Sunday, September 27, 2009

Piero il magnifico

Usually the Palazzo Cini Gallery is closed. Having walked by it a million times, not certain what exactly was inside, it became a perpetual enigma in my daily life. Today, and for the next few weekends, it is open.

The collection is small, amassed by the Cini family and donated along with the palace to the Cini Foundation which also runs the monumental S. Giorgio Maggiore complex including the magnificent Palladio refectory and a spectacular library. (The filing system of the library is old style. Books by and about Dante are shelved under the carved bust of Dante atop it. Ditto Homer, ditto Plato, ditto Petrarch, etc. A neat system, but to find what you're looking for you need to know what the author looked like. Early cult of personality?)

The collection includes masterpieces of renaissance Tuscan and Ferrarese painting, works by such big name artists as Filippo Lippi, Pontormo, Botticelli (and Co.). These are interesting, as are many of the other paintings and drawings in their collection. The Botticelli, a "Judgment of Paris" is clearly primarily by "& Co." The Lippi is small, sad, touching, but not blisteringly beautiful like his works at the Uffizi.

No, pride of place goes to the late Piero della Francesca "Madonna con bambino" which is breathtakingly spectacular. Piero is one of my favorites and his extant work is sparse. This painting wins the Blue Ribbon for the month.

The Piero is strikingly modern; in it you can see Picasso, Modigliani, Cezanne. Like late paintings tend to be, it is spare, terse, and perfectly composed. Often this simplicity was the result of failing eyesight, as with Tiziano. But here, exquisitely articulated detail is a testament to no diminution in technical skills. The apparent simplicity is by design. If anything, Piero is here transcendent; the terse pictorial language is the result of age, skill, and fully mature artistry. The madonna's simple black robe is thrown back over her shoulder reveraling a sumptuous lining of burgundy and gold brocade Byzantine in its complexity. Its dramatic impact is emphasized by a simple sky blue shift beneath it, and beneath that, for perfection of design, a ruby colored frock with silvery gold brocade.

Everything else is clean, spartan, geometric, void; the sky behind them is a late Georgia O'Keefe desert sky. The faces are somber; their pose is monumental, as if the wind had carved them from sand and pale stone.

Piero della Francesca
Borgo San Sepolcro, 1410/20 - 1492
"Madonna con bambino"
Palazzo Cini Gallery

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