A foreshortened dove soars to us, wings outstretched. The pure white bird has dipped down to clear the trees, or perhaps has just condensed from cloud. Moving or frozen in space, the bird is perfectly centered above a hand holding a clamshell, gently pouring water. It is the embodiment of the Holy Spirit and is with you to witness the exact moment of “The Baptism of Christ.” The Baptist, set in profile, posed with left foot back, left arm bent, stable, balanced, will not waste a drop of holy water. Looking past us, deep in meditation, Jesus, the focal point, clasps his hands gently. Behind, to their left, a man takes off his clothes. He is next in line, and presumably, we are scheduled after that. Half-hidden behind an olive tree, a trio of angels bears witness. The idealized tree splits the canvas while providing a unifying canopy over the characters, framing the space and freezing the moment. The olive greens, beiges, and browns suggest Jordan or the Tuscan hill was, and here we stand in London’s National Gallery. An angel wearing a wreath of peace stares at us. Now truly self-aware, you take note of a colorfully winged, bright red- and blue-clad angel, subtly extending a hand, asking us to join the circle.
What does it mean to love a painter, a painting, a body of work? An obsession to see each piece in person, learn how they fit in time and place, compare with the work of other artists. Analysis and understanding spun into a tapestry of ever-shifting narratives. Or to stop thinking, be in the moment with each work, freeze time, step into a painting, and take our chances with the angels.
My adoration began years ago at the Frick in New York with a bolt from a haloed, white-haired and -bearded, sunbaked St. John the Evangelist. Ablaze in crimson, hands more sculpted than painted cradled a sacred book that guided a deep meditation. The figure was set on a universe-swirl-patterned marble floor in front of a short, white, Roman molded wall, backed by a powder blue sky. He was equally real and post-apotheosis icon. Though he was perfectly crafted individual (and artwork), I sensed from a lifetime of comic book and baseball card collecting that there must be a whole set of these. If so, they could be found and reassembled. I began to research the artist — Piero della Francesca, born Piero di Benedetto de’ Franceschi, who signed his works Piero del Borgo — and set out to find more of his work.
A trip back to the Frick found three that failed to register above the glare of St. John. There were three at London’s National Gallery, one at the Louvre, one at DC’s National Gallery, and one at Boston’s Gardner Museum. To see most of the extant body of Piero’s work, one must wander a 100-mile radius around Sansepolcro, Tuscany, where Piero was born, mainly worked, and died. Such pilgrimages are documented in various mediums by artists and writers such as Philip Guston and Aldous Huxley; the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky; the poets Zbigniew Herbert and Jorie Graham; and many art historians, including Giorgio Vasari, Anna Maria Maetzke, Roberto Longhi, Marilyn Lavin-Aronberg, and Machtelt Bruggen Israels, who published a recent study.
A holy blur of Piero della Francesca. Two in Milan, one in Venice, four in Florence, two in Arezzo, four in Sansepolcro, one in Monterchi. Eight days scrambled, at odds with the calm and planned perspective, the well-outlined intention. Grasping at thoughts and feelings over espressos, Aperol Spritzes, and Brunello.
Landed jet-lagged in Milan. Dropped my bags at the hotel and hiked to the Brera Pinacoteca, ticket printed in case of any cell phone battery issues. Navigated to the correct set of steps hidden in the imposing multi-arched Palazzo amid massive statues, including Napolean as Mars the Peacemaker. Like a visiting dignitary at a foreign summit, I offered an official wave to Bellini, Caravaggio, Cima, and Tintoretto, willfully naïve to the gallery number of the Piero encouraging a joyful surprise. A nervous chuckle upon entering Sala 24 where hung calmly the Montefeltro Altarpiece, followed by an audible gasp. My legs weakened, threatening to give way like my marionette strings snapped, presumably too taut from traveling 4,000 miles. I should have done more leg days at the gym. 4,000 miles and could not concentrate. It would have been far less stressful lounging, reading art books and listening to Schumann. Since when were books and prints not sufficient? Was this some sort of Buddhist reaction to wanting and getting and suffering anyway? I forced Ohms and tried to just look. The painting was much bigger than I had expected. The tangibility of the objects, their depth in space! My mood swung euphoric. Withstanding the urge to fall to my knees, my gaze bounced about the imperial Roman monument between Madonna, Child, their scarlet patterned carpeted dais, four fair curly-haired Angels, six symbolled Saints (including another manifestation of the crimson-mantled prophet of the Apocalypse from the Frick), a profiled Federico da Montefeltro the benefactor as humble paladin, a hanging egg, scallop shell stretching the space. The highly-posed serenity and utter silence moved in time like a symphony. I could not integrate this all here and now. Just take it in and feel, trust myself to remember every perception and resulting thought. Breathe. Run a biometric check. Did not eat right, dehydrated, exhausted. A panic attack seemed justified. Bring it on to get it over with. It would be awful but cognitive behavioral theory and experience taught they last a few minutes. Felt my pulse and was mercifully distracted like a dog at the vet by a treat by sheer color popping from Raphael’s “Lo Sposalizio” on a perpendicular wall, the wedding of Mary and Joseph sponging guests from Piero’s gathering. A glorious gallery! I pointed up like Messi after a goal, tipped my cap and launched a museum-wide circumambulation to engage the Mantegna feet-first Jesus, Hayez’s Kiss and an obligatory van Dyck, but mainly to clear my head to return to the Piero. Once back with body and mind settled, I concentrated on whether the 13 figures were all looking in different directions, and whether, if the perfect deep-sleeping baby, a hint to the tragic Pieta, naked except for a coral necklace, opened his eyes, he would look right at me. I tipped my cap to a nearby guard, a heartfelt thanks for protecting what for the moment seemed Earth’s greatest painting.
Up far too many hours before sunrise to even consider getting out of bed, I wondered about the constitution of professional athletes who travel to play in front of hundreds of millions of people, while for me eating at a crowded restaurant or seeing paintings was often a difficult adventure. This was Bosch hell timed by a Dali wall clock. Auto-pilot perseverations on whether adrenaline would carry the day in Venice or accepting tired misery by noon. Utter despair. I was St. Bart’s flayed on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel or as a sculpture in Milan Cathedral. A princely plan to run around a foreign country on no sleep when I could have stayed home napping and reading about Piero or sympathetically with the fascicles of Emily.
If nothing else there was time; six more hours. Thinking about Piero to properly frame the next few days. He made it to 80 at a time without antibiotics or heart meds. 1412-1492. Athlete-level constitution. Blind in his later years like Monet, mytho-ironic like Beethoven going deaf. Died the year Columbus landed in the New World. A true Renaissance Man, involved with politics, religion, farming, painting, and was even more famous as a mathematician after publishing, “Trattato d’Abaco” and “De Quinque Corporibus Regularibus.” A chuckle remembering Piero’s student, Luca Pacioli, a cleric mathematician, chess enthusiast, and close collaborator of Leonardo Davinci; Pacioli plagiarized Piero’s math papers – history’s first great math cheating scandal. Among Piero’s greatest influences were architects like Alberti, Brunelleschi, Michelazzo, whose work filtered into his take on perspective and influenced him to “build” each of his paintings in the context of the space offered. When Euclid was translated into Latin, the Pope lent Piero an early copy.
Dawn was coming and sleep was no closer. Piero notes poured forth. Master of space and color — an oddly unique, cool, bold pallet that appeared matte in fresco. Signature narrative style, an accretive layering. Named sheep appeared for counting, a medieval to high Renaissance timeline: Cimabue, Giotto, van Eyck, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Piero, Leonardo, Michealangelo, Raphael. Would need to invent a mnemonic, a painter’s Roy G. Biv. Was Piero even on a line? I tossed about the too-big bed trying to find a best pillow, the deflated chronology now a facile simplification. Piero. Piero della Francesca of Sansepolcro. Of the neighborhood but not from the neighborhood. His work was outside the norm of the academy, likely misunderstood like Manet, Cezanne, or Rothko. As Longhi states, Piero started by imagining geometric principles and painting through to inspiration. Though he trained with the Florentine master Domenico Veneziano, he gained no commissions or possibly ever showed there. He had popes as patrons, but the Roman works were lost or painted over, some by Raphael. His career blossomed off the beaten path in Arezzo, Sansepolcro, Monterchi, Urbino, and Rimini. Though afforded this spacious niche, Piero was forgotten by the wider art world, until he was rediscovered in the mid-1800s. The neglect fostered the decay of his work more than that of the masters of Venice, Florence, and Rome.
Due to time – the paintings are 600 years old – and entropy one would have expected significant attrition of the work. It was worse for frescoes, painted directly on walls of buildings that would eventually be renovated, torn down, neglected, or war-, water-, or fire-damaged. Replete with brilliant reproductions, Maetzke’s “Piero Della Francesca” lists 18 extant “works,” a mix of stand-alone and composite altarpieces and large fresco series, some containing as many as 10-20 individual works. For example, what must have been an extraordinary St. Augustine Altarpiece in a Quattrocento convent in Sansepolcro, visually reconstructed in “Piero della Francesca and the Invention of the Artist,” by Israels, was broken down and sold piecemeal, eventually making their way to museums: St. Augustine in Lisbon, St. Michael in London, St. Apollonia in DC, St. Nicola of Tolentino in Milan, and the stunning crimson-mantled St. John in New York. Three smaller predella paintings from that work are also in New York at the Frick.
So, Piero’s body of work exists mainly torn from time and place. Each individual piece now creates its own timeless space, quantum leaped to the 20th century with Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Philip Guston, and Mark Rothko. Punctuated evolution like he was goaded by Rilke’s angels … and mercifully I must have nodded off.
Jumped on an early Trenitalia to Venice, dumped my suitcase (packed using rolling techniques Euclid and Alberti never conceived) at a quiet, lovely, off-the-beaten canal hotel. My room appeared several times smaller than in the online photos, the establishment well-versed in perspective. No matter. I marched without eating to the legendary Gallerie dell’Accademia and wound through painting and sculpture till before me the lone Venetian Piero. A kneeling supplicant in classic Piero full profile before St. Jerome with beard reading two books. The saint, clad in a breezy ascetic white garment tied with a vine, leisurely crossed his bare feet. Despite the timeless Piero calm, I was on edge. Maybe from the jetlag or ever-present sense something would go horribly wrong, maybe not eating, perhaps from bum-rushing the supplicant’s intimate moment, perhaps I detected an ever so subtle sneer suggesting Jerome would beat us with a Bible or Zen strike an open handcuff to the ear. The piece, a matching pair to the St. Jerome now in Berlin, was from ~1450 but seemed especially ancient as was under the protection of a wooden and glass medieval contraption. My neck craned about, trying to shake off an Annunciation rainbow beam out of a van Eyck and a thin perfectly horizontal shadow line, both effects more fitting the Galileo Museum. Such an odd misstep for curators that had 10 minutes earlier so perfectly offered an enormous circular Tiepolo tilted to make you feel as if you were looking out from a deep pit. Not to mention the stellar curation of the Venetian painter lords: Tintoretto and Carpaccio, and a 1487 Bellini masterpiece that collaged several Pieros, including the Brera piece and the funky angel band from the Nativity at the London National Gallery.
Jet lag at bay, day three arrived on a cloud of perfect sleep, carrying me to a seamless train ride in a stress-free reserved seat to Florence. A hike in 98 degrees to the Uffizi and its four canonical Pieros, i.e., the Duke and Duchess of Urbino profile portraits and surprisingly small, though still monumental, Montefeltro cart rides. Insane crowds had choked into the room, cell phones and selfies, mostly maskless. The wannabe docent in me dropped idle comments to specify the passion, raise the discourse. “Look at those Tuscan hills, a studied naturalism from Jan van Eyck!” Alas, the vibe, more fitting the murderous energy of Gentileschi’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” pushed me to more obscure rooms, though with a mildly warm fuzzy feeling from experiencing Piero adored by a Mona Lisa mob, even if rote as a London Tower conveyor belt shuttling captive hordes past crown jewels.
My nerves kept my snobbish pretension in check. I long ago learned to respect and admire the smiling-with-no-care-in-the-world masses. And was my mad-racing-about looking for Pieros any different? Leaving home seeking what? Attainments beyond grown-up Boy Scout badges? I hushed the cynical voice and put forth my best argument. Museums were a temple, engagement like Mahayana meditation. In the analytic phase, you wrestle with an object till you’ve “got” it, followed by a placement phase to focus on the “getting of it” with single-pointed concentration. The time when you are not meditating, called subsequent attainment, is for learning and practicing arguments. Thus, we plan our visits to museums carefully with printed tickets and must-see painting lists. We flit about the museum with monkey minds until locked into place to concentrate on any chosen work. Sublime joy to be alone in a gallery focused on a beloved painting.
Museums, like libraries and meditation, are also among the places I have never had a panic attack. But the Uffizi, unnaturally hot, an overwhelming buzz, like MOMA on a July Saturday, threatened that streak. My mind rioted against compassion for the horde; maybe time in Florence would be better spent admiring the hair shirt of Savonarola at San Marco, davening in the 43 Fra Angelico painted monk cells, chased with a visit to Santa Maria Novella and the glorious Giotto cross, the unique brown and orange pallet of Ghirlandaio whose massive frescos decorated the main chapel. Besides, the heart of Piero della Francesca lay ahead in Arezzo and Sansepolcro — maybe Monterchi.
A late afternoon train and a luggage-weighted Quasimodo sprint uphill to Arezzo Cathedral to see another Piero, a minor though supposedly underrated fresco of Mary Magdalene. I ran past Via dell’Orto, where Petrarch and Boccaccio lived across from one another, ginning up the early Renaissance, egging on the painters and sculptors. The enormous Basilica doors readied for closing but I slipped safely without having to shout, “Sanctuary!” Inside, though under unrelenting time pressure, I gathered my senses, took off my sunglasses, and readied my readers. But alas I could not find Mary Magdalene. Back at the exit gift shop, I pointed to a fridge magnet with a picture of the reformed saint and shrugged my shoulders in resignation, which elicited a gesture suggesting to look far back and to the left. Mary stood calm and snug in a 600-year-old niche wedged next to a door behind the tomb of Guido Tarlati, a once-powerful Bishop of Arezzo. Marvelous was the Giantess, centered and framed by illusionistic columns, her anointment oil-slicked brown locks flowing freely onto pastel yet still stark red, white, and green garments, calm and comfortable with her past.
In the morning I jogged down the hill to what was sure to be the trip’s highlight, maybe the highlight of 2023 or the whole decade, to Piero’s epic fresco cycle called the “Legend of the True Cross” in the Basilica of San Francesco. The large space seemed unfinished, side walls white-washed with works and statues haphazardly arranged under a beamed ceiling. To my horror, the church manager declared there would be only 30 minutes with the frescos as Mass would start promptly at 10. I exhaled my 1970s Brooklyn pugilism and asked meekly whether it would be ok for me to attend. A welcoming, “Ovviamente!” pressed lemons to lemonade; Mass in this very church would be like starring in a Rossellini film. Still managing to keep my glance away from the Piero frescoes, planning to experience the fireworks in one glance, I took a breath to consider the ramifications of mixing the art with an actual religious service. The agita poked my Imp of the Perverse to make me glance at a panel straight ahead and to the left below the Prophet Jeremiah, called “The Torture of the Jew.” According to the legend, a man named Judas, albeit not the one who fingered Jesus to Pilate, knew where the cross, made of wood from the Tree of Knowledge, was buried after Jesus’ crucifixion. Having not read Merchant of Venice, which was 1100 years in her future, so oblivious to a pound of flesh hypocrisy (and love-thy-neighbor sermons), Helena, the mother of Constantine, had him thrown in a well until he revealed its whereabouts. According to 23 & Me, my DNA, and by any reckoning a strong cultural affinity, is shared with the man Piero painted being pulled from the well. I refrained from a wafer.
Our humble flock gazed on the Capella Maggiore, past the hanging 13th-century cross by a Cimabue-contemporary to the sequence of 10-plus True Cross frescoes. Piero arranged the story in a complex weave, each piece both a standalone and part of one connected story. From the sacred wood being recovered too late to prevent Adam’s death, to the Queen of Sheba realizing it grew into a bridge over a river leading into Jerusalem, to Solomon hiding it, to the finding and proving it could raise the dead, to East vs West Roman wars and a triumphant return to Jerusalem. There were also a few prophet portraits and a stunningly humane Annunciation watched over by God personified, like in the Sistine Chapel. My favorite piece is called “The Dream of Constantine,” which shows Constantine sleeping before a battle that would decide the fate of Rome. A pure white foreshortened angel stretches out, armed with a cross of light, illuminating the tops of army tents and the inside of Constantine’s tent, which appears magically to have opened. The unnatural, creative lighting of a night scene paved the way for Caravaggio and Rembrandt, according to the art historians Israels, Lavin, and Maetzke. Ever accurate, Piero painted the constellations to map to the time of Constantine’s vision, depicted to appear as if looked at from Heaven. The revelation symbolizes paganism giving way to Christianity.
In the morning, fresh and ready for another big day, I hopped on a bus at Arezzo Station that snaked up and over the Tuscan hills. The incline though more modest than Athens to the Peloponnesus was curvy and treacherous enough that I was thankful to have not rented a car. Sansepolcro had four Pieros: the Misericordia Polyptych, a St. Julian, a St. Louis, and the well-known Resurrection fresco of Jesus holding a red and white cross banner, stepping out and above four sleeping soldiers. Legend states that the muscular soldier in skin-tight orange-brown light armor is a Piero selfie. The viewing bench was placed at a distance to optimally engage the perfect jumble of color, shape, and body parts. Surely Huxley was right about this being the greatest painting. Like a fifth Roman soldier, I daydreamt an ideal Caprese Salad Supper with Aldous, William Blake, Jim Morrison, and risen Jesus, discussing doors and perception. My dreams were tactical too: Is there time in one afternoon to get to Madonna in Monterchi? Months of advanced internet research, planning, and emailing tour and cab companies, and Tuscan advocacy organizations, revealed that it was impossible without renting a car. But getting this close to such a precious fresco and not trying? Like Tarkovsky’s alienated non-believer in “Nostalghia,” would I make it to this very mountain and not to go inside?
At Le Capre Matte, I wolfed down a plate of walnut, gorgonzola, and pear tigelle and a double caffe, none of which gave me added confidence in wrestling with the complex bus schedule, an unlaminated sheet handed me at the Arezzo terminal. It seemed impossible to get from Sansepolcro to Monterchi and then get an evening bus back to my hotel (and suitcase) in Arezzo. I charged back out and raced through Piero’s birthplace, where Isabel Stewart Gardner’s lonely “Hercules” once hung with his legendary colleagues. I paid my respects at Piero’s final resting spot, an unmarked chapel which I found by conversing in pidgin French with an elderly man. The afternoon dragged on. It was now or never to launch a desperate attempt to get to Monterchi — even if it meant being stranded to sleep huddled under an ancient stone arch or wooden pew.
I needed one last calming look at the four Museo Civico Sansepolcro Pieros. I raced back through the circle and re-emerged at the ticket desk where a saintly woman helped me call local cab companies. Two quick calls shocked both of us with the news that no cab would venture to Monterchi, even though it was only 15 kilometers away. (Siri revealed that was only nine miles away). The woman took my marked-up bus timetable and worked out that there was a bus from Sansepolcro to Monterchi leaving shortly — plus there would be one last bus from Monterchi to Arezzo at 19:23 (I was 95 percent sure that was 7:23 PM), so it was now 14:00 (most probably 2 PM), there was time to travel to Monterchi, walk to the top of its huge hill, meditate with the Madonna del Parto, calmly take in the vista of a Tuscan country side for a couple of hours, and climb back down for the last bus. Odd that I had not found this solution on my own after weeks of effort.
The bus dropped me on the side of the road in a tiny town with a bar and a pizza place. A sign pointed to stone steps leading to the historic hill. Wildflowers and bramble hugged the path, which overlooked the roofs of a small ancient neighborhood. A Tuscan vista appeared, including the gorgeous town of Anghiari across the valley, threatened by angry storm clouds. Monterchi had suffered two terrible earthquakes, forcing much to be rebuilt and the haphazard appearance of patches on arches and walls. Piero painted “Madonna del Parto” in about 1460 on a church wall, and it was shifted to another wall when the church became a cemetery chapel. According to the museum website, two Florentine art historians sent to secure it during WW2 were mistaken for Nazis by the women who “guard” the patron saint of pregnant women and childbirth. They alerted local farmers who grabbed hoes and clubs and chased them off. It was eventually safely bricked up for its own protection and kept in a house in a wealthy patron’s family before being moved to the museum that used to be a school.
The gift shop was wholly dedicated to the Piero, so much so that it became obvious it was the only piece in the museum. As I purchased an obligatory fridge magnet, the ticket seller pointed to a thick curtain. It opened to a sparsely lit, temperature-controlled room with a bench set at what I know to be the perfect point to engage. A pair of symmetrical blue- and pink-winged angels greet the viewer with quite serious stares. They are pulling open the flaps of a tent as if for the first time, their gesture timeless, but a choreographed sweep like a live ballet. Centered is the much larger pregnant Madonna, deep in thought, worried for herself, and the unborn child, foretelling the Pieta. Several buttons of her blue dress are undone to cool and make room. One hand is naturally set on her sizable belly and one wrist on hip to balance her weight. Typical of a Piero image, the Madonna flips back and forth between an ideal Platonic woman, presumed to be carrying God, and a beautiful but ordinary local Tuscan expecting mother. Maybe even a dedication to the painter’s Monterchi-born mother, who raised him alone after his father died. Her halo is brown, the gold lost to time; the tent top has been cropped off, lost in one of the piece’s many moves. A line from Jorie Graham’s poem “San Sepolcro” comments on the painting, “The present moment forever stillborn,” a take also on Piero more broadly. The sterile museum offers a much different feel than that presented over 40 years ago in “Nostalghia,” where the painting hung in situ in the church and women with candles came to pay their respects, a living ritual accompanying an impending birth.
Re-emerging in Monterchi, the town now covered in dark grey clouds, I took refuge under an ancient arch. A powerful drenching storm passed quickly. The town seemed empty except for two mowers in the park below and a woman strolling the stone path. The sweeping view mapped to the backgrounds of Piero’s “Nativity,” “Resurrection,” and “The True Cross.” Trail mix and shorts from Joseph Roth’s “Hotel Years,” a wonderful traveling companion, helped pass two hours until the bus would arrive on the side of the road. That too was a blur. I stood with my trusty backpack, waiting well in advance for the 19:23, the last bus to Arezzo, which did not arrive. The schedule, handed to me that day in Arezzo and interpreted by the Museum guide, did not jibe with the official schedule posted at the bus stop. Indeed, there would be no bus. Just then a bus heading in the opposite direction, back to Sansepolcro, appeared. Though it would be too late to catch the last Arezzo bus, Sansepolcro was likely to have a hotel, which would be better than sleeping outside in Monterchi. I would get back to Arezzo in the morning. Then a stroke of angel intervention compelled me off the bus at Anghiari, where miraculously the last bus in all of Tuscany was arriving across the street on a non-Monterchi vector, that incredibly was headed to Arezzo. I took a seat on the empty bus, Tuscany’s last traveler of the day.
Back in New Hope, PA I was grateful for my books and quiet. Giddy for the most basic win of getting to Italy and back, nerves remarkably intact, I sorted through hundreds of photos of paintings, frescoes, sculptures, churches, convents, museums, cities, villages, a massive jumble of perceptions, and absurdly sketchy notes. The cathedrals, towns, the artwork felt beyond time and slipping away; 600 years of entropy picking apart and eroding. My photos, memories and whatever I would write would maintain Piero. Piero della Francesca, as sure as a fingerprint. From his first painting, The Baptism, which seemed to emerge fully formed, to all the later works, plays on the same spatial and temporal ideas; the Piero color palette, Piero chunky sculptural forms allocated to perfect spots and juxtapositions. Yet, each piece was unique, each jumble of forms allowed you to experience a Platonic ideal without losing the humanity of individuals and sympathy for the struggles. He put in the hard work and planning coupled that perhaps with numbers and measurement, sorting through to an implied perfection, and working back towards inspiration. He ordered chaos using math and structure, showing how life and the universe can be controlled, object by object, event by event, but never blocking out the spark of life and resulting magic. Piero, like my favorite film director Yasujiro Ozu, had a way of seeing and expressing it over and again without losing freshness. Iconoclastic unique creators who did their own thing in their own way with what appeared to be absolute commitment as if they had no choice — Piero, Ozu, William James, Emily Dickinson, Charles Darwin, Simone Weil, Joseph Roth, and Shirley Jackson. My peeps.
Among my favorite baseball cards are the checklists, meta cards that describe the set and let you engage by filling in the boxes with magic marker dots every time you acquire a unique new card. I still feel the joy of opening a 1975 Topps pack with rare Lerrin LaGrow, who completed my set. The Italy Piero trip was the adult version of buying a carton of packs and checking lots of boxes. I would now just need a Berlin, Lisbon, Rimini, Urbino, and Perugia excursion. And there was one more.
That first weekend back I made the 228-mile drive from New Hope, PA to Williamstown, MA. Spotify knew to play my favorite rock bands and flash images of the album covers, reminding me of my collection. Bands and albums, teams and cards, artists and their work. When we lean in, we become a part of something greater than ourselves. We connect at a gut level that transcends the intellect and every so often are rewarded with moments of transcendence. The Clark Art Institute held the only Piero in North America that I had never visited. The “Madonna and Child with Four Angels” posing in an idealized Solomon’s Temple was a lesser-known, less-discussed piece that was sold by Piero’s hometown of Sansepolcro in the 19th century; they failed to forecast its eventual value. Piero would have wished it stayed in exactly the spot he painted it, though in any case, he would have meant for me to stand at an optimal point of perspective. I held out my hands and closed the circle of angels around the flower-bearing Madonna and her child.•