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Current time:0:00Total duration:8:17

A Renaissance masterpiece nearly lost in war: Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection

Painting in central Italy

Video transcript

(mid-tempo jazz piano music) - [Man] We're in the Civic Museum in the town of Sansepolcro. - [Woman] This is an important historic space that was once the town hall. - [Man] We're looking at one of the most famous paintings to come out of the Italian Renaissance. This painting was almost lost during the Second World War. The Germans occupied this town and the Allied Forces were moving north. Orders were given to bombard the city, to destroy it. - [Woman] But luckily for us, a man named Tony Clarke defied those orders. He remembered reading about Sansepolcro. - [Man] He had read Aldous Huxley, a passage that talked about this as the greatest picture in the world. And so he held off until the Germans retreated and there was no longer any need to bombard the town. We came so close to losing one of humanity's great treasures. And it speaks to the way the actions of one man can make all the difference. This painting was given a second life and, in an uncanny way, that's the subject of the painting that this is the resurrection. According to the Gospels According to Saint Matthew, after Christ was crucified, Joseph of Arimathea asked to retrieve his body and placed it in a stone tomb. The Romans then placed guards around the tomb because Christ had said, according to Matthew, that he would rise after three days and Roman authorities didn't want anybody taking his body out and then claiming that Christ had arisen. In this painting we see four Roman guards and we can even make out on the shield of one of them the letter S and part of the letter P. This would stand for SPQR, which was an abbreviation that refers to the People and the Senate of Rome. - [Woman] For me, there's an enormous difference between the languid bodies of the sleeping soldiers and even the rolling hills of the landscape in the background and Christ's upright authority and symmetry. - [Man] There's such a sense of clarity and righteousness in Christ's erect posture, but also in the clarity of the geometry of the tomb on which his foot rests. Look for example, at the diagonal that's created by the scabbard of the soldier in blue. Or the large spear that's held at a diagonal by the sleeping figure in the back right. Contrast those diagonals with the almost perfectly upright staff of the standard that Christ holds. - [Woman] And although the gospels talk about this as a rock-cut tomb with a stone in front of it, here Piero gives us something that looks very much like an ancient Roman's sarcophagus. So we're reminded in the Renaissance interest in the art of classical antiquity. - [Man] Well, look at the helmet of the soldier who leans on a rock. There's that decorative articulation that reminds me of so much architectural decoration from ancient Rome. - [Woman] We should also note the lovely fluted columns, borrowing from ancient Greek and Roman art. And Piero paints them as though we are looking up at them. - [Man] Making Christ feel even more monumental, even more substantial. - [Woman] One of the things that we see here that will employed frequently by later artists like Raphael and Leonardo is the use of a composition in the shape of a pyramid. - [Man] Creating a kind of stability and a sense of the eternal, a sense of the perfect, a sense of the harmonious. - [Woman] So in his verticality, in the symmetry of his torso and his face, we read a kind of authority that transcends the earthly world, that brings us into a divine realm. And everything about the composition draws our eyes to Christ's face and that very intense gaze. - [Man] The four soldiers create a half-circle or, one could argue, that their heads create a diagonal line pointing towards Christ. And similarly, as our eyes move back, the trees seem to fan away from Christ, but the reverse is also true. Those trees create a diagonal line that brings us back to Christ. - [Woman] We also notice that the trees on either side of Christ are so clearly differentiated. On the left side they're barren and lead up to a hill. On the right they're green and seem to lead to the town. So Piero seems to be suggesting that the pathway to heaven, the pathway to salvation, is a difficult one. The pathway to earthly rewards is easy. - [Man] Christ almost seems to look out at us, asking us which pathway are you going to take. - [Woman] And in that way it's very similar to older images of Christ as judge. Images that we often refer to as Christ Pantocrater. This focus on judgment fits very well with the space that this painting was made for, this city hall. - [Man] It was here that justice would be meted out, that political decisions would be made. The moral message that this painting delivers was an important reminder for the leaders of the city who met in this very building. - [Woman] We can also talk about two works of art that are in the cathedral right around the corner and that would have been very familiar to Piero della Francesca. One is a large altar piece that shows a scene of the resurrection that is very similar. One of the differences though is that Piero has given us this earthly landscape behind Christ instead of angels. - [Man] And the other most obvious difference is that Piero has learned and pushed forward the great lessons of the 15th century. A greater understanding of the musculature of the body, of the skeletal structure, of the movement of the body. - [Woman] Look at the modeling that Piero is employing in that torso, in his neck, in his arms. We have a sense of the light coming from the left. - [Man] Look at the green outer garment that's worn by the soldier on the lower left. Look at the way that the light moves from brown to green and then to a kind of brilliant white-green. Creating this completely convincing sense of the rolls of that drapery. I even have a sense of how thick that cloth is. - [Woman] And this interest in figures who occupy space, who have volume and mass is a hallmark of the Renaissance, as are those shadows. By giving us those shadows, Piero is helping to convince us of the roundness of those bodies. - [Man] Even the atmosphere itself convincingly goes back into space using atmospheric perspective. - [Woman] There's another image in the cathedral near by that likely also influenced Piero, and that's a sculpture called the Volto Santo or holy face. It's a type of image of the crucified Christ where Christ is triumphant over death. His eyes are wide open and he wears a robe instead of the usual loincloth. - [Man] And it makes sense that all three of these works of art return our attention to the tomb of Christ, the namesake of this town. - [Woman] The story goes that the town was founded by two men who brought with them a relic, a piece of the holy sepulcher from Jerusalem. Piero's Resurrection is painted directly on a wall using a variety of techniques, including true fresco and also fresco secco or dry fresco. Art historians now believe, since the recent restoration, that this painting was not made for this location. Now that doesn't mean that it wasn't made for this building. It was, but not this location. - [Man] And this might be surprising, because we think of fresco as being permanent. But of course, it is possible to move the wall upon which a fresco is made. - [Woman] And as we sit here and look at this painting I'm thinking again of Tony Clarke and the decision he made to disobey orders, to do what he felt was right. - [Man] And it speaks to the importance for all of us to learn about art, to understand our cultural heritage, so that if we are ever faced with such a decision, we make the right choice. (mid-tempo jazz piano music)