After I recently posted about Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca and his remarkable fresco cycle in Arezzo, The Legend of the True Cross, my Slow Travel friend Colleen suggested I might want to read John Mortimer’s novel “Summer Lease.” The Piero della Francesca art trail figures prominently in this novel.
I only began to read the novel last night, but already I think that I’m in for more than I expected.
On the surface, it looks pretty basic: a dysfunctional family, annoying elderly grandfather included, lease a home in Tuscany for summer vacation. But from the start, a mystery is implied. Even the title, taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, seems to be about much more than leasing a house for the summer. How short life -- like summer -- can be?
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;”
The plot thickens. There are several references in the novel to Piero della Francesca and in particular, his work the Flagellation of Christ, which was painted and is still located in the city of Urbino, in its Galleria Nazionale delle Marche at the far end of the art trail.
This painting itself seems to be particularly mysterious. Some have described it as an “enigmatic little painting” and certainly it’s not entirely clear what it’s really about.
Which makes me wonder, why does this painting in particular figure so prominently in the novel “Summer Lease”? It’s obviously a clue, and I suppose I’ll have to finish the book quickly to find out!
Back to the painting, which I hope to visit in June. Traditionally, the subject of the Flagellation of Christ refers to His whipping by Roman captors during Christ’s Passion, which of course ends in the Crucifixion and Resurrrection.
But Piero’s take on this theme (if, in fact, that is really what the painting is about) is different. At first glance, it looks like the Biblical event -- but with the main action in a gallery in the background, while three figures standing the foreground, apparently paying no attention to the other figures.
Some critics say its correct identification is "The Dream of St. Jerome." Wikipedia says that Sir John Pope-Hennessy, the art historian, argued that thesis in his book The Piero della Francesca Trail (which I think I’ll pick up.)
According to Pope-Hennessy, as a young man St Jerome dreamt that he was flayed on divine order for reading pagan texts, and he himself later recounted this dream, in a celebrated letter to Eustochium, in terms that exactly correspond with the left-hand side of Piero’s Urbino panel.
Another theory suggests that the three men in the foreground include Oddantonio da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, who was Piero's patron, and two advisors. Some suggest this pair directly murdered the Duke in 1444; others argue that the two advisors were indirectly responsible for the Duke’s death. In any event, the Duke is presented as an innocent victim and his death could therefore be compared to that of Christ.
I love a good mystery and I seem to have found a few here....