Railing Against It: Piero della Francesca’s ‘Flagellation’ and the First Class Seating Area (provided for your onward journey experience today)
Early Morning Train
Hot and crowded, this is a train with five cramped seats in a row; in a two then three formation with a narrow passage between. People try to stand in this gap; standing room by the doors is full. At one end of the carriage, just beyond those doors, is a separate area with twelve first class seats, generously surrounded by space. All are empty bar one. A man sits alone, in splendour. The rest of us sweat and stand and stare at him in his isolation, in his splendid palace.
One Space Seen from Another
Looking at this carriage as a composition, a distinct space within another one, makes me think of paintings, of the smaller painted space within the larger painted space. This set up often occurs in early Northern European art, symbolising the Virgin Mary as the portal to heaven for example. It is a theme that must have been familiar enough for Van Eyck to use the mirror in the Arnolfini portrait in 1434, and the window to the left as a form of referent to that type of composition.
The train passes through an empty country station, at the end of the platform are two cats, one pure black, the other black and white. The piebald cat stands looking towards London, the black one sits staring towards the coast. They are close together almost touching, yet appear to pretend the other does not exist.
Space to Space
The space within a space arrangement is a form of Golden Section. The relationship of the smaller to larger area is the same as the larger to the whole. Mathematical ratios draw attention to the sets of relationships that govern the entire process. In the same way, the relationship of one painted space to another allows the artist to consider making the whole pictorial space and presenting it to the viewer.
The Ideal City and the Flagellation
Does that sort of Northern composition travel? Can we see it for example in Italian art? Try looking at Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Flagellation’,
a painting that has been much analysed and mythologised. I recently visited ‘The Ideal City’ exhibition in Urbino. The ‘Flagellation’ was exhibited under that title. The main draw to the show was the comparison between the Ideal City image itself and others, e.g. ‘The Ideal City’ from Baltimore.
A fascinating exhibition, but what stood out was the range of available forms of communication; successful or otherwise. The wall texts for example had been translated into the most tortuous English possible.
Standing in front of the ‘Flagellation’ an elegant, white suited, white haired German History of Art teacher spoke into the air and pushed back his hair. Behind him his young students texted, showed each other pictures on their phones, some wrote down his every word clearly not listening to any of it. This lack of interaction pointed up how one space in Piero’s painting communicates with the other, through the language of mathematics (the geometry and linear perspective) and of art (light and form). We might not know the exact intentions behind this image, but these lines of communications were stronger than those between the hair stroking Herr Professor and his charges.
In the Flagellation (1458-60), a group of three stand in the foreground, on red tiles crossed by white.
To the left, in the midground is a loggia, (the praetorium) in which Christ is whipped.
The whipping pillar stands within a complex series of black and white tiles, on a circle within a square. A seated figure on a dais wearing a splendid hat watches.
He frames a doorway, in that further space we can see a set of stairs leading upwards; it is brightly lit.
This might or might not have been painted for Federigo da Montefeltro, the condottiere (mercenary commander) who ruled the small state of Urbino from 1444-1482,
or for Ottaviano Ubaldini, Federigo’s Chief Counsellor and Treasurer, a famously well-read humanist. It is possible, just, to identify the bearded figure with portraits of Ottaviano, and the other with Ludovico, il Gonzaga Marquis of Mantua. None of the figures looks like Federigo, who was not shy of including himself where necessary.
Evidently, the Flagellation was made for a cognoscente. Northern art was familiar in Urbino, Justus of Ghent produced many paintings for it, Ottaviano owned a van Eyck painting. The games played with space here and in the Studiolo (several of the inlaid doors in the exhibition) display ease with characteristic Northern uses of pictorial space.
Art historians get most excited about the identity of the group of three, and their relationship to the flailed Christ. Opinion differs greatly as to who they are. Is what we can see what those three can actually see or, are they conjuring up the scene? Marilyn Lanvin suggests the specific identities above (Lanvin, Marilyn, 1972. Piero della Francesca: the Flagellation. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-46958-1) because two key figures of the period had recently lost sons (Ottaviano in 1458 and Ludovico’s adopted son between 1456-60).
A Visionary Scene
The conjuring up of visions, or visions within visions is also reasonably familiar within paintings, eg The Visions of St Jerome. According to this reading the figure in the centre is either an angel, or an image of the risen Christ, note the halo, or wreath of laurel leaves behind him (symbol of victory/ glory) and the similarity of the pose of Christ and the youth.
Or, the figures are representations of Oddantonio da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino and his advisors, Manfredo dei Pio and Tommaso di Guido dell’Agnello murdered just before Federigo took over. Or they are, including Oddantonio, Federigo’s predecessors. Or, the seated figure is the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos, and this is a painting about the re-unification of the two wings of the Eastern and Western Christian church, or it might be about the siege of Constantinople (1453) and the figure is Sultan Murad II, the Ottoman leader, or…
Signorelli Gets to the Bottom of the Story
By the way, we know that these figures are a crucial part of the composition by comparing them to similar compositions on the same theme. Luca Signorelli is generally thought to be Piero della Francesca’s pupil. Signorelli’s take on the subject was shown in the same room as ‘The Flagellation’.
The later work is splendidly dissolute with, as one of my companions put it, ‘lots of cheeky buttock work’. No evidence of the careful, measured relationship between the three and the whole space. Take them away and the entire meaning changes. Fill it full of sinuous curves and the muscular male behind and it changes even further. We had a long time to look at this whilst we waited for the teaching to finish.
So, You are a German Historian of Art
You have a linen suit creased just so, your horn rimmed spectacles sit, academically you think, on your aquiline nose, your hair is lovingly placed over your head, so. You have the words of your illustrious predecessors: Wolfflin; Wittkower; Panofsky running through your veins like blood, yet still your students do not listen. You are surrounded by communication, of one sort or another, so you say, let us think about the communication of one painted space to another or, how does one space talk to the other; who is texting whom? Actually he didn’t say anything of the sort, just kept chuntering on to a point some two feet above the painting, for a very, very long time.
The three figures stand on a straightforward red and white tiled floor receding into the distance. In the praetorium the tiling is more complex, As Martin Kemp points out in ‘The Science of Art’, that tile pattern is based on Pythaogorus and the length of the diagonal in his famous triangle; an irrational number, in this case deriving from the external proportions of the panel. The tile pattern outside the praetorium is made from simple divisions into eight, no square roots here. This is the language of mathematics, Piero della Francesca was one of the most successful mathematicians of his period, a copy of his ‘De Prospectiva Pingendi’ was on display in the next room. In the relationship between these two spaces we have the ratio of the mundane, the everyday to the glorious and the geometric; the secular to the sacred.
The Viewer Within
In the performative role of the Internal Spectator, often the painted figures closest to the viewer, we see the painted world through their eyes. The closest of the three figures to us is in profile; the man in the glorious robe. Lanvin identifies him as Ludovico Gonzaga. If anyone is conjuring up this scene it is him, looking into this world from the edges, not perhaps the putative Ottaviano who looks out of the space
Back with the Train Gang
In my train carriage, there is no aural communication between us second class folk and the lone first class passenger. He can be in no doubt how the rest of us feel through other means: body language; disposition of space; the visibility of his floor as opposed to the rows of dark suited legs and shiny black shoes and walking trainers that obscure ours. Perhaps that is why he stares so intently at his I-pad. Is there an internal viewer in this composition? Next to the door surrounds, a short round woman with short blond hair is asleep. Her red T shirt matches her complexion as she snores. Her laptop computer, open on the table ledge by the window, bleeps. On her wrist is a very large gold watch. Her congested breathing gets louder. No other passenger pays any attention, perhaps they are used to it. Is she our guide to the true meaning of this composition?
Light in My Darkness
The spirituality of light is well known in art, particularly in Northern Renaissance paintings. Often the light indicates the presence of God, or the holiness of the Virgin Mary.
In the piazza, outside the praetorium the light is from the upper left; a traditional placing. As Lanvin and Kemp show, the light in the praetorium has a different source. One of those analyses that Art Historians come out with after hours of reading not looking, I thought.
But, actually in front of the work, yes that light is very obvious, especially the shadow cast by the roof beam. That central coffered area above Christ is lit up as though rows of fluorescent tubes sit around the cornice. It is light that only Christ can see, coming from somewhere just above his eye level between the second and third column.
There’s a Sign on the Wall, But She Wants to be Sure
But, what about the furthest space, the space within the space within the space? The one with the stairs.
There are eight stairs, octagons occur throughout the construction of the praetorium tiled floor and the tile pattern in the piazza is divided into eight parts. Didn’t Christ rise from the tomb eight days after entering Jerusalem? What about that other key factor for the major inner space, light? Where is the light in that furthest stair filled space coming from? From the right, possibly the same source of light that Christ looks toward, the different source of light within the loggia, to that, from the left, that lights up the three standing figures. There is no other way to put this; this is the stairway to heaven. No doubt Rolf will be at the top to serenade the three figures when they climb it, “Convenerunt in Unum” (“They came together”) as it originally said on the frame.