A favourite winter pleasure: reading old New Yorkers in the hot-tub. And the one I chose at random, from March 4, 2013, was purchased (almost certainly) at an airport enroute to Tennessee to take part in some literary events, after which we went on to New York. I remember reading Peter Schjeldahl’s wonderful review of the Piero della Francesca exhibit at the Frick Collection, illustrated with this:
And we spent a morning at the Frick, looking at the paintings. This one, well, I agree completely with Schjeldahl when he says, “The work is only three and a half feet high, but it feels monumental and, at the same time, intimate, as if it were addressing you alone. It’s a kind of art that may change lives.”
Yes, it could change a life. You could look those calm faces and know that the world would change. They knew it. The infant reaching for the rose with its thorns, his palm already prepared, as we are prepared. The mother all-knowing. I’m not a Christian — I’ve said that before — but this painting contains so much of the iconography and the sorrow that is the groundwork of Western civilization. It’s impossible not to be moved by it.
Piero is a painter I’ve long admired. There is such solidity in his work. In reading about him over the past few days, I was somehow not surprised to find out that he wrote several treatises on mathematics: Abacus Treatise (Trattato d’Abaco), Short Book on the Five Regular Solids (Libellus de Quinque Corporibus Regularibus) and On Perspective for Painting (De Prospectiva Pingendi). You can tell he’s paid attention to structure and perspective in this work. I was curious enough to try to find (translated) texts of his treatises but haven’t been successful so far. I did find a book about them, by Margaret Daly Davis, and it’s interesting reading. Much of Piero’s original writing, particularly his work on solid geometry, was absorbed into the writing of others, notably Luca Pacioli. And that might make a good winter’s project, to read and puzzle through this material. When you see this
you realize why the architectural elements in the paintings are so compelling.
Years ago, we built a house. John did the drawings — and this was before computers, before software to help a draftsperson to see the solid geometry of a structure in virtual space. He drew on big sheets of paper and had them blue-printed. We still have them somewhere (part of a poet’s archive?). I couldn’t “see” the rooms he promised I’d love. I couldn’t look at the one-dimensional drawings and imagine a windowsill for plants, a corner for a bed, the space our bodies would occupy in time, over time. But he could. Somehow we got from this:
Peter Schjeldahl describes a road trip in his youth, hanging onto a friend who drove a Vespa through Tuscany, so the two of them could see Piero’s paintings in the places they were created for — frescoes in Arezzo, the “Madonna del Parto” in a cemetery chapel in Monterchi. He said, “In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic.” I understand that. Looking at the paintings in the Frick, and today looking at as many online as I can find (not the same thing at all, I know, but on a winter day on the Sechelt peninsula, this is what’s available to me), I want to do something larger than myself, something outside myself. I’m not putting it very well but I’m hoping there’s an equation in Piero’s treatise on solid geometry that might help me find a direction.