Changing times in Urbino

Today it was over the mountains to Urbino. Grace was on my side as the only vehicles I met going there or back, around hairpin bends to startling heights (and drops), were all going the other way. Urbino is a university city, the size I would guess of my beloved Durham, and it is quaint to see the Department of Inorganic Chemistry housed in a building from the fifteenth century, when their forerunners would have been practicing alchemy, chemistry with wings...

The central attraction is the Ducal Palace, now the principal gallery of the Marche region, and a stunning building, light capacious rooms of high, vaulted, decorated ceilings and now (as then) hanging art. The prize of the collection is this painting above by Pierro della Francesca that had been moved from its usual place to participate in an exhibition on the Renaissance view of the 'ideal city'. It was an exhibition that, pardoning the pun, did not hang together. It was undecided as to whether it was an art historical drag through the way the city was depicted in Renaissance art or (more interestingly) what the Renaissance thought a city was for. The former won sadly.

But this painting is very strange because the central narrative: Christ being flogged before the crucifixion is placed at the back and to the foreground are three men, variously identified. The traditional view is that it is a complex allegory concerning the fall of the Byzantine Empire that happened twenty years before it was painted; however, it is wholly modern in allowing Christ to appear in a picture not as the central figure and as an allegory relating to some other event (rather than the other way around).

Religion is essential but God is not pervasively central. The authors of the painting: Pierro and its commissioners would have, I expect, denied this but the signature of a monumental change in consciousness is imprinted on it.

There were three other pieces that held my attention.

The first were two paintings of the crucifixion by Antonio Alberti da Ferrara where I noticed that St John the Beloved Disciple is the same man in both, by which I mean the same model. I expect this happens all the time but I rarely notice it and am willing to wager that it is a self-portrait. There is something embarrassed about it as if its author is struck by the humility of offering his body for a saint.

The second was a painting  by Joos Van Wassenhove of the Last Supper as an act of communion - Jesus is depicted as if a priest, not sitting at table, but before the altar distributing bread to the first ever communicants, the Apostles.

The third was a painting by Carlo Crivelli or known to me as Creepy Crivelli. He is a very strange, I think, disturbed painter, you have to look carefully to notice this but here it was again (if only in my imagination): a Pieta, the dead Christ and his Mother, his Mother to his left with her hand tenderly on his breast, except it is n't, that is where it usually is iconographically, but here it is lower down as if slipping under his gown, his modesty. He had a very unhealthy relationship with death, I feel!


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