I’m not generally sympathetic to people who see anti-Semitism everywhere. A while back I met someone who would not read any more Buchan, on the grounds that The 39 Steps was racist. Well, that’s his loss, and I don’t think it is.

T.S.Eliot’s reputation has been  knocked around – I think unfairly – by people who can’t see past a few nasty remarks made at a time when anti-Semitism was an unattractive prejudice, but was not actually killing people (in Western Europe at least). To read some commentators, you’d think T.S.Eliot was personally responsible for the Nuremberg decrees. (I hope to be writing and posting a longish piece on TSE and anti-Semitism sometime soon.) 

Sometimes, though, I think that prejudice needs to be pointed out.  Which is why I wrote my piece about the assumptions underlying William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

When I took a  holiday in Italy earlier in the year, it was mostly for the sake of my wife’s History of Art course. She’s studying the Renaissance painters, and wanted to see the frescos that decorate walls here and there in Tuscany. I was definitely  keen on going(especially once I’d ensured that we should have a day visiting castles where they make Chianti.)

But in the small town of Arezzo I was horrified. A chapel there has a big series  of frescos by Piero della Francesca, one of Italy’s greatest painters. These depict  the Legend of the True Cross – a not totally credible narrative of how Adam’s tree became Jesus’s cross, and then was buried, and dug up again, and used by Constantine and other Christians as a miraculous charm for defeating pagans, Muslims and others.

In the chapel, we hired some of  those audio headsets that explain what you’re seeing. A little tedious till we got to a picture of which it said something like:

“The next painting shows The Torture of the Jew. Only Judas the Jew knew the place where the cross was buried. In order to make him reveal the hiding place, he was put down a well until he revealed the secret. After several days he told them where the cross was…”


What struck me was not the barbarity of the story – lots ofold stories are barbarous – so much as the matter-of-fact way in which the audio guide explained it. No apology, no excuses. Piero, paragon of Renaissance humanism, had depicted (with his usual delicate  sense of pattern and balance) a scene of very  nasty torture, and it was not treated as anything unusual.

I got interested. I started looking up art historians. They mostly praised the perspective and the geometric design, and said nothing about the subject matter. I did a little historical research, and found out that Piero’s  patrons at Arezzo were the Franciscans, who indulged in vivious anti-Semitic campaigns, and triumphalist “debates” which were designed to humiliate the Jewish community.

This brought home to me the sheer blankness of much art-connoisseurship. Look at the brushwork, and never mind the subject-matter. Piero is a famous artist, and the passive tourists are trundled round his masterpieces, to gaze and admire, and to ask no questions about the meaning of a painting that endorses the use of torture.  Or about the artist’s  connection with the politics, or about the conscription  of the artists’ skills to reinforce church and political power.

I wanted to ask these questions publicly, and found an opportunity last week. The Times Literary Supplement (Britain’s most intelligent weekly)  published rather a good article by Theodore K. Rabb about a new Piero exhibition in Arezzo. Professor Rabb put the painter interestingly into the context of the Renaissance courts, and finished by pondering the contrast between the sensitive artists and the brutal Renaissance princes.

I took the opportunity to bring my concerns to a public forum, and my letter is printed  in this week’s TLS:

Sir, – Theodore K. Rabb wonders how a sensitive artist like Piero della Francesca felt about “serving princes whose ruthlessness, brutality and treachery defined their era” (June 22). Judging by his fresco panel “The Torture of the Jew” at Arezzo, Piero was pretty relaxed about such nastiness. This part of the “Story of the True Cross”depicts a Jew who knows the whereabouts of the buried cross; he has been shoved down a well until he reveals the secret to the Empress Helena and her fellow Christians. The painting shows him being taken out of the well by impassive guards, one of whom is pulling him out by the hair. It is designed and painted in that calm and lucid style that Professor Rabb describes so accurately, and there is no sign whatsoever that Piero disapproves of the torture. The panel is of a piece with the whole series, which is a paean to Christian triumphalism, showing non-believers of all sorts being humiliated and sometimes massacred by the power of the cross.

Other painters who produced a series of True Cross pictures (such as Agnolo Gaddi in Santa Croce, Florence) chose to play down the torturing episode in the original story, so one has to presume that Piero, in giving the torture a panel to itself, was either revealing a personal preference or obediently following the lead of his (notably anti-Semitic) Franciscan patrons. Rabb contrasts Piero with the “viciousness, betrayal and murder” of his age, but this painting suggests that he was fully complicit with it.

George Simmers

This evening Professor Rabb phoned me from Princeton, and we had an interesting conversation  about Piero. He expressed some sympathy with my point of view – or at least that I was asking the right sort of question. As a political and social historian he is sceptical of art experts who can only see technique and not subject-matter.  He doesn’t see Piero as complicit in the brutality of his time, but as someone who had to live with it.

He warned me that the Piero experts may come back at me for having raised the issue. Well, that would be interesting. It sounds like the sort of argument I would enjoy.


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