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This article is taken from PN Review 26, Volume 8 Number 6, July - August 1982.

Piero della Francesca Zbigniew Herbert

For Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz

FRIENDS say: well, you've been there and seen a lot; you liked Duccio, the Dorian columns, the stained glass at Chartres and the Lascaux bulls-but tell us what you've chosen for yourself; who is the painter closest to your heart, the one you'd never exchange. A reasonable question since every love, if true, should efface the previous one, should enter, overwhelm and demand exclusiveness. So I pause, and reply: Piero della Francesca.

The first meeting: In London at the National Gallery. A cloudy day. A choking fog descends upon the city. Though I did not intend to visit sights, I was forced to find shelter against the stifling damp. The sensation came unexpectedly. From the first room it was apparent: the collection surpasses the Louvre. Never had I seen so many masterpieces at once. Perhaps this is not the best way to become acquainted with art. A concert programme should contain, apart from Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, a Noskowski-for instruction rather than out of perversity.

I stayed longest with a painter whose name I had only known from books. The painting was 'The Nativity', an unusual composition full of light and serious joy. The sensation was similar to my first encounter with Van Eyck. It is difficult to define such an aesthetic shock. The picture roots you to one spot. You cannot step back or move closer or (as with modern painting) smell the paint and examine the facture treatment.

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