The Magnificent Piero and the Flagellation


In 1839 a young German painter, Johann David Passavant, a provincial merchant’s son who had attended Jacques-Louis David’s school in Paris and then attended courses by the Nazarene mystics in Rome, moved to Urbino to discover something more about his favorite artist, whom later he would become a great and recognized expert: Raffaello.

As often happens, when you look for something, you always discover something else, Passavant by chance finds out that Raffaello’s father had lived a year together with Piero de’ Franceschi, the author of that small, semi-abandoned table that you can barely see in the back of the sacristy of the Duomo of Urbino, and he tells that it “represents Christ at the Column in front of Pilate. In the foreground there are three gentlemen, one of them, dressed in silk and gold, is painted in the Dutch way”.

Today the painting “Flagellation of Christ” by Piero della Francesca can be admired in the National Museum of the Marche, in the frame of the splendid ducal palace of Urbino, one of the Italian architectural wonders. Piero di Burgo, as he was called, is a self-taught, fellow-citizen and friend of Luca Pacioli, the mathematician Franciscan author of the Divine Proportion, but also of other mathematicians and philosophers. He studies and applies the dictates of Pythagoras and Archimedes to achieve the perfection of his designs. He was later also called a painter and mathematician: he wrote the text “De prospectiva pingendi” where he draws up a treatise on the “albertian perspective” and the “Libellus de quinque corporibus regularibus”, an obstinate treatise on quadrature of the circle, itinerary already run by Niccolò Cusano. He is not only a painter but an intellectual who studies space, an esoteric looking for philosopher’s stone.

An intriguing painter, then. There are perhaps fifteen or twenty works of his own and are enough to make him a giant of the history of Arts. Piero is the founder of a vision that remains intimately tied to his land, extending between Tuscany, Umbria and Marche and stops at Urbino where one of his most important customers lives: Federico da Montefeltro. Here begins his career under the patronage of his patron, prototype of the prince of then: aggressive, awake, fighter, self-assured to the point that he is portrayed with his famous nose that allowed him to peek right with the only eye that had remained. Piero and Federico are the emblem of the court of Urbino, so different from that of Florence, where there is only the power of money in the first place and where you can have beautiful women. The Medici are very cultured, but even more culturated is Federico da Montefeltro with his library second only to that of the Vatican and who with his mercenary means – he was one of the most skilled soldiers at the expense of the various potentates – earned very high sums that he reinvested all in his duchy. What remains in the land of Montefeltro today is truly a masterpiece of architectural, pictorial, stylistic, artisanship.

But let’s go back to the “Flagellation” by Piero della Francesca, which is not just an enigma, it is a real puzzle.

Many Arts critics, as well as real police officers – using modern face recognition investigative techniques – have given their version of the painting, whose unit of measure is depicted in the black strip that you see above the head of the bearded man in the foreground, ie 4.699 cm. The painting is seven times this unit.

The various interpretations try to symbolically explain who is hiding behind the characters in the scene, who is Pilate sitting, or who is the man in brocade on the other side of the painting but above all who represents the young blond man with the purple scarf – the purple garments belonged only to kings, high priests and emperors: getting this color was very expensive, the coquette was used, these poor little animals were not so easy to find – and with their bare feet. Of some characters, recognition is easier, for example, bearded men are Greeks, because at that time they were the only ones wearing it. Even those wearing turbans are easily recognizable. On all others, the most likely guesses are made, of which many are plausible, especially the most recent ones.

There are also on the internet different and fascinating versions of the painting and its depicted characters. For those who want to have a more in-depth idea of Piero’s life, one of the most incredible and fascinating of our country, I recommend reading Silvia Ronchey’s text “L’enigma di Piero”. We are surprised and with an irrepressible desire to know even more: about perspective, the divine proportion, quadrature of the circle and again on Leon Battista Alberti and his “De Re Architectura”, philosophy in general and on Plato in particular but even more on the story of the characters who lived in this extraordinary and so fertile period (Federico da Montefeltro, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, Bessarione, the dynasty Paleologo, Mistrà, Giorgio Gemisto Pletone, Bisanzio, Venice, Carpaccio, Manuzio, Marsilio Ficino, Medici, Pius II, Cleopa Malatesta … the list would be longer).

It was a time of excitement and full of prospects, where the countless Greek texts that were brought to Italy by escaping exiles were consulted, copied, protected. Many of these ended up creating the basics of magnificent libraries such as Marciana in Venice and Laurentiana in Florence.

It is difficult to summarize in a few words the meaning of this work without risking of making it a true pseudo-fiction meatball that I leave to those who are more experienced than I am, I just repeat that it is worth working on this particular historical period and writing endless novels. It is felt that the contents of his message, as learned from the times learned by Greek scholars, has just been mentioned, at least in Italy, and that for various reasons have then taken different paths, far from here.

Leopardi, in my opinion, was one of those who later became aware of this void.

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