the Burgundian territories, the other great cloth manufacturing center, that conspicuous displays of wealth and waste attained attained the full-on decadence described brilliantly by Johan Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919).

Spätbarock in Süddeutschland

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A sequence of seven posts on 18thc. architectural monuments, mainly in Bavaria, including churches (Wies, Vierzehnheiligen, Ottobeuren, Weltenburg, the Asamkirche), palaces (Würzburg Residenz, Schloß Brühl, Amalienburg) and theatres (Bayreuth).