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The Natural

THE PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA TRAIL, By John Pope-Hennessy, With an essay, "The Best Picture," by Aldous Huxley, The Little Bookroom: 88 pp., $24.95

June 23, 2002|JOHN BERGER | John Berger is a novelist, poet, screenwriter and art critic. He is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including "About Looking," "Ways of Seeing" and "G.," for which he won the Booker Prize. His most recent books are "Selected Essays" and "The Shape of a Pocket."

Go into the meadows one April afternoon and collect a bunch of wildflowers. If the area hasn't been subjected to industrial agriculture, you may find 20 or more varieties. If you take only one of each, it will be a small bunch. There will probably be white, yellow, blue, pink, purple flowers, and as you look at the bunch, clasped in your hand, you will notice that the colors, now gathered together and close to one another, have changed and appear to be much more vivid and intense than they were when growing in the grass or under the trees. They have acquired an intensity, a harmony and an intentionality such as one normally associates with a work of art.

How you explain this depends upon your philosophical approach. You can treat it simply as a strange optical phenomenon. You can accept it as a revelation of a given natural order, to which the human eye is, or has become, perceptive. Either way it speaks of a convergence between the human eye, an aesthetic emotion and a botanical order.

Later, you take the bunch of flowers home, put them in a glass or vase with water and place them on a table. When they catch your eye the same evening or next morning, you may simply remember the pleasure of a spring walk, or you may find yourself pondering the enigma of how Nature has evolved (Nature including yourself) in all its complexities.

All cultures have made symbols of plants, the symbolism referring, by way of what is apparent and visible, to a hidden, invisible order. And this is what Piero della Francesca (who did not paint flowers as such) was concerned with.

His work is a meditation upon the unity of the natural order, a unity made manifest by visual metaphors, equivalences and the all-embracing interconnectedness of natural forms. Besides being a painter, he was a mathematician. A lot of Renaissance painting connects with geometry. Perhaps Della Francesca's work can be better thought of as algebraic. He was concerned with finding equivalencies which speak of resolution. He sought in what he chose to paint nothing less than the original and the continuing act of (divine) Creation. I place divine in parentheses simply because the faith which sustained him came as much from what he saw with his eyes, from what he stared at, as from theological doctrine.

When he grew old, he became blind--as if his eyes finally gave out after struggling to hold so much together.

To approach his work today, it is perhaps better to begin with a bunch of flowers than with learned texts. At the same time it is necessary to add that he was one of the least naive, least emotional painters in the history of European art.

Let me give two examples of how this search for an architectonic unity works in practice and is visible in his paintings. First example. A fresco of the Pregnant Madonna painted for a very small chapel in the village of Monterchi, Umbria, where the painter's mother came from. It is, as far as I know--although I may be wrong--the only painted image of the Madonna as she would have been toward the end of the ninth month of her pregnancy. Her dress is unbuttoned because it is too tight over her belly, and with her right hand she is loosening it further, whilst her left hand is undoing another pleat of the dress at the side. Her head, held high and calm, imagines another life, whilst all the buttons and laces of her blue-green dress are being stretched apart. No wonder that during generations, the chapel with this fresco was a place of pilgrimage in central Italy for pregnant women, or for women who wanted to become pregnant. On either side of the Madonna, two angels' draw back the curtains of a tent in which the three of them are standing.

Everything in the painting--the tent, the three dresses, the angels' wings--is about vertical folds being parted to make an opening, a vent. One recalls how the flutes of a column arc trot straight but slightly curved, and how a vagina distends. All this in the utmost calm within a time scale which allows us to remember that feathers (the angels' wings) and human hair (the curls around their faces) once had a common origin. The famous aura of calm which often emanates from pregnant women has a lot to do with a time scale which one might qualify as geological. When I was recently drawing my daughter, who is eight months pregnant, I had the sense of drawing an intricate, long coastline facing a sea far out at low tide.

The second example is a fresco in the San Francesco Church in Arezzo of the Queen of Sheba Adoring the Wood Cross. Horses. Two horsemen. The Queen of Sheba on her knees. Her attendants standing behind her. Two olive trees. In the background the hills of Umbria. Parts of the fresco ruined by time.

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