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Foreword
The Shell of Being. Poems for Piero della Francesca
by Patrizia Fazzi

la Scheda del libro

Luciano Luisi

Let us find Piero della Francesca once more; let us rediscover him in all the splendour of his work that illuminates the fifteenth century (and that would transmit his light down through the following centuries to our own day) – the quattrocento that marked a fundamental turning point in the development of painting, giving rise to the brilliant intuition of perspective. Piero starts from there, with his spirit awake to those problems of geometry. But it is not only the rigour of rules aimed at reproposing the harmony of nature, not just the painstaking quest for the golden section in the underlying structure of the works. Instead, it is – as Salvini says – “a motionless concise vision of space in its entirety.” Space, the horizon, the infinite, and a premonition of the presence of God.

With this dream inflaming his spirit, Piero left Sansepolcro, his beloved native town, to go to Florence, to breathe that air of cultural renewal in the bottega of Domenico Veneziano. Then, having grown in stature, he would go to the cities where work beckoned, at the courts that were competing for his services. But would always go back to his hometown and to Arezzo, where he left so much of himself. He would return there to see once more those gentle hills, that landscape that never abandoned him, which memory (or nostalgia?) so often prompted him to paint as the background in his works.

In 2007, his land honoured him with a major cultural initiative that has left more than a few traces. On this occasion an unusual guide – still valid – accompanied the visitors: poetry, a different language intended to mirror the painting, to capture its spiritual nuances, to re-experience the creative processes embodied in the finished work. The author of the verses is an Arezzo poet, Patrizia Fazzi, who for a number of years has been attuned to the spirituality of Piero and made it her own; she has tried to fathom his serene impassiveness, to capture his light with the written word. Her life as a writer records two prior collections: Ci vestiremo di versi and Dal fondo dei fati, followed in 2008 by Il filo rosso – Segno e simbolo nell’arte di Giampaolo Talani, a collection likewise centred on the poetry/painting combination. Here, in this intense The Shell of Being, the test is more formidable: inevitably, the freedom of her poetry is subjected to forms of conditioning. Fazzi has adroitly modulated her language by adopting two different expressive registers. One is terse, measured, as though the words were carved one by one in stone, which she uses to “tell” the painted picture, to describe landscapes and figures. The other – where the tone rises toward more lyrical moments – brings its emotional tension to bear on the symbology, the metaphysical afflatus, the message, the “mystery” of each painting that has captured the emotion of her intellect. Concerning La Madonna della Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy) – which dominates the polyptych of the same name, where the huge figure hovers over the prayerful persons at her feet as though embracing them in her great cloak – Fazzi writes:

The mantle becomes temple and sky

in arms outstretched to support the sorrow...

thus fathoming the symbolic sense of the work. The portrait (some critics say presumed) of the painter is found in this picture. And so, before that visage, we may ask ourselves what Piero’s eyes are looking at. Certainly not the Virgin who towers above so distant (perhaps to signify her inaccessibility). That ecstatic gaze and imperceptible smile seem to turn inward to the serene vision of the world that would accompany him for his entire life.

Let us continue leafing through these pages, enriched by reproductions of Piero della Francesca’s work: it is like visiting an ideal exhibition of the master guided around the world by Fazzi’s verses. For example, we find Baptism of Christ – which is at the National Gallery of London – in “Water of Rebirth”; the verses make the action depicted in this panel seem to materialise before our very eyes: Christ, who is perfectly centred in the distribution of space, sheds His light on the entire scene:

The water that trickles down crystalline and light

on the fair face and on the joined hands

is water of rebirth.

And the dazzling pearly white of Christ’s body astonishes, as does even more the snow-white, suggesting daybreak, of the penitent who hides himself to shed his clothes (certainly his sins, washed away by the baptism of the Saviour) and the enlightening thought of Roberto Longhi comes to mind: “In Piero, the colours seem to come into existence for the first time as elements of an invention of the world.”

Here now is the Madonna del Parto where the angels part the curtain on the revealing scene of this supremely human Madonna with her hand resting on her already round stomach, almost in the act of feeling the heartbeats of her baby...

... ridge of life that announces itself

ancestral slit that everlastingly

becomes womb ...

And here, Fazzi pointedly observes:

... the colours meet each other

as in the mutual contact ...

and the curtain parts on the new creature ...

sensing that this alternating of colours in the garments of the two angels symbolically represents the union of man and woman as creators of life, an act of love that is sublimated in the motherhood of Mary, who carries in her womb the salvation of mankind. And at the conclusion of her text the poet has a burst of gratitude to the painter for his gift:

Thanks be unto you, Piero,

for having fixed in the iris

the dawn of every story.

The seventeen poems (strophes of a sort of longer poem from which some pages have been lost) could not fail to include a stop to consider the masterpiece and illustrated tale that is the Legend of the True Cross of the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo. And the attention of the poet focuses on the “branch” that, placed in mouth of dying Adam, will grow into the tree from which the Cross will be made. And here, at this first station, one contemplates the death of Adam, which has passed on to us this outrage to life:

He was the first man

and was the first death:

screaming, pain throws open the arms of his woman

the first to procreate in love

the descendants of the original sin ...

The verses capture one of the rare agitated episodes to be found in the painting of Piero della Francesco, where the personages, in their imperturbability, seem to view life through a picture window. And here, in this work of wide-ranging composition, as in the other (followed by the accompanying poem – namely Adoration of the Sacred Wood and Meeting of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba – one notices how the painter verges on using a procedure that today might be described as cinematic, sequencing two episodes that occur at different times. Here, in the painting where the two scenes are divided by a pillar, the Queen of Sheba even is dressed differently. In the left panel of the fresco, we find her bowed before the wood that she intuitively recognises as being the Cross. For this gesture, the poet comes up with her most felicitous lines to put that sublime metaphysical atmosphere into words:

... from the joined hands rises

symphony of light

to faces and looks

and the landscape widens

so infinite

airy green and sky-blue,

pure flight.

And we want to conclude with a final painting that inspired the poem the author has placed at the beginning of her collection of the same name: “The Shell of Being.” The reason for doing so is because it is the one that perhaps best sums up the vision of Piero della Francesca: the Montefeltro Altarpiece. Here everything alludes to birth, the creation of the cosmos, the passage from non-being to being: there is the shell (a scallop valve) as symbolic container of creation; think of the birth of Venus from a shell in ancient sculpture, a theme revived by Botticelli; there is the egg, symbol of life for many primitive peoples, primigenial form of life, placenta, womb, and the egg descends perpendicular over the head of the Madonna to indicate in her supreme motherhood. Let us read together:

Perfect

sharp

suspended

from the shell of being

stretches

thread that lowers

arcane

shell of light

that impresses itself on the faces

lost in the enchantment

on the ragged garments

on the precious embellishments,

niche gravitating with mystery.

Here we close the book to leave to the reader the pleasure of reading the other poems, perhaps – and it would be the best way – while viewing the pictures that gave rise to them. All that remains for us to do is to borrow from the poet’s verse and say: “Thanks be unto you, Patrizia” for this testimony of love for Piero della Francesca. In so doing, you have succeeded in giving a reading to the spiritual values of an artist among the most spiritual in the history of painting.

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