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Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection and the Captain Clarke Who Did not Bomb it

Updated on January 9, 2016
Piero della Francesca, Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1463) - Detail, Sansepolcro (AR) Museo Civico
Piero della Francesca, Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1463) - Detail, Sansepolcro (AR) Museo Civico | Source

Sansepolcro, Tuscany

Sansepolcro, aereal view - The city lies in the upper Tiber valley, in the province of Arezzo
Sansepolcro, aereal view - The city lies in the upper Tiber valley, in the province of Arezzo | Source

A Story Long Many Centuries featuring Several Characters

This story, as every respectable fable, has begun many many years ago, in XV century, in a small city of Tuscany, amidst Florence, the Papacy and the Duchy of Urbino and has several protagonists, mostly lived in different times. Again, as every respectable fable, this story has also an encouraging happy end.

The first character is a painter with the hobby of geometry, active in the second half of the XV century in Tuscany, in a small city near Arezzo, far from the “magic circle” of the Florentine painters. His name is Piero della Francesca, a painter that is now considered one of the most relevant in the Italian Renaissance.

The second character comes up some century later. He is a writer and a fine intellectual and belongs to a prominent family of intellectuals. His name is Aldous Huxley. He has written many books and essays, among them the novel, Brave New World, considered one of the most important in XX century.

The third one, in chronological order, is the true protagonist of this story. The English Captain Antony Clarke was in Italy in 1944 to fight against the Nazi army. He had been ordered to bomb the hometown of Piero della Francesca, the small city of Sansepolcro among the pleasant hills north of Arezzo, to prepare the entry of the Allied army.

The other characters are journalists, who in different times discovered and told this story.

Ah, maybe I was missing another protagonist. This in an inanimate character, a fresco painted by Piero della Francesca in a room of the Government Building: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Leon Battista Alberti, Front of the Church of Santa Maria Novella (XV century), Florence
Leon Battista Alberti, Front of the Church of Santa Maria Novella (XV century), Florence | Source
Piero Della Francesca, Polyptych of Perugia - Announciation (1460-1470), Urbino Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria
Piero Della Francesca, Polyptych of Perugia - Announciation (1460-1470), Urbino Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria | Source

Piero and His Time

Piero della Francesca was born from a wealthy leather merchant around 1416 in Borgo Sansepolcro. We do not have so much news about his life and the scholars have reconstructed the main steps of his not adventurous life with some difficulties. Also, many of his works have been lost, such as the frescoes in the Vatican Palaces that were covered by Raphael. Probably, his formation begun in the Borgo, at the workshop of a local artist (Antonio d’Anghiari) and prosecuted in Florence, where he was the pupil of Domenico Veneziano, an artist who influenced deeply Piero in the use of colours and volumes. In the same years, Leon Battista Alberti was writing his treaty about the painting (De Pictura), containing the first known systematic discussion about the perspective. Paolo Uccello was painting the Battle of San Romano (1438), discussed by the contemporaries for the bold use of the perspective. These are important references that Piero shows to have assimilated in his works. He left Florence around 1440 to return in Borgo, where he held public offices, then he travelled extensively: Urbino, Rimini, Bologna, Ancona, Arezzo, Rome are the stages that attest his intense activity in Central Italy. The relationship with the Dukes of Urbino, Guidantonio and the son Federico, was particularly intense and gave life to celebrated paintings such as the Pala di Brera and the Double Portrait of the Dukes of Urbino. He died in his hometown in the same day the America was discovered (October 12, 1492), suffering, says Vasari, from a serious eye disease.

Piero della Francesca and the Resurrection of Christ

We do not know the exact date Piero has painted the Resurrection. This fresco is commonly dated around 1560, when the artist was working at the great cycle of frescoes The Legend of the True Cross in the Saint Francis Church in Arezzo. The event that has originated the painting is considered to be the restitution to Borgo Sansepolcro (the former name of Sansepolcro) of the use of the Palazzo della Residenza, site of the Government. With this act, dated 1456, the Florentines had returned some autonomy to the city they had received from the Papacy in 1441 after the Anghiari battle. The occasion gave rise to restoration works, among these the fresco of Piero in the wall of the meeting room that had to celebrate the event.

The choice of both the artist and the subject is significant. The city has called his most celebrated “son” and has chosen a symbolic theme. Christ rising from the sepulchre, is an allusion to the name of the city that was believed to have been founded upon the relics brought from the Holy Land. So, the Resurrection of Christ, a symbol of the city, has been for several years the backdrop to the meetings of the city’s “leaders”.

We do not have so many details about the life of Piero. We may suppose that he was quite an established artist at the time of the Resurrection. In fact, he had worked for the Duke Guidobaldo of Urbino, for the Malatesta in Rimini and for the Pope Nicholas V. The Resurrection, says Vasari, “is held the best of all the works that are in the said city [Borgo Sansepolcro], and the best that he ever made”

Niccolò di Segna, Polyptych of Resurrection (a. 1340), Sansepolcro Cathedral
Niccolò di Segna, Polyptych of Resurrection (a. 1340), Sansepolcro Cathedral | Source
Piero della Francesca, Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1450 - 1463), Sansepolcro (AR) Museo Civico
Piero della Francesca, Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1450 - 1463), Sansepolcro (AR) Museo Civico | Source

The Sense of Piero for Numbers

As it is known, Piero della Francesca was not only a painter but also a fine mathematician. He had studied the Euclidean Geometry and had translated from Latin into Vulgar (the ancestor of the Italian language) a large part of the Archimedes works. In his three mathematical treaties he had tried a synthesis between the theory, reserved to the scholars and the practice, reserved to technicians. All the treaties are illustrated with original technical drawings. De Prospectiva Pingendi, dated between 1460 and 1480, is a practice discussion of the perspective rules and shows the author’s interest in the calculation and representation of the volumes. Leonardo wrote the Treatise on Painting starting from this book. The interest (or to better say the love) of Piero for the volumes of the bodies and their relationship is evident in his works, where the characters are geometrical figures in a no-time space rather than human bodies in a real world. It would be worth to notice how much some modern painters such as Morandi and De Chirico are near to Piero’s art.

Sleeping Piero

The second soldier starting from the left is traditionally considered a self-portrait of Piero della Francesca.
The second soldier starting from the left is traditionally considered a self-portrait of Piero della Francesca.

A Majestic Christ

The scene is clearly dominated by the figure of Christ, placed at the centre of the painting. If we look more carefully, we can note that the image is divided in two parts and the sepulchre is the unit of measure: the lower part (one third of the surface) is occupied by the four sleeping soldiers and is developed horizontally, the upper part (the other two thirds) is dominated by the vertical figure of the triumphant Christ, featuring an athletic body modelled as a classic sculpture. The essence of the painting is the contrast between these two parts: this scheme is simple and effective at the time. Piero had been able to observe a similar one in the polyptych conserved in the Sansepolcro Cathedral, by Niccolò di Segna, around 1340. He follows the same pyramidal construction and confers to the figures the geometrical solidity typical of his works that arrives to the apex in the Flagellation of Christ (a. 1470).

Christ and the soldiers are on different perspective planes (Christ is in front of the observer, while the soldiers are viewed from below), they are marked by well separated colours (the red of Christ and the blue-green recurrent on the soldiers’ clothes) and also they show two opposed states (the sleep of the soldiers and the vigilance of Christ who awaked from the sepulchre).

We can go further in the observation of the landscape in the background and to note that the trees on the left and the right of Christ increase the verticality of the scene. But they have also another scope. There is a difference between the trees on the left and those on the right. The trees on the left of Christ are old and bare, those on his right are young plants rich of green leafs. The resurrection of Christ brings a clear interruption in the time, separating the time before, dominated by the sadness, from the time after, when the hope rises again.

Restoration in Progress

Piero della Francesca, Resurrection of Jesus Christ - Detail of a scarcely visible castle in the background
Piero della Francesca, Resurrection of Jesus Christ - Detail of a scarcely visible castle in the background

The painting is currently (December 2015) being restored. The restoration is intended to clean the fresco from dirt and contaminations cumulated during the centuries. Works are bringing to the light the details of the landscape that were no more visible to the naked eye: small villages, towers and castles upon the hills in the background.

Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano (a.  1440) Florence Uffizi
Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano (a. 1440) Florence Uffizi | Source
Piero della Francesca, Legend  of the True Cross (the Battle of Heraclius and Khosrau) (a. 1465), Arezzo Church of San Francesco
Piero della Francesca, Legend of the True Cross (the Battle of Heraclius and Khosrau) (a. 1465), Arezzo Church of San Francesco | Source
Aldous_Huxley, from the magazine La Nacion (Buenos Aires, January 4, 1970)
Aldous_Huxley, from the magazine La Nacion (Buenos Aires, January 4, 1970) | Source

The Admiration of Aldous Huxley

To the English artists and scholars coming to visit the Italian art works at the end of XIX century, a city such Arezzo might appear as an appealing deviation from the classic Tuscany, represented by Florence and maybe Siena. They had a good knowledge of Piero della Francesca, because the London National Gallery had bought the Baptism of Christ, found in the cathedral of Sansepolcro in the 1860s, and the Nativity a few years later, contributing to the international rediscovery of Piero. So, many of them considered worthwhile to go further and to take a travel up to Sansepolcro, in the upper valley of river Tiber, where they could admire the solemn form of Christ in the Resurrection frescoed on the walls of the Civic Museum.

A natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur - this is the leading quality of all Piero's work. He is majestic without being at all strained, theatrical or hysterical

— Aldous Huxley, "Along the Road"

Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963), the English writer author of Brave New World, had made this journey and had told it in his travel blog, Along the Road, published in 1925. He had reached Sansepolcro in the early spring. The journey to Sansepolcro is “no joke”, he says, whatever ways you choose to get there. What there is in this city worth to be seen? “Some fine Renaissance palaces with pretty balconies of wrought iron; a not very interesting church, and finally, the best picture in the world”, i.e. the Resurrection. Continues Huxley: “The greatest picture in the world… You smile”. Then, he gives a beautiful explanation of what he means. Of course, he finds ridiculous every sort of classification intended to establish what the five or ten or fifteen best works in the world are. However, there is an absolute level that is connected to the moral quality of the author. So, Piero is great to Huxley because his moral dimension coincides and is reversed in his artistic work

Domenico Veneziano, Pala s Santa Lucia de' Magnoli (1445), Florence Galleria degli Uffizi
Domenico Veneziano, Pala s Santa Lucia de' Magnoli (1445), Florence Galleria degli Uffizi | Source
Piero della Francesca, Pala di Brera (1472), Milan Pinacoteca di Brera
Piero della Francesca, Pala di Brera (1472), Milan Pinacoteca di Brera | Source
Antony Clarke wearing the uniform of the British RHA
Antony Clarke wearing the uniform of the British RHA | Source

Via Antony Clarke, Sansepolcro, Tuscany

After the war, Clarke established in Cape Town. He worked firstly as a clerk then he founded a shop of rare and second hand books in 1956. The shop is still in place, in Long Street, with its original name: Clarke’s bookshop. It is known as the finest bookshop in Africa. After this story was known, in 1960s, the government of Sansepolcro invited Clarke to visit the city. After his death, in 1980s, they decided to dedicate a street to the man who had saved the precious art work frescoed on the wall of the Town Hall.

Captain Antony Clarke

Antony Clarke is described as a shy man, cultured and lover of beauty. In a photograph that portraits him with the uniform and the large hat of the Royal Horse Artillery, one of the very few I found searching around the Net, his gaze seems to look far, beyond the war and the military life. In 1944, aged twenty or little more, he was in Tuscany for the war, in command of a squad of men. He had been ordered to fire on a small city to destroy the resistance of the German soldiers barricaded there and prepare the entrance of the British troops. The name of the city was Sansepolcro. This name was sounding in his mind and recalling something to him, but he was not able to say exactly what. He had already ordered a flash of grenades on the town. After, Antony and his men had seen a vehicle running on the hills and nothing else. It seemed to be no trace of the Germans. A young shepherd with a dog appeared near them. Clarke asked him about the presence of German soldiers, using his poor Italian. The boy made a gesture, indicating the hills all around. The Germans had taken refuge there, nobody was still in the town. Apparently. The name of Sansepolcro echoed again in his mind and the Huxley’s book returned to his memory, Sansepolcro the city home to the greatest painting. The Resurrection. Piero della Francesca. Captain Antony Clarke thought that he risked destroying the greatest painting in the world. The shepherd had told them the Germans were sheltering on the hills. He took the decision. No more fire on Sansepolcro. The Resurrection was a heritage of the humanity and the man who had written the book was an English Maitre à Penser holding an authority greater than Clarke’s superiors. In Anthony’s mind, the rules of the art were stronger than the rules of the war.

Clarke and his men stayed at their positions, observing the town until the night. The next day, they entered in Sansepolcro. There was no trace of Germans. Clarke wanted to visit the painting. It was intact, the first volley of grenades had avoided it. The inhabitants were repairing it with bags of sands. A very poor repair, indeed. Clarke looked at the roof and estimated that the fresco would have not easily escaped another volley. For once, everything was ending well. The fresco was safe, the enemy had gone away, Captain Clarke had been right to not pursue with fire.

Sansepolcro, the Entrance of the Museo Civico
Sansepolcro, the Entrance of the Museo Civico | Source
The bookshop established by Anthony Clarke in Cape Twon is now runned by Henrietta Dax
The bookshop established by Anthony Clarke in Cape Twon is now runned by Henrietta Dax | Source

What do You Think?

Was Anthony Clarke Right to Not Bomb Sansepolcro?

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Monte Cassino Abbey Destroyed by the Bombardment of the Allied Troups - Clarke wrote in his diaries that he had been strongly impressed by this scene

Journalists and Diaries

Antony Clarke did not make public this story for long years. He was not the kind of a man in search of fame. The story was firstly told twenty years later by the traveller writer Henry Vollam Morton. He entered the Clarke’s bookshop to find a rare book about Italy and he exited with this intriguing story that he reported in his book, A Traveller in Italy, published in 1964. Several years later, in the late 1970s, the journalist and writer Willem Steenkamp had a conversation with Clarke. Clarke told the story again, with this only omission with respect to the first version reported by H.V. Morton: the fact that he had bombed Sansepolcro one time. According to Steenkamp, Clarke knew that the journalist had understood the dramatic circumstances in which he had to operate. Clarke died in 1980s, Sansepocro named a street in his honour. Many decades had past from the facts and as it happens often, someone had expressed doubt that they had truly happened in that way. But there was still a chapter to write. In recent years (2011), the BBC journalist Tim Butcher had entered the Clarke’s Bookshop to find information about connections between Clarke and Graham Greene. He did not find what he was looking for, but he found a case containing old photos, maps and the diaries, all the documentation that fix how the facts are. Clarke says in his diaries that he was urged by his officer to go on with bombing the city and that he had to ensure him that it was vacant from German soldiers. He was not so sure about this and he knew what he was risking in disobeying the orders. Blessed are the times that do not need neither saints nor heroes. Maybe also a bit boring.

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