A new surprising interpretation of Piero della Francesca's masterpiece, The Flagellation

The picture in front of us is astonishing in its fixedness, in the background, inside an open gallery, two persons are whipping a man, fastened to a column ornate with a golden statue of a
godness on the top; two figures attend at the scene: a ruler, seated impassive on a throne, and a man in oriental garments, turning his back to the observer.

In the foreground, outside the loggia, three enigmatic characters are depicted, staring into the void: on the right a bearded man dressed as an oriental ambassador, in the middle a youth with
the appearance of an angel and on the left an elegant Italian nobleman with a rich suit, embroidered with a thistle motif.

We are talking about Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation whose fame is exceeded only by the disputes upon its interpretation.

Both the commissioner of the painting and its date are uncertain, although there is a general consensus that it was realized around 1460.

In the background, inside the gallery illuminated by the right, the scene represents indubitably Jesus Christ’s flagellation during his Passion. But who are the three characters in modern
dresses on the right? In the last forty years several different theories has been suggested, no one completely satisfactory.

David King, director of the Frankfurt Institute for the History of Science, Germany, is now proposing a new tantalizing interpretation based on the relationships his co-worker Berthold
Holzschuh discovered between the famous painting and a renaissance astrolabe.

The astrolabe, an instrument used for navigation and time calculation, was built in 1462 by Johannes Regiomontanus, a Wiener astronomer protégé of Cardinal Johannes Bessarion. On
the device is engraved an epigram that, if used as a cipher, should allows to unveil the mysteries hidden in Piero’s masterpiece.

Let’s proceed with order, by examining the most popular interpretations of The Flagellation. According to ancient chronicles, the painting, now exhibited in the ducal palace at Urbino, used to
have a frame, now lost, on which it was possible to read: Convenerunt in Unum(they came all together). This is a quotation form Psalm II that is part of the Good Friday services.

Back in the Seventies, Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, professor of art history at Princeton and scholar of the Early Italian Renaissance, identified Pontius Pilate in the background scene seated on
the chair and Erode facing back, in analogy with many other Flagellations that would have been known by Piero.

The characters in the foreground should be, according to Lavin, Ludovico Gonzaga, Mantova’s marquise on the left, and his close friend, the astrologer Ottavio Ubaldini della Carda on the right,
as suggested by the thistle’s decoration of his dress. In fact, thistle in Latin is cardus. Ottavio at that time was living in the ducal Palace of Urbino .

At the time when The Flagellation was likely to be painted, both Ottavio and Ludovico had recently lost their beloved sons, who are depicted as just one angel in the middle of the two. The
scene, as a consequence, is a parallel between the grieving of the two noblemen and Jesus Christ’s Passion. This would explain the quotation on the frame: Convenerunt in Unum.

Lavin suggested that the painting was commissioned by Ottavio for his private chapel called “del Perdono” (of the Remission), inside the ducal Palace at Urbino. In this chapel an altar can be
found whose dimensions fit almost perfectly those of the painting. If we imagine putting The Flagellation above this altar, the perspective would work perfectly for an observer on bended knee
in front of it.

Besides Lavin’s interpretation, there are those of the Byzantine scholar Silvia Ronchey and of the historian Carlo Ginzburg, that tried to place the painting in its historical context. In the
beginning of 15th century the Roman and the Oriental churches were divided by different vision on the internal relationship of the Holy trinity.

An attempt of reconciliation of the two different positions was explored during the Ferrara and Florence ‘s Council in 1438 – 1439, opened by the Nicea’s Archibishop Jhoannes Bessarione.

According to Ronchey, the man with the turban is not Erode but rather the Ottoman Sultan Mehemet II, while Pontius Pilate would be better identified in the Constantinople ‘s Emperor John VII
Palaeologus, as can be inferred by the red shoes and hat, exclusive privilege of the oriental emperors.

The three men in foreground would be Cardinal Bessarion himself, the brother of the emperor Thomas Palaeologus and Niccolò III d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, the town that was hosting the
Council.

Afterwards, Cardinal Bessarion tried to promote a crusade to rescue Constantinople, that had fallen under the Ottomans siege in 1453. This proposal was discussed in the Mantua council and, in
the opinion of Carlo Ginzburg, the painting would represent the unheard request of joining the crusade against the Turks brought to Federico da Montefeltro by Bessarion and by the Humanist
Giovanni Bacci.

The young man in between the two would be Bonconte II da Montefeltro, young protégé of the Cardinal, who had recently died.

Contrasting with these traditional analyses, based on the examination of the historical context and of the stylistic features of the painting, the new theory proposed by King, all relying on
word-plays and mathematical relationship, arrived like a bolt from the blue.

King claims to have unveiled a parallelism between the epigrams engraved on the astrolabe and the eight figures depicted in the painting. The epigram is ‘almost’ perfect elegiac couplets, with
irregularities in the metrical rhythm and in spacing between the words, as well. These failing are inconsistent with the excellent technical and poetical skills of Regiomontanus, and in fact
some scholars in the past have even suspected that the astrolabe was a fake.

In King’s opinion, those that seems as defects in the beginning, are in fact subtle tricks, used to obtain a cipher. The epigram hides an acrostic made by eight columns that allows to identify
all the characters of Pietro’s, The Flagellation.

By overlapping the epigram and the painting, after a necessary enlargement, it is possible to obtain a perfect correspondence between the names on the rows and the characters of the paintings.
The epigram would act as a caption for The flagellation.

Following this interpretation, the ruler on the throne is at the same time the Emperor John III, Erode and Pontius Pilate; the whipped man is Jesus Christ and the Church; the man with the
turban is the Ottoman sultan and, once again, Erode. At last, with a completely original identification, King proposes that the man who is touching Christ should be Judas Iscariot.

Which one of this numerous identifications is the right one? Here King offers a completely new approach. He claims that the different solutions of the ciphers are all correct, allowing multiple
lecture at the same time, according to who is reading. And all interpretations finally gather in the painting: Convenuntur in unum.

King extends his method of multiple interpretations to the characters in the foreground as well. The beared man could be both Cardinal Bessarion as well as Bessarione, the V century’s Egyptian
ascetic whom the Cardinal was inspired by when choosing his new name.

The angel-like character in the middle would be the young Regiomontanus, as well as Buonconte, Bernardino Ubaldini della Carda and Vangelista Gonzaga, three young men all near to Bessarion e
prematurely died due to illnesses.

And, at last, the nobleman on the right would be identifiable with three characters: the Humanist Giovanni Bacci, Ottavio Ubaldini (father of Bernardino), and Ludovico Gonzaga, stepfather of
Vangelista and host of Mantua ‘s Council.

The mathematical analysis performed by King goes further. The epigram and the painting would both be paced by a special number ratio, the so-called golden ratio, which was associated with
aesthetical perfection.

King has found two lines, positioned at 3/8 and 5/8 of the epigram length, in correspondence of the “B” and the “I” in Bessarion -that are the initials of the cardinal, Ioannes Bessarion-. In
the juxtaposition with the painting the first line divides the flagellation scene in the golden ratio, passing in between Jesus Christ’s eyes. The second line passes instead through the figure
of Bessarion.

As a whole, the painting represents a parallel between Jesus Christ’s Passion and what Bessarion considered the betrayal of Constantinople from by the West.

Several clues are consistent with King’s hypothesis. Word-plays and ciphers were popular at that time. The Psalms themselves, when read in Hebrew, contain acrostics. Moreover, the rigorous
perspective of The Flagellation implies a careful mathematical planning.

There are no direct evidence that Bessarion commissioned The Flagellation by Piero. Nevertheless the two knew each other. In fact the cardinal is portrayed in the frescos of the Legend of the
True Cross in Arezzo .

Art historian are skeptical and consider King’s theory as a abstract speculations without foundation. It is also possible that the overweening tone of King, an outsider in the field, has
angered some.

Other scholars, with a much more significant scientific background, have shown more interest, although even they consider King, whose field is ancient scientific instruments, has pushed his
theory to the limit.

In their opinion, to accept this theory in the absence of objective evidence requires a leap of faith, as Nature has entitled its editorial. On the one hand, by multiple combing of the letter
taking from the epigram, one could obtain almost whatever sequence, like playing Scrabble.

It is nevertheless true that the Renaissance masterpieces should better be analyzed with a solid scientific background. Contemporary art historians are not always as prepared as the painter
they are studying in maths and geometry. Piero della Francesca was revered as an eminent mathematician as well as a painter. He also wrote a book on the theory of perspective, the De
prospectiva pingendi.

King’s theory would gain credibility if he could perform some kind of instrumental analysis of the canvas, for example verifying the presence of the line hypothesized by King in the preparatory
drawings.

The astrolabe and the painting, the cardinal and the ascetic, the two churches, Jesus Christ’s Passion and Constantinople’s fall, the two Johns -the Cardinal e the Regiomontanus, all this
couple, according to King, Convenuntur in unum.

The hypothesis, although not sustained by objective proof, is nevertheless intriguing and deserves further examination.

References
Marchant J., Science and art: A leap of faith. Nature. 2007 Mar 29;446(7135):488-92

J. D. Passavant, Raffaello of Urbino and His Father, Giovanni Santi, Macmillan, London and New York, 1872

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca: the Flagellation, University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Kenneth Clark, Piero della Francesca, Phaidon, London, 1951

Carlo Ginzburg, Indagini su Piero. Il Battesimo, il ciclo di Arezzo, la Flagellazione di Urbino, Einaudi, Torino, [1981, 1982, 1994] 2001

Silvia Ronchey, L’enigma di Piero, Rizzoli, Milano, 2006,

Web sites
Frankfurt Institute for the History of Science
https://www.uni-frankfurt.de/404.html

Professor David King web site with detailed infomration on his theory
https://www.uni-frankfurt.de/404.html

Nature.com
www.nature.com

Bessarion – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessarion

Golden Ratio – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio

Elegiac Couplets – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elegiac_couplets

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