‘The Flagellation’ by Piero Della Francesca has been called by some historians ‘the greatest small painting in the world’. It’s difficult to choose ‘the greatest’ as if painting could be measured like a sporting event. Sometimes you are in the mood for Marc Chagall, sometimes Velasquez. That’s all you can say really. However I would suggest that of all the European painters alive during the high water mark period of the 15th and 16th centuries, the work of Piero, to me, feels the most profound. He is not a household name like some of his contemporaries. That is down to the laziness of the herd in part, and also because of the turn of events which conspired to diminish his greatness.
Piero lived a long life and died finally in 1492. His beautiful rendition of The Nativity dates from that year and is unfinished. Much of his work had been done as fresco, in churches and municipal buildings in and around Tuscany, for example ‘The History of the True Cross’ in Arezzo and ‘The Resurrection’ in Sansepolcro. In his life time, Florence and Rome were the two main centres to which painters naturally gravitated. So the more isolated parts of Tuscany were to a certain extent cultural backwaters. Paintings on wooden panels could be transported, but not frescoes on stone. People were not inclined to make long journeys over poor roads in order to see Piero’s art. So over time he became a kind of shadowy, unknown figure in art history. This situation was not remedied until as late as the early 20th Century, when finally an infrastructure of good quality highways was built in Northern Italy. Now the population at large could go and see the work. His reputation as a painter of great subtlety, beauty and spiritual presence was restored to its rightful place in art history.
His posterity was also hindered by the fact that a few years after his death, a large number of his paintings (in Rome) were painted over by the young upcoming star of Renaissance art, Raphael. Was it jealousy? Ignorance? Some kind of poorly judged expediency? It’s hard to tell. It’s an unforgivable crime. A fine painter like Raphael must have been aware of the timeless and important quality of the paintings. Anyway, this act of abomination destroyed about half of Piero’s life work.
‘The Flagellation’ itself, is a very interesting and mysterious picture. The composition is split into two halves. The left half shows Christ being whipped. What is remarkable is how serene this image is. The light is cool, the body language all understated, both the flagellator and his victim. And all the while it is being watched off to one side by a strangely unaffected and calm Pontius Pilate. And the whole flagellation is placed in the background of the picture, almost as a coincidence or afterthought. In juxtaposition, in the same space as this scene of torture, is a group of men, apparently indifferent or unaware of the flagellation, in the forefront of the image. Who are these three figures? They look like wealthy businessmen, maybe diplomats or foreign emissaries. Deep in conversation about….something. Well, much has been written about who they might be. It’s conjecture. We don’t know.
The painting is almost perfectly balanced , and the proportions of the figures and architecture are so exact to the smallest detail. Historians and artists have recreated three dimensional models of the painted scene, using digital measurement and technology. These three dimensional models stand up as realistically proportioned spaces. There are very few other paintings of the time, if any, depicting depth of field and perspective, which could match this level of reality, without one or more of the figures being unrealistically tall or small, or the light sources being incorrect, buildings being architecturally impossible etc. one wonders how Piero achieved this.
‘The Flagellation’ can be seen in the town of Urbino. Even with today’s high quality Italian roads, it is still quite a journey to go and see it. You have to navigate the ‘mountains of the moon’, a road that spirals upwards, round and round almost endlessly, dizzyingly and then, finally, at the top, the very high-up fortified town of Urbino comes into view like an ancient dream. It’s a small but beautiful town, suitable for housing the ‘greatest small painting in the world’. And worth the journey.