the circumstantial drama of a ripeness

A few weeks ago, I wrote about seeing the Piero della Francesca exhibit at the Frick Collection in New York in 2013. I was interested to learn that Piero had written treatises on mathematics and I followed up by looking at some of the commentaries on the treatises. I’m pretty much math-illiterate but the language and the imagery fascinates me. I’ve written a long essay on this fascination (and my own math anxiety) — and because I have a kind of magpie mind, always finding objects and ideas that I like for their brightness and beauty and not necessarily because I understand them, the essay also explores coyote song, quilting, bees, and love. I called it “Euclid’s Orchard” and it’s the centerpiece of a collection of my essays due out in September, 2017.

I wanted to know more about Piero and math so I took advantage of the Sechelt Library’s generous interlibrary loan program and ordered Piero della Francesca: A Mathematician’s Art, by J.V. Field. It’s really wonderful. I’m reading about Piero’s background and training right now. Some of the material I’ve encountered before. The first section discusses the 15th c.Florentine Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s treatise on the skills needed to pursue art. This is Il Libro dell’Arte and I read it while I was writing “Arbutus menziesii: Makeup Secrets of the Byzantine Madonnas”, one of the chapters in my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. I wanted to know about pigments, how early painters compounded them, and something of the chemistry behind them. Cennnini was so helpful and one thing led to another. So I’ll read this book and maybe by the end I’ll know more about how Piero planned and organized his work.

The painting I’m particularly interested in is the “Madonna del Parto”, a fresco painted on a cemetery chapel wall in Monterchi, a small Tuscan hill town.


The nature of fresco work — painting on fresh wet plaster so that the pigments merge with the plaster as it sets, becoming part of the wall or other structure — means that Piero must have planned so carefully, choosing sections of the work to paint each day (for 7-9 hours, beginning an hour or so after the plaster had been laid). No opportunity for correction.

I’m interested in the blue of the Madonna’s gown. Piero would have used ultramarine, made from ground lapis lazuli, probably coming from Badakhshan, a province in Afghanistan. And he probably would have added the pigment once the fresco was dry, because I understand that the blues don’t adhere to the damp plaster very well. But look at that blue! So radiant. And so expensive. Because of its cost, it was usually reserved for painting the robes of the Virgin Mary. What I love about this Madonna is that she’s so thoughtful. Often the Madonnas of the period are holding books on their bellies, an allusion to the word of God. This woman eschews the book and holds her stomach with one hand, feeling a heartbeat or the kick of a foot, the other hand easing out a pain (perhaps?) in her hip. She is in her body, a gorgeous pregnant woman, less absorbed by faith than by her own impending maternity. Or both? Her halo is perfectly elliptical and in the book I’m reading, there are reproductions of Piero’s complicated mathematical formulas for drawing heads. He was a geometer with a perfect eye.

And look at that tent, embellished with pomegranates, symbols of Christ’s passion, but maybe also a nod to the Madonna’s own cravings. (I remember how much I loved pomegranates while pregnant!) In other cultures, particularly Islamic ones, the pomegranate represents fertility (all those glistening seeds!). And remember Persephone, condemned to half the year in the underworld because she’d eaten 6 seeds at the suggestion of Hades.

What a perfect fresco for a cemetery altar wall. A reminder of life and death and the way two are entwined. In his review of the Piero della Francesca exhibit at the Frick, Peter Schjeldahl writes, “Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death.”

solid geometry

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:

long ago.jpg

to this:


to 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.

the hours

How they fly. How we wake up, find our way across Central Park to the Frick Museum, and lose ourselves for several hours among the most glorious art. We went for the Piero della Francesca exhibit, a small exquisite collection of angels and saints, the pigments aglow after more than five hundred years. And what a beautiful building, so quiet and civilized after yesterday’s excursion to the Museum of Natural History — it’s Spring Break: say no more. (The Frick doesn’t admit anyone under the age of ten…) Anyway, the whole experience was wonderful. I found myself looking really carefully at the Degas drawings in the exhibition of Impressionist drawings and prints, wondering how he got the sense of texture, and learned a new term: stumping. I think this is the use of a leather instrument to press graphite into the paper to create dense shading.The drawings were so terrific. The dancers, the racehorses with jockeys alert on their backs…

We had dinner with our friends J.P. and Karin last night as their guests at Machiavelli, a restaurant owned by a friend of theirs — wonderful food. And a young pianist playing. (I loved hearing a Bach partita while I ate my pasta stuffed with beets and ricotta, strewn with poppy seeds!)

Tonight we’re going to hear the Attacca Quartet play music for strings by John Adams, including “John’s Book of Alleged Dances”. I can’t wait. (And before that, we’ll meet some friends from Whitehorse for a drink at the Algonquin Hotel.)

waiting for the Frick to open