“the best picture in the world”

Piero true crossI recently found myself marooned with a large group of astronomers in a remote 11th century abbey in Tuscan countryside. Despite the picturesque beauty of the landscape not to mention the abbey's splendid library; still the days (I must admit) stretched on and on…

I guess it's true that google is making me stupid, but I discovered that it is a lot harder for me than it used to be to read for hours on end. And without any wireless nor any real means of getting myself back to civilization, I decided to hatch a means of escape. It wasn't all that hard actually, it was just a matter of reminding him (the astronomer with the driver's licence) that located not all that faraway from the abbey was what has been called “the best picture in the world.”

Has anyone else read that wonderful essay by Aldous Huxley called “The Best Picture?”

It is a brilliant essay –and the title says it all. But, wait, you ask, how can there be such a thing as “the best picture” in the world? Isn't it an absolutely ludicrous suggestion to make?

Of course it is, and this is not lost on Huxley–for as you can see in the essay, he addresses this absurdity immediately:

The greatest picture in the world…. You smile. The expression is ludicrous, of course. Nothing is more futile than the occupation of those connoisseurs who spend their time compiling first and second elevens of the world's best painters,eights and fours of musicians, fifteens of poets, all-star troupes of architects and so on. Nothing is so futile because there are a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings. Is Fra Angelico a better artist than Rubens? Such questions, you insist, are meaningless. It is all a matter of personal taste.And up to a point this is true. But there does exist, none the less, an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. Not that all virtuous men are good artists, nor all artists conventionally virtuous. Longfellow was a bad poet, while Beethoven's dealings with his publishers were frankly dishonourable.But one can be dishonourable towards one's publishers and yet preserve the kind of virtue that is necessary to a good artist. That virtue is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself.

I like this last sentence very much. First of all, I also enjoy compiling lists… from the best essays to my favorite restaurants, I find such lists (and declarations of things that are “the best”) to be somehow really interesting. And Like Huxley, not only does Piero top my list of best painters, but in a similar vein, I also perhaps delude myself into thinking that my lists are not merely subjective pronouncements but rather are based on some mind of shared standards of taste and virtue. Touching on two notions dear to my own heart, I think Huxley rightly bases his judgement on the idea that there are Platonic ideals at work in art appreciation and that exposure to art works that express closely such ideals have an uplifting and transformative effect on people. When I studied tea ceremony, for example, the notion that the appreciation and handling of beautiful objects had a morally uplifting element was fundamental– that is, the beautiful was conflated with the good during the lessons. I therefore agree with Huxley that part of the reason that a particular work of art can be said to be morally, spiritually or intellectually uplifting is related to a kind of fidelity to integrity (to a shared ideal).

Anyway, the famous Piero della Francesca trail started just down the road from the foot of the hill where our abbey was located, in the wonderful town of Arezzo about an hour away. It was there that the young Piero was called upon in 1457 to finish decorating the apse of the Basilica of San Francesco, stepping in to complete the frescoes after the original painter commissioned to decorate the space in the basilica died.

Piero_della_Francesca-_Legend_of_the_True_Cross_-_the_Queen_of_Sheba_Meeting_with_Solomon;_detailLegend of the True Cross frescoes by Piero della Francesca.

Arriving at the church first thing in the morning as soon as things opened to tourists, we were allowed an hour and a half in the apse with the frescoes. (At busy times, tourists must content themselves with a 25 minute limit). Piero's pictures mainly remain where they were painted and this is what is often cited for why his name was lost to obscurity until comparatively modern times. For unlike Titian or Rembrandt, one has to travel to see his work. In John Pope-Hennessey's wonderful essay, called the Piero della Francesca Trail, he suggested that if Piero's work had been dispersed in the way Botticelli's had, it would be Piero who would have left the greater mark on history–being the better painter after all.

Once discovered from obscurity, however, his pictures would go on to inspire many modern painters–from Cezanne to Seurat (story of that interesting history here). Surprisingly modern, there is something indescribable about seeing his work in situ. We couldn't immediately find the church though. Resembling nothing more than a huge barn, an elderly lady sitting on a bench caught my eye and motioned for us to turn around, pointing at the church.

Walking in, we both were completely overwhelmed. I had never heard of the Legend of the True Cross before–and was surprised to learn it was a favorite of the Franciscans. A medieval story, it tells the tale of the Cross–from its beginnings as the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden (!!); the wood was then transformed (after being buried with Adam) in the building of the temple of Solomon. (Not surprisingly, it was the Queen of Sheba, who divined its future use and thereby warned Solomon that the future savior of the world would be killed using this very piece of wood). This, foretelling the end of the Jewish kingdom, Solomon hid the wood in a swamp. From Sheba to Saint Helena and the battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, the tale of the true cross is an absolutely mind-boggling story that Piero somehow turned into an intellectually stimulating tour de force that had my astonomer and I utterly speechless.

Indeed, we were totally hooked on his work by the first stop on the Piero Pilgrimage. (It was here, incidentally, where I accidentally flushed my camera down the toilet thereby proving that real journeys are seldom as easy as one hopes). Sigh~~

After recovering from the wonderful shock of the frescoes and the loss of my camera, we had pizza before heading on to the second stop to see the fresco that Huxley declared was the “best picture in the world.”

Located in what was basically the spot where Piero painted it, in the old town hall in the city of Sansepolcro, this also happened to be the painter's birthplace. Waiting for the museum to re-open at 2:30, we strolled around the quiet town, stopping to sit in front of a statue of Piero, erected to honor the town's greatest son in the town park, barely making it back to the museum before a rain shower hammered down on us, a harbinger of more trouble ahead. At this point, though, we were still quite excited to finally be able to see Huxley's favorite picture.

Piero_della_Francesca_-_Resurrection_(detail)_-_WGA17610The Resurrection by Piero della FrancescaThere is an absolutely wonderful story attached to this fresco that ocurred during WWII. Bombing the city, the British artillery officer in charge could not get the name Sansepolcro out of his mind… “Sansepolcro, Sansepolcro,” he wondered, “where had he heard the name before?” It took awhile but suddenly he remembered where he had heard that name. It was an essay he had read many years earlier by Aldous Huxley in which the author declared that the best picture in the world could be found in this very place that he was now shelling!

What a surreal moment that must have been. The officer immediately ordered a halt to the bombing. He then made his way unopposed into the town. Locating the town hall, he stood before the Resurrection which had miraculously survived the building's roof caving in!

“We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty,'' Huxley wrote. “It stands there before us in entire and actual splendor, the greatest picture in the world.”

What was once the town hall is now the Museo Civico. However when we were finally let in, we had to console ourselves to look at the picture in bits and pieces as it was undergoing restoration. With the entire top half obscured behind scaffolding that we could simply not move around, we could not see Christ's face at all. It was a bitter pill to swallow and swearing to ourselves that we would just have to come back and see it another time, we moved on to see Piero’s oil, Madonna della Misericordia (The Madonna of Mercy) located in the adjacent room.

The final part of our journey involved a wonderful drive through the mountains to Urbino.

While not quite as curvy, the drive reminded me something of the famed Irohazaka road in Japan. Famous as a spot for viewing the autumn foliage, the Irohazaka was also a Buddhist pilgrimage route for pilgrims heading up to Lake Chuzenji. For both Huxeley and Pope-Hennessey, the road to and from San Spulchro is definitely part of the great adventure and allure of the Piero Pilgrimage.

Huxley says this:

BORGO SAN SEPOLCRO IS NOT VERY EASY TO GET AT. There is a small lowcomedy railway across the hills from Arezzo. Or you can approach it up the Tiber valley from Perugia. Or, if you happen to be at Urbino, there is a motor 'bus which takes you to San Sepolcro, up and down through the Apennines, in something over seven hours. No joke, that journey, as I know by experience. But it is worth doing, though preferably in some other vehicle than the 'bus, for the sake of the Bocca Trabaria, that most beautiful of Apennine passes, between the Tiber valley and the upper valley of the Metauro. It was in the early spring that we crossed it. Our omnibus groaned and rattled slowly up a bleak northern slope, among bald rocks, withered grass and still unbudded trees, it crossed the col and suddenly, as though by a miracle, the ground was yellow with innumerable primroses, each flower a little emblem of the sun that had called it into being.

It's true, the Apennines are stunning and the valley pass was filled with wild flowers. It definitely makes my lists of favorite drives of my life! (and it does not take 7 hours as it did in Huxley's day–though it is a very narrow and trecherous mountain road!)

800px-Piero_-_The_FlagellationArriving at the lovely hilltown of Urbino we saw what is perhaps Piero's most discussed and famous picture: the Flagellation of Christ. (this is another work of Piero's considered “one of the world's best ten.” The controversy about this one stems from the three men at front. The conventional interpretation is that this is the flagellation of Christ by the Romans with Pilate looking like the Ottoman Sultan to the side… It is a very intriguing but mysterious picture done in oil and tempera on wood. Who are those three people and why are they so oblivious to the cruelty going on in, wonders one of the the characters (on their own Piero Pilgrimage) in John Mortimer's novel Summer Lease.

There are countless interpretations. Pope-Hennessey, for example, doesn't think it is Christ at all–but rather Saint Jerome:

As a young man St Jerome dreamt that he was flayed on divine order for reading pagan texts, and he himself later recounted this dream, in a celebrated letter to Eustochium, in terms that exactly correspond with the left-hand side of the Urbino panel.

A great ascetic, there was one thing Jerome found it hard to give up: Cicero. A great admirer of classical culture, the saint often read the Bible and Stoic philosophy back to back. That is, until he had his infamous dream where he was flogged before God and declared to be “Ciceronian rather than Christian!”

It is such a brilliant dream—plagued by his guilty pleasure of reading Cicero, the saint vows afterward to keep a better perspective when it comes to philosophy.

This would explains the classical sculpture. Pope-Hennessey goes on to claim that the three men on the right are an angel and two scholars who are discussing the merits of classical and patristic literature in relation to Saint Jerome's dream. Hmmm…..(this short video sums things up). It is a wonderful picture and I definitely prefer the Pope-Hennessey explanation (the Ottoman looking Pilate is hard to explain no matter what).


Piero the great: James Hall, in reviewing Larry Witham's new book, Piero's Light says,

Modern critics have compared his mesmerizingly aloof madonnas to Buddhas; his sentinel saints to Egyptian statues; and his consummate micromanagement of light to that of Vermeer. The American painter Philip Guston observed: “His work has a kind of innocence or freshness about it, as if he was a messenger from God, looking at the world for the first time.”

It is true that his work is both evocative of ancient sacred art (especially the serenity and deep spirituality of Buddhist sculpture) at the same time as it is surprisingly modern. A great mathematician and dedicated Platonist, Piero is revered in Italy as an early Renaissance genius. Like Leonardo. It will come as no surprise to hear that Larry Witham's new book posits that it is precisely the painter's research into the “sacred geometry” of Plato that makes Piero's work so accessible to us today.The pure geometric shapes and incredible skill in portraying light and color has made him a favorite painter of many modern artists. And, indeed, there was a time when the Piero trail was something of a cult journey.

Differing from Huxley, Pope-Hennessey's favorite Piero is the Brera Madonna, which I am hoping to see in Milan next week. He describes the picture as being of an incomparable subtlety in the lighting, spacial structure and the beauty of the imagery. I have to say that for me it was the True Cross fresco cycle–in particular Constantine's Dream panel of the True Cross fresco series.

These paintings suspended within the stones of the church walls have a three dimensional quality that painting on wood or canvas simply lack and this particular panel of the Dream of Constantine has a night-time intensity I have probably never seen in a painting before. It must be decades ahead of its time–if not centuries? Almost like a hallucination, the fresco seems to jump off the wall in front of the eyes; other-worldly, dreamlike, it is hard to believe these works are so old.

Pope-Hennessey ends his essay on the Piero della Francesca trail in quoting Susan Sontag's essay “Against Interpretation, where Sontag says:

“What is important to me now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum content out of a work, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there… the aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art–and, by analogy, our own experiences– more rather than less real to us.”

The fate of our times, Max Weber bemoaned, is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. Some say it is science and art which alone have the power to re-enchant us with the world. (Maybe that is part of the vision of this blog?) I do think it's true that science and art can “save” us in this way… For me, there was something truly wonderful about following in the footsteps of an artist–in “pilgrimage.” Especially since the pilgrimage involved seeing the works mainly in situ, in the places where they were originally created. I really did feel my senses coming alive in the way Sontag suggested is so necessary for us now. But it was not just that. For being on the trail in this way allowed me to understand what Pope-Hennessey suggested at the end of his book– that on a subconscious level the tourist who follows on the Piero route (like the Leonardo route) becomes able “of explaining the phenomenon of the trail and the pertinacity with which it is pursued.” The thrill of the journey and the quest…This is a marvelous form of re-enchantment with the world, don't you think?


We didn't see the Madonna del parto or go on to Rimino, which are also part of the classical Piero Pilgrimage (someday we will go back and finish it); we did see the Urbino Madonna (Senigallia Madonna–with a Christ child very reminiscent of Buddhist sculpture) and the wonderful double portraits in the Uffizi, the splendid portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino.