The year was 1997 and I’d arrived in Italy from London on my Honda Transalp, spending most of my nights camping out. It was sheer bliss, absolute freedom. One of the places I’d visited from Florence was the city of Urbino. I was determined to visit it again seventeen years later with my wife and in our cinquina.
Yesterday morning was overcast and the weather steadily deteriorated as the day progressed but there was one place I wanted to stop at before reaching Urbino. It was the same place I’d seen in 1997 and it was the same fresco I wanted to enjoy again.
I found it still in its disputed present location in the former school and its effect on me was, if anything, greater than ever before.
Piero della Francesca’s “Madonna del Parto”, which he painted for a small chapel near his mother’s home town of Monterchi in the Val Tiburina while at work on the great cycle of frescoes on the finding of the true cross in the church of San Francesco, Arezzo is a work of transcendent beauty and inspirational impact.
“Parto” in Italian also means on the verge of giving birth and “incinta” means pregnant – the word deriving from “cinta” or belt or girdle and “in” meaning “without”.
So the Madonna with her quizzical, hieratic expression, which might assume tranquillity or concern in the eye of the viewer, has had to remove the belt from her dress which is now unbuttoned at the point of her almost bursting womb, sheltering her soon-to-be-born son, just as the tent whose sides are held back by mirror-image angels is sheltering her whole person.
It is an incredibly moving scene, and equally affecting are the hundreds of little notes which are left on a platform below the fresco by couples imploring for a safe child-birth or wishing to become pregnant in the first place, thus fulfilling the same act of devotion that millions of hopeful mums must have carried out right down through the ages from Etruscan and even more ancient fertility rites.
How strange and yet how marvellous it is that art lovers and pleading mothers-to-be can come together in one of the world’s greatest icons of birth and redemption!
Art is really so much more than just the depiction of an object of beauty – it is above all a way of expressing and instrumentalising the deepest of life forces.