It was in a 1925 essay entitled “The Best Picture” that Aldous Huxley made the claim that a 1478 fresco painting by Piero della Francesca (1420–92), in the little Italian town of San Sepolcro (Holy Sepulcher) in the upper Tiber valley, was “the greatest picture in the world.” It is true that critics and connoisseurs before Huxley, and many after him, also made very high claims for Piero’s relatively few surviving paintings. Much of his work, sadly, was destroyed shortly after his death, and in the early 1800s vandalistic Napoleonic French troops fired damaging shots at his great fresco series The Legend of the True Cross (1452–66) in the Church of St. Francis during their occupation of the city of Arezzo.
Some 50 years after Piero’s demise, the great biographer of the classic Italian painters, Giorgio Vasari, praised him highly in his Lives of the Artists. Over the last 150 years numerous Anglophone scholars and critics have expressed vast admiration for Piero: John Addington Symonds in the 1880s, Bernard Berenson in 1902, Kenneth Clark in a great monograph in 1951, John Russell, art critic for the London Sunday Times and the New York Times, in the 1960s: “He had the kind of total comprehension which makes us trust in him, unreservedly. . . . He is for us the first and the greatest of classical painters. . . . He has my vote, any time, as the Perpetual President of European painting.”
Berenson wrote that in the presence of “certain Giottos, Masaccios, and Pieros . . . it is not the physical but the ethical, the moral weight that overawes us.” Fifty years earlier, after discussing Piero’s technical excellences, Berenson had written of him: “judged as an illustrator, it may be questioned whether another painter has ever presented a world more complete and convincing, has ever had an ideal more majestic, or ever endowed things with more heroic significance.” When the great art historian, museum administrator, humanist, and television broadcaster Sir Kenneth Clark first saw colored photographs of Piero’s Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle, “I immediately felt a sense of pre-ordained harmony different from anything I had known.” He added that Piero’s Baptism of Christ gave him “more intense aesthetic delight than any other painting in the [British] National Gallery,” of which he was then the director. Clark reports that when he first saw the diptych by Piero of Duke Federico da Montefeltro and his duchess in Urbino, he fell to his knees. Another distinguished art historian, John Pope-Hennessy, later claimed that Piero’s Flagellation of Christ was “the greatest small painting in the world.”
So Aldous Huxley is in good company in his praise. But is Piero’s Resurrection of Christ in little San Sepolcro “the greatest picture in the world”? Huxley’s own argument is initially interesting and powerful but ultimately oblique and incomplete — oddly so, given that he was one of the best-educated, most verbally clever, and most sheerly intelligent of major 20th-century writers. He admits that the contention that Piero’s Resurrection is “the greatest picture in the world” is in one sense obviously “ludicrous” because there are “a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings.” But he fends off the common, nihilistic modern argument that art “is all a matter of personal taste,” saying that there is “an absolute standard of artistic merit,” which is “in the last resort a moral one.” He thinks “genuineness” always “triumphs in the long run”; he asserts that Piero della Francesca’s painting is “absolutely great, because the man who painted it was genuinely noble as well as talented.” But Huxley longingly refers to a purified classical humanism as a defensible ideal: “the religion of Plutarch’s Lives” and “the resurrection of the classical ideal, incredibly much grander and more beautiful than the classical reality.” He tells us, counterintuitively and unpersuasively, that Piero’s ostensible subjects, the Christian religion and the Resurrection of Christ, are not really central to his art.