Heroic Officer Saves the Greatest Painting: Review

The gaze stays with you.

A lightly clad saint sitting quietly with his books in the Italian countryside is interrupted by a large rich man in costly carmine robes who decides to kneel next to him.

The day is ruined. Quizzically, the saint stares at the intruder who has been placed there by the painter, Piero della Francesca.

“Saint Jerome and a Supplicant” has faded since Piero painted this imaginary meeting in the early 1460s for his patron, a member of the prosperous Amadi family. But recently cleaned to reveal delicate landscape touches and a cooler tonality, it casts a spell.

Traders who made their money in textiles, the Amadis commissioned paintings that might assure them a place in the art pantheon and perhaps the hereafter -- in the company of a saint.

A small show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters,” presents four pictures by a Renaissance master who chose to spend a good deal of his life in the unspectacular town of Borgo San Sepolcro painting frescoes that are firmly attached to walls.

Handsome Christ

Sadly, Sansepolcro, though on the small side, can’t be shipped around the world for us to admire the museum’s “Resurrection.” As his guards remain sleep-slumped, an astonishingly muscular, handsome Christ steps from his tomb, gazing out with sad, sunken eyes.

That the picture survives is due to a miraculous intervention toward the end of World War II that would have sent an artist of Piero’s era rushing for his brushes.

The British artillery officer ordered to shell Sansepolcro happened to be literate and war-weary. He had seen Monte Cassino destroyed -- uselessly as it turned out. And he remembered an essay by Aldous Huxley that described Sansepolcro’s “Resurrection” as “the greatest picture in the world.”

He halted the attack and saved the town where citizens now stroll on Tony Clarke Street en route to the Buitoni pasta palace, Sansepolcro’s other claim to greatness.

Like the “Monuments Men,” who salvaged Europe’s art as the war ended, Clarke understood that preserving the blameless souvenirs of civilization might lead to a less barbarous future.

Today, the Piero della Francesca Trail connects Sansepolcro with such other central Italian towns as Urbino, home to his “Flagellation,” and Arezzo, where his “Legend of the True Cross,” took shape in the 1450s in the church of San Francesco.

Those frescoes have taken a lot of damage over the centuries. And yet, despite the patches and pockmarks, the beauty shines through the grandeur of the story-telling.

One scene alone is worth a trip, “The Dream of Constantine” -- strange, nocturnal vision in which the emperor receives supernatural guidance for the next day’s battle.

Be Quiet

Fortunately, Piero also painted in tempera on panels and these are very occasionally allowed to travel by their owners. That’s what makes the Met’s small gathering, thoughtfully presented by curator Keith Christiansen, such an unusual event.

The show includes another St. Jerome (who prays undisturbed) and two Madonnas, one loaned by a private collection in Delaware, U.S., and the other by the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, home of Federico da Montefeltro, a self-mutilating warlord and art patron.

Fearing assassins after losing an eye in battle, he hacked off the bridge of his nose to improve peripheral vision in the other. Obviously not a man concerned with his looks, he had Piero paint him in profile. The picture is now in the Uffizi in Florence.

At the Met, the Madonna and Child are framed by two angels who cross their arms protectively as they stand in front of a carefully painted doorway leading to a light-filtering window. The hypnotic setting reflects Piero’s fascination with the mathematics of perspective. But as with St. Jerome, what really makes us linger, are the eyes that command us to be quiet.

The exhibition continues through March 30 and is made possible by the Foundation for Italian Art & Culture (FIAC).

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg news. Any opinions are her own.)