A FEW WEEKS AGO, we were going to meet friends at a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown. As we had arrived in the area far too early for our rendezvous, we decided to pass some time looking at pictures in the nearby National Gallery. We headed for the rooms containing paintings from the Renaissance era, which we had not visited for a long time because usually, for reasons that I cannot fully explain, we look at works created in later periods. We entered one of the rooms and I stopped in front of a couple of paintings that brought childhood memories flooding into the forefront of my mind. Both artworks are lovely creations of the early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca (‘Piero’; c1415-1492).
In my childhood and early adulthood, I lived at 36 Hampstead Way in Hampstead Garden Suburb. The front door was under a covered porch and reached up a few stairs that led up from the street. The front door opened into a hallway with red polished stone flooring and a few pictures hanging on its walls. At the end of the hallway, facing the front door, there was a large high-quality photographic reproduction of the “Montefeltro Altarpiece”, painted by Piero. This coloured picture had been bought in Florence (Italy) from Alinari, the famous photography company that specialised in taking good photographs of artworks. The feature of the picture that always fascinated me was the egg suspended from a scallop shell above the head of the Madonna. I have learned recently that the egg depicted is an ostrich egg, symbol of the new Venus: i.e., the Virgin Mary. It has also been suggested that it is not an egg but a pearl, which is a reference to the Immaculate Conception (pearls are created in oyster shells without sexual intervention!).
Also in the hall, there was a smaller coloured reproduction of another of Piero’s paintings: “The Flagellation of Christ”. Mounted on board and glazed with a shiny varnish, this reproduction was smaller than the original. So, every time I entered or left our home, I used to see these two images originally created by Piero. They were a part of my life.
My parents loved Italy. We visited Florence and Venice every year except 1967, the year after Florence had suffered from a devastating flood. My mother was a sculptor, and my father was a serious amateur art historian with a special interest in the Italian Renaissance. Hence, their love of Florence and the art treasures it contains. Piero was amongst their favourite artists.
Piero was born in Borgo Santo Sepolcro (‘Sansepolcro’) in Tuscany, which is about 47 miles southeast of Florence. Once when we were staying in Florence, we made an excursion to Arezzo, where there are some frescos by Piero, and then to Sansepolcro. There, we visited the Museo Civico that contains one of Piero’s great works: “The Resurrection”. None of us, my parents, myself and my sister, had seen it ‘in the flesh’ before.
For my father, Piero was not the only reason for our visit to Sansepolcro. In addition to his deep interest in the history of art, Dad was one of the world experts in the history of … wait for it … double-entry bookkeeping. This system of accounting has been a cornerstone of business since it was invented by the mathematician Luca Pacioli (c1447-1517), whose life overlapped that of Piero. Not only that, but Luca was also born in Sansepolcro. Apart from his advances in accounting methods, Luca also wrote various mathematical treatises including “Summa de arithmetica, geometria. Proportioni et proportionalita”. The second volume of this was Luca’s rewriting of a work by Piero. And the third volume was an Italian translation of “De quinque corporibus regularibus”, which had originally been written by Piero. Apparently, in both cases Luca made no mention of Piero as their author.
Although Piero and Luca figured often during the years I lived with my parents, I have not thought about either of them for a long time. It was only when we entered the National Gallery to pass time whilst we waited for our friends that seeing the paintings by Piero evoked childhood memories.