HIERATIC IS A WORD that calls for illustration rather than definition. In Piero della Francesca’s diptych of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino from 1465-72, the crimson-robed Federico da Montefeltro looms against an idyllic landscape, his profile accentuating a famously absent nasal bridge. To his left, the equally hieratic — there is no better word — Battista Sforza absorbs his gaze with regal impassivity. The online version of the Uffizi catalog describes the profile view as an “inescapable choice” designed to hide the couple’s deformities (Federico’s missing right eye; Battista’s unusually high forehead). By the time the painting appeared, the severe profile was giving way to a three-quarter view that allowed for eye contact between subjects and viewers. But Piero had wished to emphasize the duke and duchess’s nobility, in the manner of ancient commemorative medals. He fixed them in a stiff conjugal gaze that blocked out the world and let in only each other — an eternal standoff between two unyielding equals.
For over twenty years, the impenetrable duke and duchess were my faces of Florence. I explored much of the art the city had to offer: the overstuffed walls of the Palatine Gallery, the somber medieval panels in the Accademia surrounding the David, the high-backed rooms of the Palazzo Signoria, even the plaster casts and scaled models of the Duomo Museum. It was the twin corridors of the Uffizi, though, home to Piero’s diptych, that kept me coming back. Contemplating Michelangelo’s muscled women and Botticelli’s elegant allegories, I understood that the artistic ideal embodied in those fluid forms died long ago, along with the humanist philosophy that inspired them. In their self-contained stare, the duke and duchess seemed to accept their distance from the modern world with dignity, and I admired them for it.
Still, I didn’t realize the pull of those hieratic faces until I encountered their kindred in an unexpected place. In the winter of 2012, I attended the exhibit “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seeing the damsels and knights, lords and ladies, sinners and saints of my Renaissance city in New York recalled the distant time when I met my parents at a religious festival on Canal Street in lower Manhattan. They had immigrated to the U.S. from rural southern Italy in the 1950s, and traveled to the city that day to see the patron saint of their Calabrian village, the Beato Angelo of Acri, who reputedly received divine rays of light from a painting of the Virgin Mary. As ever, my father arrived turned out in his finest traveling clothes. His left arm was completely paralyzed; he had suffered a massive stroke years earlier and still walked with the aid of a cane. Once a powerfully built factory worker, he now dragged his stooped form through the busy street. Nowhere, in the hectic array of fake Rolex watches and Gucci bags, were there patches of brown and green land like those he had spent his life cultivating, first as a farmer in Italy, then as a gardener and landscaper in suburban New England. As we walked to a restaurant in Little Italy, my body pulsed with a protective love I’d never felt before. I wished I could slow the traffic, silence the crowd — anything to make him seem less vulnerable to the city’s monstrous energy....read more