Post first published in May 2012
In the past weeks I have been reading a book that I had seen a few years ago but never got to buy. The book is called L'Enigma di Piero ( Piero's Enigma), it was published in 2006 and is by Silvia Ronchey, a scholar of Byzantine History.
Ronchey looks back at previous interpretations of The Flagellation, the small painting by Piero della Francesca in the Palazzo Ducale of Urbino and gives her own reading of the masterpiece. I am summarising the content of the four hundred pages of the book here because I see it has not been translated in English and it is a very intriguing read. Ronchey's interpretation is now well respected and takes into account the work of many previous scholars.
The painting is one of the big mysteries in art history, and since its "rediscovery" it has prompted a myriad of different exegeses.
The Flagellation is the painting where figures were deemed having "some African features" and " thick ankles" and therefore rejected by the envoy of London's National Gallery, in Italy to buy masterpieces for the museum.
Its success started later on with a French scholar, Layard, and Degas was the first painter who rushed to Italy to see it after reading Layard's article. Critics soon realised Piero was a major artist and his paintings were then analysed by all the most renown art historians, including Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Longhi, Gombrich, Pope-Hennessy and countless others. The first one to interpret the work in the light of Byzantium's history was Kenneth Clark, and Ronchey proceeds from that idea and enriches the book with a hundred pages of apparatus to support her theory.
In order to understand the real significance of Piero's painting, it is important to look at the complex political and historical situation of Southern and Eastern Europe in the first half of the fifteenth century, when Byzantium was about to fall to the Turkish armies and frenetic negotiations were made to try and save the Empire.
The main ambassador of the Emperor in the west was Bessarione, a greek cardinal who, though originally an anti-latinist, had argued in favour of the reunification of the Eastern and Western churches during the Council of Ferrara/Florence as he thought it the only way of obtaining help for the Empire. A crusade organised after this council ended in a complete disaster.
The plan was to move the capital of the oriental Empire to Mistra, a city close to Sparta in the Peloponnesus, that was already one of the most prosperous parts of the Empire under the aegis of Teodoro and then Tommaso Paleologo, brother of the Emperor. This would have been a very beneficial move, as Mistra could be an important strategical bridgehead to contast the ever increasing Ottoman empire both commercially and militarily. Mistra was also at the centre of cultural interest as it had been the home of a school of Neoplatonic philosophers which had deeply influenced Humanism, the movement at the heart of Italian Renaissance.
One of the major sponsors of this strategy was Pope Pius II, Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who canvassed for years in order to organise another crusade. All the leading families in Italy were interested in Mistra: the Gonzaga in Mantova, the Estensi in Ferrara, the Malatesta in Pesaro, the Montefeltro in Urbino. They all had family ties between themselves and with the Emperor ( the beautiful Cleopa Malatesta had been married to Teodoro Paleologo, brother of Tommaso and previous despot of Mistra), they had power and money.
Pope Pius II organised a second council, in Mantua in 1459 to try and launch yet another military offensive. Not only he was seeking for the support of these families, but he also tried to involve Venezia, Genova, Burgundy and other countries. Constantinople had, in the meantime, fallen, and the last remaining Emperor, Tommaso, the youngest brother who wasn't expecting to reign, had escaped to Italy with his family.
Having decided to personally lead the crusade in order to push all his very reluctant allies, the Pope died in Ancona while getting ready to set sales for the Aegean sea in 1464.
The crusade happened anyway, and it was another failure. In a short time the Pope, the last Basileus Tommaso Paleologo and Sigismondo Malatesta, leader of the crusade who caught malaria in Mistra, all died, and with them the hope to reunite the Empire with Rome. The daughter of the last despot of Mistra would then marry Ivan III, great prince of Russia, the new Cesar ( Csar). The ideological legacy of the Empire of Bysantium was going to pass to Moscow, re-enter orthodoxy and be progressively detached by the West.
The -failed- unification of the first and the second Rome is the project of which the Flagellation, in Ronchey's opinion, was the manifesto.
The analysys of the painting will be in the next post.
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Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco is an Italian painter living in London.