Read on to watch a video of Lucia Senesi and Nick Ripatrazone discussing this essay.
I GREW UP IN THE COUNTRYSIDE close to Arezzo, Tuscany, in a Catholic family that brought me to the village church every Sunday and, for certain festivities, to other churches around the city. After Mass, my parents would guide me around and—pointing to a crucifix, fresco, or terracotta—whisper, “That’s Cimabue,” “That’s Piero della Francesca,” or “That’s della Robbia,” without further explanation, quickly exchanging between the two of them a new, enthusiastic opinion from which I was excluded.
Later on, in high school, I would see those same artworks in my books and listen to my professor explaining their importance. Probably because they were within a five-minute walk and I knew them by heart, I didn’t have any real interest in them, nor in any of what Pasolini would call “my intimate, profound, archaic Catholicism.” I was interested in Hegel.
In my twenties, while living in Rome, I spent several afternoons at the library of the Institut Français Centre Saint-Louis, researching Proust and Sartre. Before going home, I would stop at the Church of Saint Louis of the French to look at the trio of paintings of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio. Like everyone else, I was fascinated by the lighting, but also challenged by the composition, about which I had plenty of questions. In the central painting, The Inspiration, why is the angel shaped like a heart? And why is The Martyrdom, on the right wall, structured around two perspective lines? Is it to give the murderer more significance than the martyr? And on the left, in everyone’s favorite, The Calling—why is there so much empty space at the top of the frame? Not to mention all the philosophy in the characters’ faces, of which the most interesting was, and still is, the boy staring at the money, ashamed. I couldn’t leave for hours.
My time in Rome was the most prolific of my life, I think because I started doing things alone—going to an exhibition, watching a film, play, opera, or ballet. The things I liked most, I experienced alone. Those familiar with this feeling often connect it with the pages of Remembrance of Things Past where Proust regrets being with his friend Saint-Loup while looking at a certain landscape; without observing it alone, he believes, he cannot understand its real essence. In Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, the narrator of one story emphasizes that whole part of herself “that would have paid attention to the things if I had been alone. A lot of me was under cover, as it was with my friends on Saturday night.” My friends are horrified every time I say so.
In those years, I first watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983), alone. In the film, a Russian writer named Andrei travels to Italy to research the life of composer Pavel Sosnovsky. With him is his interpreter Eugenia, a young woman with long, curly hair who looks like a Madonna. Andrei is obsessed by his childhood and his art; Eugenia by the problem of being an intellectual woman in a world where men don’t know how to deal with her. “Do you know what a boring man is?” she asks. “I’ll tell you. Someone you would sleep with, rather than explain why you don’t feel like it.”
The film is mostly set in Val d’Orcia, Tuscany. It opens in the middle of a field, where three women, a child, and a dog walk in the foggy distance as the titles appear, followed by music. As the music ends, there’s a new frame, and the camera follows a car. Now everything is fog and silence. The car stops, and a woman gets out, talking about a “marvelous painting.” She says in Italian, “I cried the first time I saw it.” The man who is with her gets out but refuses to follow her. “I’m fed up with all your beauties,” he says in Russian. Then a long take follows the two as they walk toward a little church. In the next scene, Eugenia walks slowly around the church while several old women sit and pray, their heads covered. Now the camera moves toward the fresco: it’s Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto. A pregnant Madonna touches her belly, flanked by angels who part a curtain for her. Its altar has been adorned with candles.
Then we hear a voice, the sacristan of the church: “Do you want a baby, too? Or are you asking God to spare you?” Eugenia replies that she’s there just to look, and that she can’t kneel down because, unlike the other women, she’s not used to it. The sacristan quickly tells her that unlike her, they have faith.
As more women enter the church, carrying a Madonna in a procession, Eugenia and the sacristan continue to talk. “Why do you think it’s only the women who pray so much?” she asks. “Why are women more devout than men?”
“You’d know better than I,” he says.
“Because I’m a woman? No, I’ve never understood these things.”
“I’m a simple man. But I think a woman is meant to have children, to raise them, with patience and self-sacrifice.”
“That’s all she’s meant for?”
“I don’t know.”
Eugenia thanks him, annoyed, and is about to leave, but the sacristan goes on: “I know you want to be happy. But there are more important things.” As she stops at the door, the other women begin their ritual of prayer. One of them opens the Madonna’s dress, and a flock of birds flutters out from her belly. A close-up of Eugenia’s enigmatic face precedes a close-up of the Madonna’s face. They seem to have the same expression.
At that point, I had never seen the Madonna del Parto in person, but Piero’s familiar style, which I had grown up with, became clearer to me at that moment. And I began to understand why, given my background, I was so interested in Caravaggio. In his essay “The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “a significant work either establishes a genre or liquidates it; in perfect works the two things merge.”
It is no surprise that one of the major art historians of the last century, Roberto Longhi, recognized this kind of genius in both Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio. Piero della Francesca, who died the day Christopher Columbus arrived in America, said goodbye forever to golden Madonnas and welcomed peasant-centered imagery governed by the prospective synthesis of form and color, and doing so gave birth to the Renaissance. Caravaggio, on the other hand, closed the Renaissance and opened a new era in which the real had more importance than the beautiful. According to Longhi, who had the good sense to introduce Caravaggio to the general public, “Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour, and Rembrandt could never have existed without him, and the art of Delacroix, Courbet, and Manet would have been completely different.”
But I kept thinking about Piero’s Madonna. I knew she was in Monterchi, a little village not far from Arezzo. And one fine summer’s day, my parents and I went to the museum where she is currently on display, having been moved from the church in 1992 for safety reasons. We were the only people there that morning, and we stayed for about an hour, in silence. When I got home, I fell asleep in the garden and woke up at the end of the afternoon. That same night I wrote in my diary:
Monday 18 August ’14
The first feeling was disappointment.
Then abstraction from the place, isolation of the work. The gash on the belly and the one on the curtain. The classicism of the colors and the two specular angels. This Madonna who looks like a peasant. That if you let her hair fall over her shoulders and move her to a field, she remains what she is: a village girl with rounded shapes, carrying the weight of her belly.
There is something truly immutable in this painting, and it’s these three figures’ eyes. The angel in green looks fixedly at a distant horizon. The red one, on the other hand, doesn’t take its eyes off of you. It turns those eyes full of anguish at you and demands that you accept them. Just as the Madonna, resigned, accepts her task. Her head is high, her hand at her hip, and her body proudly ready to bear all the weight—physical and moral—of that baby bump. Yet her eyes cannot leave the ground. These two eyes, falling unevenly to the ground, which, if they weren’t perfectly harmonized with the idea of the imperfect, normal girl called to embody the Mother of all, would even seem awkward. And hence, their grace.
To me it made no sense to see a fresco of a Madonna in a glass case in an invented museum. In his Convivio, Dante wrote: E però sappia ciascuno che nulla cosa per legame musaico armonizzata si può della sua loquela in altra transmutare sanza rompere tutta sua dolcezza ed armonia. [“Therefore everyone should know that nothing harmonized according to the rules of poetry can be translated from its native tongue into another without destroying all its sweetness and harmony.”] He meant that poetry is untranslatable, that Homer is untranslatable. And I was asking myself if there was a point in having a Madonna so far from the church for which she was conceived.
In the fall, I attended a lecture in Monte San Savino, Arezzo, by the independent anthropology researcher Beatrice Baldi on the Madonna del Parto and the cemetery of Monterchi. Baldi explained that in Monterchi was a little rural chapel, considered a real place of worship, where the connection between river, hill, and sky recalled religions much older than Christianity; it could easily have been a pagan religious site. Piero della Francesca painted his Madonna on the high altar, creating a study of point of view. He wanted the faithful entering the chapel to see his fresco in a certain way, their approach guided by his artistic eye. The fresco was originally on the east wall; light came in from the circular window above the door on the west side. Subsequently, after the construction of the cemetery and chaplain’s house, the architecture of the chapel was changed, and the point of view he intended was lost forever.
It is interesting to consider the bond between the fresco and the women of Monterchi, who systematically refused to let their Madonna go. In 1917, following an earthquake, the fresco was supposed to go to Arezzo; they rose up and refused. They rose up again in 1919 and got her back after she had been moved to the Pinacoteca of San Sepolcro. They rose up in 1944 when the government ordered that masterpieces be moved to basements in order to protect them from the German bombing; and again in 1945, when the fresco was requested for an exhibition in Florence. Each time the women rebelled, and each time the Madonna del Parto was brought back to her church. In 1992, the women gave up, and the Madonna was moved to the museum where she is today.
To be clear, the women of Monterchi couldn’t care less that the fresco was painted by Piero della Francesca. As portrayed in Tarkovsky’s film, their Madonna had for them an absolute religious value: they begged her for help in conception and to protect their pregnancies.
In the summer of 2019 I was in Paris, and one night on the way home, alone, I stopped at Cinéma Christine to see Valerio Zurlini’s Indian Summer (La Prima Notte di Quiete, 1972), which had just been restored. According to the director, its original title, “The First Quiet Night,” is taken from Goethe. As Alain Delon’s character explains in the film, death is the first night on which there are no dreams. Delon plays Daniele, a professor who has just arrived in town. It’s the seventies, and his students want to talk fascism and Maoism, but he turns them down immediately: “I’m only here to explain why a line of Petrarch is beautiful, and I presume to know how to do it. The rest is foreign to me, and boring, I might as well tell you right away. To me, black or red, you’re all alike. The black are stupider.”
Daniele quickly falls for one of his students, Vanina, the only one who chose “Purity and Sin in the World of Alessandro Manzoni” as her paper topic. They seem to share tormented personalities and a troubled past. Zurlini, a master of both aesthetic scenarios and cultivated references, centers his film on the contraposition between the characters’ search for purity and their actual compromised lives. Daniele gives Vanina a copy of Stendhal’s short story “Vanina Vanini” and brings her to see the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi. The scene opens with a close-up of the Madonna, but this time it is in a different church, one with no trace of ornamentation. Daniele says:
In 1460 the peasant community of Monterchi commissioned Piero to paint this Madonna. The clients were not popes, nor princes, nor bankers, and it may be that at the beginning, Piero took the job a little lightly. Despite this, here’s the miracle of this adolescent peasant, proud as a King’s daughter. The silence of the countryside around her is so accomplished. Until now, probably she amused herself by confiding in her animals. She calls them by their names, and laughs! Then suddenly it’s all over. Because, through the centuries, fate has correctly chosen her purity. She seems aware of it, but not happy. Maybe she already feels obscurely that the mysterious life growing in her will end on a Roman cross, like that of a malefactor.
Vanina asks him if he would like to have a child. Daniele laughs, “You all seem to have agreed to ask me the same question. Good Lord, no! I no longer have the will, nor the courage, nor the imagination.” Vanina replies that it takes two people in love with each other, “otherwise what remains is just a body that warps.”
Jorie Graham also describes the Madonna in her poem “San Sepolcro”:
______… It is this girl
__della Francesca, unbuttoning
____her blue dress,
__her mantle of weather,
____to go into
__labor. Come, we can go in.
____It is before
__the birth of god.
The poem appears in Graham’s second book, Erosion, published in 1983, which means she had seen Piero’s Madonna in the church when she wrote it.
The lines “It is before / the birth of god” seem to suggest that the fresco fascinates us for the same reason that the Catholic Church considered it blasphemous: because it gives fragility and humanity to divinity, and divinity to something so natural and human as pregnancy. In fact, after the Council of Trent (1545–1563) it was considered sacrilegious to represent a pregnant Madonna, and this led to the destruction of many works. But Piero’s masterpiece survived, and continues to challenge artists today.
In 2020, Italian composer Nicola Campogrande wrote a piece for choir and guitar, Materna, commissioned by Italian-born and Colorado-based guitarist Nicolò Spera to celebrate the birth of his daughter. The piece was performed and recorded by Spera and St. Martin’s Chamber Choir, conducted by Timothy Krueger (available on Brilliant Classics). Its original Latin text was written by Marco Vacchetti. Campogrande chose Latin as a potentially universal language, since the first singers were American, and he liked the idea of having a third language between him and them. The piece is an ode to maternity structured in four parts, each represented by a work of art illustrating childbirth, play, sleep, or nutrition. Its form is a musical polyptych: part one is based on the Madonna del Parto; part two on Caravaggio’s Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence; part three on Bernardo Luini’s Virgin Holding the Sleeping Child; and part four on Andrea Solari’s Virgin of the Green Cushion. The text of part one reads:
Video aulaeum aperiri
sicut palpebras ex somno.
Conspicamur claris oculis,
conspicamur ultra lintea…
Puella, mulier procreatura,
alma mater sua natura.
Quemadmodum illa apparet?
Dextra fructum suum detegit,
sicut aulaeum vestis sua
suae deliciae, suae laetitiae
O vos animae beatae
quae miraculum videtis!
Sed cur illa non laetatur?
Sed cur visus maerens obstat?
Ultra lintea ancipitia
frangunt oculos submissos,
qui in somnio suspicantes
omen dubium consequuntur.
I see the curtains open
like eyelids on rousing.
What is shown?
Let us look with clear eyes,
let us look beyond the veils…
A maiden, a pregnant woman,
a mother healthy by nature.
How does she appear?
Her right hand exposes the fruit (of her womb)
her dress, like a curtain
unveils the promise
of her joy, her happiness.
We rejoice! You rejoice!
We are pleased! You are pleased!
O you blessed souls
that witness a miracle!
But why is she not rejoicing?
Why does she show a melancholic face?
Behind the veils an uncertain future
makes her lower her humble gaze,
as sages in a dream
follow a dubious prophecy.
The section oscillates between mystery and familiarity, and neither the music, which repeats the initial motif at the end, nor the words, which allude to a fugue on what the eyes saw in the dream, seek to solve the secret of the epiphany. “But why is she not rejoicing? Why does she show a melancholic face?” The answer is as uncertain as the Madonna’s future.
In Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, after leaving the church, Eugenia is reunited with Andrei. “I just don’t understand you,” she says. “You go on and on about the Madonna del Parto. We drove halfway across Italy in the fog. And you didn’t even go in there to see her.” After a long silence, he asks her what she is reading. She says she’s reading the poems of Arseny Tarkovsky—the director’s father—translated by a very good poet. Andrei answers: “Throw it away, immediately. Poetry is untranslatable. Like the whole of art.”
Lucia Senesi is an Italian film director and writer based in Los Angeles. Her film A Short Story premiered at the LA Shorts International Film Festival in 2019 and received an honorary mention from the Santa Monica Film Festival. Her writing has appeared in Film International, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions.