Carlo Ginzburg and Piero della Francesca

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Comment on Investigating Piero, book by the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg

By Afrânio Catani*

In the 1980s and early 1990s I wrote reviews for some press vehicles, especially for the “Caderno de Sábado” of the now defunct Jornal da Tarde (JT)). I remember that in December 1989 I traveled to Cuba for the first time, invited to present work on Brazilian chanchadas as part of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, in Havana, and, on December 09, 1989, the day before the trip , I was pleased to see published my review of the wonderful book by Carlo Ginzburg (Turin, 1939), Questions about Piero: the Baptism, the Arezzo Cycle, the Flagellation (Peace and Earth), in the JT.

Below I present a slightly modified version of this text, highlighting Carlo's great contribution to the study of Piero's painting. He himself declares that he is a historian, but not an art historian.

Before proceeding, I would like to make two observations. The first is that I went to the National Gallery, in London, always experiencing great aesthetic involvement, see the available works by Piero della Francesca that are incorporated there into his permanent collection. It's worth remembering that admission is free to English national museums. The other is to highlight that Gabriel García Márquez, in twelve tales pilgrims (Record), dedicates one of them – “Espantos de Agosto” –, a very small one, to the visit he made, in Arezzo, to Piero’s frescoes in the Church of San Francisco.

Carlo Ginzburg and Piero della Francesca

Carlo Ginzburg had a significant part of his books published in Brazil, highlighting The cheese and the worms (Companhia das Letras, 1987); The good wanderers (Companhia das Letras, 1988); Myths, emblems and signs (Companhia das Letras, 1989); night story (Companhia das Letras, 1991); wooden eyes (Companhia das Letras, 2001); relations of force (Companhia das Letras, 2002); The thread and the tracks (Companhia das Letras, 2007); Fear, reverence, terror (Companhia das Letras, 2014); in addition two versions of his book about Piero della Francesca, the first published by Paz e Terra, in 1989, and the second by Cosac Naify, in 2010, with a different title: Investigating Piero.

For more than fifty years, he has been dedicating himself to various themes, referring to the history of witchcraft and popular religiosity, iconography and iconological analyzes of European art in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, issues involving the historian's work methodology, reflections on the epistemology of human sciences...

In an old interview given in 1989 to the journalist Luiz Carlos Lisboa, he stated that since the beginning of the 1960s he had not abandoned the idea that “History is contained in old papers and tiny characters, rather than in official documents and what we call “ the deed of kings”. In this book dedicated to Piero della Francesca (1416? -1492), the historian dives deep into archives and large libraries (Urbino, Sansepolcro, Cesena, Firenze, Gubio, Rome) in search of evidence for the analysis of some of the greatest works of the painter, namely, the Baptism of Christ, a flagellation and the Arezzo Cycle, based on a double point of view: the iconography and the clientele.

Ginzburg makes it clear how Piero is an object that constantly escapes, like water, from the hands of his scholars: the sure elements of his biography are scarce and the dated works, very few. In such conditions, “the researcher has the impression of finding himself in front of a very steep rock wall, smooth and without support points. There are only a few scattered carnations here and there: Piero's presence in Florence in 1439 in the entourage of Domenico Veneziano, the commission of the pala della misericordia of Sansepolcro, in 1445; the Rimini fresco depicting Sigismondo Malatesta, dated 1451; the activity in Rome, in the years 1458-1459, documented by the payments of the Apostolic Chamber…Furthermore, conjecture, uncertain or indirect news, at best dating post who e doors who that leave gaps open for decades”.

Thus, by means of evidence – hence the terminology “evidential paradigm”, contained in his excellent article “Signs: roots of an evidentiary paradigm”, in Myths emblems and signs – apparently small, such as two hands clasping an unclear profile or the simple tip of a hair, it is possible to eliminate unsafe hypotheses and complement gaps in the documents collected from the historical archives.

A joint reading of the three works cited above (Ginzburg details the Arezzo Fresco Cycle on the legend of the true cross and the mysterious flagellation de Urbino) ends up revealing its political and religious implications, hitherto ignored by critics, concerned only with questions of style. Through the inquiry that combines iconography with the clientele, Ginzburg draws an image of Piero quite different, even in chronology, from that projected by classical studies, especially those by Roberto Longhi – whose first edition is from 1927 – and Kenneth Clark.

The connection between the young Pietro and Giovanni Bacci – son and grandson of merchants, laureate in Siena and building his career in the pontifical administration, until he became a clergyman in the Apostolic Chamber –, in 1439, provided the painter with his greatest work; the Arezzo fresco cycle. Ginzburg shows that there was, at that time, a veritable clan of humanists of Aretine origin, as in addition to Bacci himself, Tortelli, Aliotti, Marsuppini and Leonardo Bruni (he also highlights Paggio, he was from Valdarno, and the Alberti family, from Catenaia nel Valdarno ) maintained geographic, managerial and cultural solidarity.

“This solidarity operated and was confirmed through a thick network of exchange of favors and reciprocal recommendations (of which the letters of the humanists are notoriously rich). These practical connections often referred to ties of kinship, carnal or spiritual (Bacci and Tortelli were counterparts, Tortelli and Marsuppini were compadres)”.

In the last pages of his book Ginzburg writes that the complex iconographic references “to the union of the Churches and the crusade elaborated in the BaptismAt flagellation and in the second and most consistent part of the Arezzo Cycle, they refer us to the cultural, political and religious interests of Giovanni Bacci or characters in any way linked to him. This is negatively proved by the disappearance of these themes in Piero's painting after the completion of the Arezzo Cycle, when client relations with the Bacci were interrupted (...) After having finished the frescoes in Arezzo, Piero (at the time with little more 45 years) walked down profoundly different and less arduous stylistic roads”.

Investigating Piero it is a book that demands great involvement from the reader, as the constant mentions of the painter's works and the astonishing amount of documents manipulated by the historian mean that, at times, something is lost in this adventure. However, it is worth following Ginzburg's fascinating undertaking which, based on evidence and details, shows how the author, work, clientele and historical, political and social contexts interact interdependently. Perhaps it is for no other reason that the Italian researcher begins one of his articles with an epigraph taken from Aby Warburg (1866-1929), a historian who studied so much and who fits well into this religious context, where it reads that “God is in the particular”. .

*Afrânio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF

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