Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Annunciation Fresco at Arezzo by Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca
ca. 1455
Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo

"We will take Piero della Francesco's Annunciation fresco at Arezzo as an example.  In the first place, understanding the picture depends on acknowledging a representational convention, of which the central part is that a man is disposing pigments on a two-dimensional ground in order to refer to something that is three-dimensional: one must enter into the spirit of the game, which is not the ground-plan game but something Boccaccio described very well:

The painter exerts himself to make any figure he paints  actually just a little colour applied with skill to a panel  similar in its action to a figure which is the product of Nature and naturally has that action: so that it can deceive the eyes of the beholder, either partly or completely, making itself be taken for what it really is not.

In fact, since our vision is stereoscopic, one is not normally long deceived by such a picture to the point of completely supposing it real.  Leonardo da Vinci pointed this out:

It is not possible for a painting, even if it is done with the greatest perfection of outline, shadow, light and colour, to appear in the same relief as the natural model, unless that natural model were looked at from a great distance and with only one eye. 

.   .   .

This brings us to the second point, which is that the picture is sensitive to the kinds of interpretative skill  patterns, categories, inferences, analogies  the mind brings to it.  A man's capacity to distinguish a certain kind of form or relationship of forms will have consequences for the attention with which he addresses a picture.  For instance, if he is skilled in noting proportional relationships, or if he is practiced in reducing complex forms to compounds of simple forms, or if he has a rich set of categories for different kinds of reds and browns, these skills may well lead him to order his experience of Piero della Francesca's Annunciation differently from people whose experience has not given them many skills relevant to the picture.  For it is clear that some perceptual skills are more relevant to any one picture than others: a virtuosity in classifying the ductus of flexing lines  a skill many Germans, for instance, possessed in this period  or a functional knowledge of the surface musculature of the human body would not find much scope on the Annunciation.  Much of what we call 'taste' lies in this, the conformity between discriminations demanded by a painting and skills of discrimination possessed by the beholder.  We enjoy our own exercise of skill, and we particularly enjoy the playful exercise of skills which we use in normal life very earnestly.  If a painting gives us the opportunity for exercising a valued skill and rewards our virtuosity with a sense of worthwhile insights about that painting's organization, we tend to enjoy it: it is to our taste.  The negative of this is the man without the sorts of skill in terms of which the painting is ordered: a German calligrapher confronted by a Piero della Francesca, perhaps.

Thirdly again, one brings to the picture a mass of information and assumptions drawn from general experience.  Our own culture is close enough to the Quattrocento for us to take a lot of the same things for granted and not to have a strong sense of misunderstanding the pictures: we are closer to the Quattrocento mind than to the Byzantine, for instance.  This can make it difficult to realize how much of our comprehension depends on what we bring to the picture.  To take two contrasting kinds of such knowledge, if one could remove from one's perception of Piero della Francesca's Annunciation both (a) the assumption that the building units are likely to be rectangular and regular, and (b) knowledge of the Annunciation story, one would have difficulty in making it out.  For the first, in spite of Piero's rigorous perspective construction  itself a mode of representation the fifteenth-century Chinese would have had problems with  the logic of the picture depends heavily on our assumption that the loggia projects at a right angle from the back wall: suppress this assumption and one is thrown into uncertainty about the whole spatial layout of the scene.  Perhaps the loggia is shallower than one thought, its ceiling sloping down backwards and its corner thrusting out towards the left in an acute angle, then the tiles of the pavement will be lozenges, not oblongs . . .  

Regarding knowledge of the story, if one did not know about the Annunciation, it would be difficult to know quite what was happening in Piero's painting: as a critic once pointed out, if all Christian knowledge were lost, a person could well suppose that both figures, the Angel Gabriel and Mary, were directing some sort of devout attention to the column."

– Michael Baxandall, from Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972)