Sunday, 19 January 2014

Piero and Plato

    I thought about writing this post after stumbling on an article about the recent display of Piero della Francesca's paintings at the Met. I read the first paragraphs of this review on the NYT and something didn't sound quite right. This is the incriminated bit:

"Perspective is a way of constructing how the world appears to a single person. Its appearance in art coincided with the rising philosophical idea that all we can know about the world must come through the senses of our uniquely located bodies."

     This idea of knowledge could be perhaps applied to artists such as Leonardo, who through his closeness with the Dominicans can be ascribed to the Aristotelians, but is a big blunder when referred to Piero.
   I am recalling memories from my school days: Aristotele said that there were two ways of acquiring knowledge, through the intellect and through the senses, although the first one was the most important. Indeed Leonardo investigated reality and the laws that regulated it through his empirical studies.

   Piero's work stems from radically opposite premises. Bear in mind that in the powerful courts of the 15th century princes surrounded themselves with intellectuals and artists; the former ones dictated to the latter themes, iconographies, symbols.  For the first time the artist actually becomes an intellectual through his artistic practice.
   Piero is a perfect example of Renaissance artists. His life long friendship with Luca Pacioli, the mathematician whose work is still in use today ( he invented double-entry book keeping) testifies to his interests. Piero studies maths and geometry independently during his life and in his last years writes a treaty on perspective and one on calculus. He is aware of the new humanistic culture that flourishes all over Italy in those years, there is no doubt that current Neoplatonic ideas were embodied in his work.

   An important character at Piero's time was Cardinal Bessarion ( that some identify with the character on the left in the Flagellation trio), a very influential Greek intellectual who lived in Italy moving among the different courts, most notably in Urbino and Ferrara. Bessarion was a philosophy scholar who contributed to the diffusion of Platonism, which had a new breath of life during early Renaissance. In his writings he tried to reconcile Platonism with Christianity.

   The concepts expressed by Plato are fundamental to understand Piero: reality is a pale and imperfect version of archetypes, ideas, that exist in a different realm. What we perceive through our senses helps us remember those perfect forms, of which we are aware deep in our conscience but we have forgotten as we came into our worldly existence.
     Viewed through the lens of Platonism Piero's idealized forms acquire a deeper meaning. All of his paintings, although they contain striking realistic details, carry us in a metaphysical reality, where an almost unnatural light reveals perfection.


Anne said...

Dear Ilaria, I found your post very interesting. I agree with you about perspective. I think that maybe the writer of the article has read Panofsky's 'Perspective as Symbolic Form' which links perspective to a worldview, but has misunderstood what that worldview was.

I saw your paintings at the exhibition at St Paul's recently. They were very subtle and I loved the way you had modulated the colours and built up the surface. My favourite one was the small painting of your son; I think it is a shame that they hung it in a corner where it was difficult to see with the crowds at the private view!

Ilaria said...

Thank you Anne, sorry for the belated reply. I'm glad you enjoyed the show at St. Paul's, I was chuffed to hang in such company, would have been happy to be behind the door too !

Anne said...

Thanks Ilaria! By the way, sorry I didn't introduce myself - I did write to you ages ago, when I was thinking of doing the Heatherley Diploma, I don't know if you remember. I was living in Cambridge and you told me about Tony Rothon's classes in Audley End.

I decided not to do the Diploma in the end, but have been taking part-time classes at Heatherley's and the Slade. I'm doing a one-year course at the Courtauld Institute at the moment, learning about the history of art - it is really interesting! Afterwards I'm hoping to find a part-time job, and work from my home studio.

I've just seen your latest blog posts. I enjoy looking at your blog because you always draw attention to such interesting contemporary artists!