Alive and well in this fine bone-sunk field, drying in its sun and listening. But what of it? When did I last dig my nose deep down underneath the gray carpet of the shoe’s sole, and touch those brown filthy roots? To really look at life in decoration! Roots grow into the car seat, into its dark tissue, but I have recently felt the need to pull up and go. To touch a memory, to see the wonderful things on the doorstep that we always wash away from in between our toes. Where to begin?
Short, staggering steps into uncertainty. I went to see the exhibition on 16th century Florentine art with my mother, and it was impressive. Particularly large Frescoes from the earlier decades, with new colours and expressions and new depth. My mother was enchanted and I tried to engage with her on a similar frequency, but it was difficult. I felt a distinct throbbing hole in the middle of strained appreciation. I left the space with a pleasant feeling, I had seen beautiful figures and shapes, but there was a small itch in the art, a feather against expectation. I thought I would read up on what I’d seen, maybe that would help. One thing led to another and I was suddenly reading about Piero della Francesca, an apparently extraordinary humanist painter. He was working during the 15th century, so was premature for the exhibition. I hung on Piero’s page because I was touched by one specific detail: Aldous Huxley, that wonderful English writer who dug mescaline and liked to point out the uncomfortable, famously called Piero’s Resurrezione “the greatest picture in the world”. How could Huxley – amateur art critic! – fire off such an endorsement? An entire empire lies in that claim, it is fear, it is definition! The piece is fixed into a wall of the Museo Civico in Sansepolcro, Piero’s hometown, lying beyond Arezzo near the border with Umbria. It was going to be bombed and broken towards the end of the war, but a British officer held off the order, somehow recollecting Huxley’s words about Piero’s piece. The Germans left before the order was carried out, and Sansepolcro was preserved. Edgar Degas, the graceful impressionist, just dead one hundred years, apparently also made special travels to Arezzo and San Sepolcro to see Piero’s work. Christ, I’ve never even seen Arezzo, and here I am skulking the swamplands of Bagno a Ripoli. Perhaps I should see it, that “visionary Resurrection [that] binds together the inextricably visceral, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious with the kind of integrity and synthesis of expression that the human person yearns for and so often misses or lacks”. What in the world does any of that mean! Taken from the silly and conservative National Review (Aeschliman, 2013), but it should still be enough to take me back to Sansepolcro. Just for a look at the Jesus in the flesh.
In the meantime I had a look at an image of the piece. It does look lovely through the flashes of my screen. Christ has a magnificent face. He looks right into my sinful soul and after a few moments I break the stare. Looking back, he still stands there, colossal nose, imposing symmetry, clutching a flag bearing the Crusaders’ insignia. His body is wonderful, and he is very much alive and triumphant with his forceful paw climbing over the marble of the tomb. The sleeping soldiers are serene, their colours are perfect and stand against the pastel robe of their Lord. This was what I saw. I had to read for the symbolism: the changing vegetation behind Christ for the shifting seasons, or for the birth of holy life, the contrast of sleeping man against the force of conscious divinity. Piero carved his self-portrait into the soldier sleeping against the pole of the flag, thereby bringing himself in closer contact with God. Yes, certainly! I enjoyed the analysis, but it did not send my wrists fidgeting or my heart crying, or dump me cross-legged onto the cold stone to stare and stare into the reborn substance of this all-important art of a lifetime, the first light of the sun reflecting off its soft surface and into the central lobes of silent eyes. Maybe good Aldous felt something more, he felt its sound pulsating in his finger tips and called it the best painting in the world. He could be right, maybe he knew. I certainly do not. Perhaps I should read Piero’s life, his birth and his love and where exactly he jumped onto the shoulders of his giants to become a giant himself.
I was in Sansepolcro not long ago, but this was before I knew Piero or his great work or his place in the small pretty town. We were in the area for a party, an ambitious 90 minutes from Florence but worth it in a wild world of deep pulsating beat and laughter and lots of blinding drinks. It was 90 minutes for thrills and kicks and we pushed a great deal all night. It was a good night. I had gone to sleep earlier than some of the others and I can only imagine their Sunday afternoon. It was in late August and we rose from sweat in our cars, and needed breakfast. It is that unique feeling, of standing up to the warm summer glow of day and testing your legs in sobriety, it feels absurd. Then we stood talking for a while, in low voices and with slow rhythm. San Sepolcro was nearby, and we knew it was cute and worth a look. We would certainly find coffee. So we drove the few kilometers into town, two cars, those who weren’t driving dribbled into the seats. Brian was by far the worst, he lay with his head out the window, completely inhibited. We rolled into town on no good business, and chose a rotten little cafe that hosted our horrid spirits for a while. It could have been a half hour or two hours. The coffee was nice but the pastries were stale at four o’clock. I don’t remember the man as very nice. We then drifted out of the shop and into the street, and walked aimlessly for a short time. No one suggested a proper look at the town. Even if we had known to look for him, it was not the time for Piero della Francesca. I think everyone probably knew that but no one said anything. We just piled back into the cars and heaved the engines on. I was driving and looked around at the boys, and they smiled. We drove 90 minutes for the night, and we would drive the 90 back.
Were we worthless to only consider Piero’s little medieval hole in the fading light of an afternoon, as an aperitif to our return to urban comfort and a movement of the night? I don’t know, but it was not part of the agenda, and was never going to be. We turned on the radio and slid back through the dirt, the stone throbbing away in our closed fists. Our closed fists, with our thumbs sticking up. It was fantastic. I’ll go back to Sansepolcro, but only because I have nothing better to do.