What I have been doing for the past week or so here in Assisi is painting hats. Piero della Francesca’s hats, that is—beautiful Byzantine hats, mostly from “The Legend of the True Cross,” his fresco cycle in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. Not much is known of the artist’s life, which is part of what makes him so interesting to me, so ripe for puzzling over and imagining. Born in 1411 or 1412, Piero grew up in San Sepolcro in obscurity, (probably) the oldest son of Benedetto, who set his sights high and made it to the middle class from his beginnings as a leather worker. He couldn’t have been happy when his son decided to forego the family business to be craftsman, a painter.
It isn’t known who Piero’s teacher was, or when he finished the necessary apprenticeship—just that he worked as a painter of banners and candle shafts in the early 1430’s and with the regional painter, Antonio d’Anghiari, on an altarpiece for the church of San Francesco that was never completed. He shows up in Florence in 1439, working with Domenico Veziano on frescoes at S. Egidio that are now lost.
1439 is also when he would have seen the hats. John VIII Palaeologus, Eastern Emporor, and his retinue had come to Italy the year before to take part in a council that was debating the union of the eastern and western Christian churches. In 1439 the council moved to Florence, where a religious accord between the churches was ratified on July 6, at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiori. There were processions and celebrations; almost certainly Piero was among the crowd that saw John VIII and his retinue in their exotic costumes.
I imagine him, a dreamer, standing on the cobblestones as a procession passed by, marveling at the fabulous hats, taking them in to the swirl of stuff in his head, the way artists do, where they floated around along with madonnas and flagellants, memories, faces, the geometry of the city of his childhood, paintings he had loved—bits of Sassetta pink, Fra Angelico blue, the quiet of a Tuscan morning, the view to the hills from Porta Libera near his family home…until they emerged from his brush years later, as he worked on the frescoes in Arezzo.
Just as I took in his fabulous hats the first time I saw the frescoes and they entered the swirl of stuff in my head.
I’ve read dozens of books and articles on about Piero’s work and his life, often repeatedly, trying to find the key to what I want to write and how he’ll figure in it. I’ve traveled to see his paintings in San Sepolcro, Monterchi, Arezzo, Urbino, Perugia, Rimini, Florence, Venice, Milan, London, Paris, and New York. I’ve walked the streets of his hometown. But painting the hats is what has made me feel closest to what I believe must have been the essence of him and what I think has coaxed the ghosts of characters in my head begin to speak.