March 23, 2023

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

It seems fitting that we post some famous images of the Resurrection, given the production that we will soon open at Koerner Hall in Toronto. It was Aldous Huxley who referred to Piero della Francesca's version of The Resurrection as "the greatest painting in the world." The painting's near destruction during World War II makes for thrilling reading.

From Philip McCouat's wonderful article: "How one man saved the greatest picture in the world: Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection”, Journal of Art in Society, November 2022:

“In the summer of 1944, in the midst of World War II, the Allies were advancing northward into Italy, gradually overcoming the defences of the occupying German forces, and seizing control of newly-liberated towns.

As part of this advance, British troops of the Royal Horse Artillery reached the hillsides overlooking the Tuscan town of Sansepolcro, near Arrezzo. In accordance with orders, they then prepared to shell the town to clear it of German soldiers before advancing.

As their bombardment began, the troop commander, Lieutenant Anthony (“Tony”) Clarke, began to be assailed by doubts. As he told it in his diary, a question started to nag him: Why do I know the name of this town Sansepolcro?' Suddenly he remembered – a few years before, as an art-loving teenager, he had read a book containing an essay by Aldous Huxley, describing how he had travelled to the town, and seen there what he rather grandly described as ''the greatest picture in the world''. "We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty,'' Huxley wrote, "It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour".

The painting he was talking about was the monumental 15th century fresco, The Resurrection, by Piero della Francesca.

Clarke was stricken ~ if the bombardment continued, would he be the one responsible for destroying this apparent masterpiece? He had already seen the damage that shelling could cause, when he’d earlier passed through the devastated Monte Cassino. His dilemma was further complicated by an unconfirmed local report that the Germans had already retreated from the town. But could that report be trusted? Might Clarke be held liable for the serious offence of disobeying clear and repeated orders if he stopped firing? Could he trust the local report? Had the masterpiece already been destroyed in the preliminary bombardment? It was a difficult choice, but Clarke was eventually firm -- he told his men to cease firing

As it happened, it was a fortunate decision. Militarily, because it turned out that the Germans had in fact already vacated the town, so the bombardment had not been needed in any event. And artistically, because, as would become evident the next day when the Clarke and his troops inspected the town, the precious fresco had indeed been saved from destruction.”