AREZZO, Italy — The organization of space. Its definition can be found under Piero della Francesca, whose frescoes depicting the Legend of the True Cross (1452–1466) are mind-bending excursions into the cumulative force of perspective, line, plane and pattern.
The morning I viewed the paintings, which are in Arezzo’s Basilica of San Francesco, my attention kept returning to the section of the wall called “The Finding and Recognition of the True Cross,” which describes (on the left side of the fresco) the excavation of the crosses of Golgotha, where Christ and two thieves were crucified, and the proof of the True Cross (on the left), in which a dead man is miraculously brought back to life.
A portion of the upper left corner of the fresco has fallen off, and so the image’s full structure is lost to us. But a glimpse of sky and the steep slope of a hill in a remaining swath tells us that the landscape on the left was not meant to balance the eave of the building on the right. Such facile symmetry would have framed the action in a predictable signifier of grandeur, as if set between two arms of a throne.
The space is instead more mutable and open — more like a Japanese screen painting than a conventional display of linear perspective. The scale of the fresco, which spans an entire wall high above eye level, plays tricks with perception that a facsimile could never reproduce. In photographs of the work, the figures arrayed across the foreground draw all the attention, while in person there is an absolute integration of the human component with the surrounding landscape and buildings.
Take the marble-clad, Classical building on the center right. Its facade, which in reproduction stands like a backdrop behind the story’s characters, feels as if it is smack up against the picture plane, a sensation that scrambles your idea of where everything should be situated. The reorientation of such a powerful form shoves the figures in front of it even farther forward, a thrusting motion further exaggerated by the cross held in extreme foreshortening, like a crossbow, by the man in the white cap and red jacket.
The cross, in turn, rhymes with the eave of the building on the right, which in pictorial terms should sit well in front of the Classical facade, yet spatially it appears to be residing on the same plane. Such vertiginous movement is actually one of the more straightforward examples of Piero’s spatial elasticity, in which diagonals, verticals and horizontals assemble themselves into compressed solids and voids that flip forward and back, up and down, in a continuous, confounding dance of certainty and ambiguity.
The relationship between the two crosses on the left is especially intriguing. Coming together at oblique angles, they carve out a shallow niche that shelters, precariously, the figurative group on the right, while their crossbars, despite their pictorial instability, seem to hold up the jumble of rectangles, triangles and parallelograms of the cascading cityscape above.
The cross on the right frames out a section of the hills that rises over a cultivated field planted with parallel rows of crops. Rendered in contrasting, almost incompatible styles, the hills appear to be sponged on in painterly swatches of ocher, umber and earth green — an abstract effusion that will astound anyone who thinks of Piero solely in terms of stolid, compact forms — while the field is a set of stripes laid out in nearly perfect isometric perspective that refuses to lead the eye into the distance.
Instead, like a ping pong paddle, the striped field bounces the eye back to the picture plane, where it connects the fresco’s two episodes by binding the bearded man in the black coat, white cap and exposed legs to the kneeling woman in white and gold.
Pictorially, the painting’s space telescopes from very far to very near, with the interplay between the positive and negative shapes forming an intricate puzzle of directionals and patterning that pushes and pulls the eye, to borrow a well-worn phrase, outward and back even as the surface retains its integrity as a flat, frontal plane.
The pressures exerted by these contradictory movements are poised in exquisite tension, with the cloud-streaked blue of the sky providing the only modicum of relief. Teeming with incident, the fresco’s imagery turns wild, almost chaotic, as you bore into individual elements and trace their multitude of zigs and zags, shuffled color clusters, and clashes between amorphous and geometric shapes.
Terms like wild and chaotic may seem like a stretch when applied to an artist like Piero, but in the give and take of art, the greater the dynamism, the more rigorous the means to channel it. Piero’s geometry may be the interface that draws his time into ours, but the primal forces roiling beneath — compressed and compounded through his sharply delimited forms — are the bonds that hold us in his grip.