Forget Da Vinci, Try Solving the Piero della Francesca Code

Fans of Dan Brown (and Tom Hanks) hoped to get an education in the Italian Renaissance along with their beach reading (and movie-going) of The Da Vinci Code. But they're missing out on a Renaissance master of art and mathematics just as captivating and mysterious as Da Vinci—Piero della Francesca.

Fans of Dan Brown (and Tom Hanks) hoped to get an education in the Italian Renaissance along with their beach reading (and movie-going) of The Da Vinci Code. But they and those who think that Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello are just Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are missing out on a Renaissance master of art and mathematics just as captivating and mysterious as Da Vinci—Piero della Francesca.


In Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man, James R. Banker relies on newly discovered documents and years of study of the Renaissance to crack the “Piero Code.” You won’t run across the Knights Templar or unearth the Holy Grail in Banker’s biographical study, but you will come away with a real-life detective tale compellingly told and a greater understanding and appreciation of an artist whose art may look otherworldly but, as Banker suggests, grew directly from Piero’s hometown roots.

Piero grew up in Sansepolcro in the Tuscany region of Italy, only 4,500 people strong at his birth around 1412. Literally “Holy Sepulchre,” Sansepolcro took that name when two founders brought a stone there from the Holy Land’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which itself was built on the spot where Jesus Christ reportedly died, was buried, and rose from the dead. “How, then,” Banker asks, “did this young man from a provincial town 79 miles west from Florence and 169 miles from Rome and without an extensive formal education become, along with Leonardo da Vinci, both an outstanding geometrician and the most intellectual painter of the Quattrocento?”

Like Shakespeare’s origin from the sleepy hamlet of Stratford-upon-Avon, Piero’s origin story sounds impossible, at least until you look beneath the surface and accept the resources a determined aspiring artist could find in even the unlikeliest of places. “Piero’s education in the mixed merchant-artisan culture of Sansepolcro remained a vital element in his painting and writings until his death,” Banker argues, “influencing the language he used in his vernacular treatises, and evident in the deep respect that he retained throughout his life for the beautiful products from the hands of artisans, whether clothing, leather book bindings, gems, or veils.” Piero came from a long line of leather workers (and broke his father’s heart pursuing painting rather than joining the family business), so whenever you see a leather good in one of his paintings rendered with sensitivity and reverence, it’s a homecoming of sorts.

Banker struggles mightily with the shoddy surviving documentation of Piero’s life, which begins with the mystery of the year of his birth and continues throughout much of his life. We glimpse Piero’s whereabouts throughout his career secondhand through documented commissions, appearances as a witness in Sansepolcro legal papers, and other fragments of history that Banker meticulously brings together. Banker stays hot on Piero’s half-century-cold trail as the artist travels through Florence, Modena, Ferrara, Rome, and other cities in Italy and absorbs the influences of Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Donatello, and other contemporaries, plus the lessons of classical sculpture from newly discovered Ancient Roman artifacts. Banker calls the 1440’s Piero’s “lost decade” during which he painted little, but learned much. Banker pieces together the known dates of Piero’s movements, the artists he would have seen or met in those places at those times, and Piero’s paintings reflecting those influences to give us the best available picture of Piero’s progress as a provincial pilgrim through the heart of the big-city Renaissance.

By the end of these adventures, Piero arrives at what Banker defines as his “classical style of fully sculpted monumental figures with more gravitas than emotion in meticulously constructed perspectival space.” Aside from his wonderful detective work, Banker digs deep into Piero’s greatest hits to show how that “classical style” plays out in the work. Anyone familiar with the strangely otherworldly Flagellation of Christ knows how Piero uses, in Banker’s phrase, “incredibly deep perspective… rational in its organization of a complex set of spaces and shapes” to pull you into a theater of the imagination past the trio of men conversing at the surface of the work into its innermost depths where Christ is suffering the first stages of his passion and death. The late Brera Madonna stands as “a virtuoso example of Piero’s command of all his earlier techniques” such as using light to define figures and mathematical perspective to give the heavenly an earthly reality. “Despite the monumentalizing epic within which Piero’s figures act,” Banker asserts, “they are within the world of human possibility.” They may not have the drama of a Michelangelo figure, but they do display the gravitas of real people facing extraordinary events.

Aside from Piero’s technical skill and innovations, he approached his art and his subject with a perspective unique to the time. “For Piero, the Divine had to be on the plane of the human, the natural, and the historical,” Banker writes. When Piero painted the Madonna della Misericordia for the local Sansepolcro confraternity of laypeople dedicated to charity, he placed a group of everyday people physically under the protection of an oversized Madonna, who spreads her cloak around them. Later, Piero painted The Resurrection of Christ (detail shown above) in the Sansepolcro communal meeting house. “[T]he Resurrection served a civic function,” Banker says, “confronting the legislators whenever they considered what laws would promote the well-being of the townspeople of the Holy Sepulcher.” Piero paints Christ rising from the tomb triumphant and as judge and lawgiver of the people. Thus, The Resurrection of Christ combines “the eternal verities” of medieval art and the specific moments of Renaissance art to arrive at a powerfully poetic and pivotal moment in the history of art as well as history itself, as Italians learned to assume some democratic rule after centuries of warlords and chaos. The mystery of Christ’s assertive stare isn’t spiritually separated from life on Earth but rather a connection strung between faith in God and faith in humanity. Banker’s ability to connect to this connective quality of Piero’s art cracks the true Piero code and resurrects the artist in a way that no trove of documentation can.

This past summer Americans literally saw “Art Everywhere” as that campaign plastered fine art across the country with works such as George Tooker’s 1950 painting The Subway. Tooker idolized Piero della Francesca in his updating of the master’s deep perspective and sculpted figures for a modern audience. Sadly, Piero fell out of critical favor after his death until the early 20th century, when the Cubists tried to incorporate the mathematical aspects of his art into their own. Allied bombing during World War II almost destroyed much of Piero’s art (and Sansepolcro itself) until British officer Tony Clarke halted fire after remembering a 1925 essay by Aldous Huxley mentioning that little town as the home of the greatest painting in the world, The Resurrection of Christ. James R. Banker’s Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man reminds us that, despite the centuries between us and Piero and the fact that we frequent subways more now than cathedrals, the human scale of his art—the ability to have his divine characters look us square in the eye as our eyes square up the mathematically intense realism of his worlds—never gets old. It might not be the Holy Grail, but the “Piero Code” is something we can all hold on to.

[Image:Piero della Francesca. The Resurrection of Christ (c. 1463), detail. Image source.]

[Many thanks to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy of James R. Banker’s Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man.]

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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