The Flagellation of Christ (probably 1455–1460) is a painting by Piero della Francesca in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, Italy. Called by one writer an “enigmatic little painting,” the composition is complex and unusual, and its iconography has been the subject of widely differing theories. Kenneth Clark placed The Flagellation in his personal list of the best ten paintings, calling it ‘the greatest small painting in the world’.
In the older part of Urbino, down a curving alleyway lined with history-holding bricks, sits a small unassuming piazza. Now home to a daycare center, the piazza and its crumbling white pillars would be easy to miss on the way to the pizza parlor further along the street. But Andrea Aromatico, a local journalist, claims this spot is the key to a locked part of Urbino’s history. Without hesitation, he announces that it is, in fact, the location of Piero Della Francesca’s famous and mysterious painting, La Flagellazione di Cristo.
“Urbino has two histories,” says Aromatico, “one that you can see with your eyes and one that is under cover. This undercover one is the real history of Urbino.” As part of that undercover history, La Flagellazione di Cristo has long puzzled scholars, art historians, and the people of Urbino.
La Flagellazione di Cristo now hangs in a dim room in the Palazzo Ducale. The painting was famous in the Renaissance as a demonstration of Della Francesca’s technical skills in perspective. The unusual choice of a low viewpoint, striking colors, strange interior lighting, and contemporary figures all contribute to what is, even now, a disturbing picture. It is considered a Renaissance painting, yet it does not fit the style. It has a lightness, a third dimension that draws a viewer in. Mathematicians have found that Della Francesca was so meticulous in his perspective that the entire scene can be recreated by modern-day architects. Despite its perfect dimensions, the meaning, the purpose, and even the subjects remain a mystery.
There are currently three interpretations of La Flagellazione di Cristo, called the conventional, the dynastic, and the political-theological. Most debated are the identities of the three figures in the foreground.
According to the conventional theory, the three figures represent a murdered Duke of Urbino, Oddantonio da Montefeltro, standing between two of his advisors, Manfredo dei Pio and Tommaso di Guido dell’Agnello. The dynastic interpretation holds that the painting was commissioned by Federico, Oddantonio’s half-brother and successor, and the figures are simply Federico’s predecessors. The political-theological take says that the figure in the middle is an angel attempting to join the Latin and Orthodox church represented by the two men on either side.
The latest interpretation lies within the pages of Aromatico’s book, La Flagellazione. Il romanzo, i codici, il mistero (The Flagellation: The novel, the codes, the mystery).
Aromatico argues that the three figures are Oddantonio and two of Federico’s closest advisors. But these identities make sense only if the scene is in Urbino, and that is the key to Aromatico’s interpretation. As an Urbino native, he says that his familiarity with the town has allowed him “to imagine the painting as no one has ever before.”
Aromatico has matched the architectural features of the former piazza on Via Valerio to those in the painting. Others assumed the perspective-perfect setting was fictional, even idealized. But Aromatico says the specificity of the location in Urbino means that the painting also depicts events in Urbino.
Aromatico believes Duke Federico da Montefeltro commissioned the work to decorate the tomb in the Palazzo Ducale of his half-brother, Oddantonio. Many believe Federico played a role in Oddantonio’s death. But Aromatico says Federico had this painting made to show that he was not a murderer, but a protector. He may indeed have had Oddantino killed, but he did so to save the city of Urbino from Oddantino’s destructive ways.
Aromatico’s interpretation holds that Oddantonio is the figure in red robes, standing in the center of the trio. He is positioned like the Christ figure in the background, suggesting a comparison. Aromatico says Federico wanted to show that his brother’s death was necessary for Urbino, just as Christ’s death was necessary for humanity. We [humans] do everything to understand and to discover something. I think that this is the real meaning of life.
In Aromatico’s view, the figures on either side of Oddantonio are advisors close to Federico: Cardinal Bessarion stands to Oddantonio’s right in a maroon robe and hat, and to the left in the blue robe stands astrologer and sorcerer Ottavio Ubaldini della Carda. Aromatico speculates that they both had a role in Oddantonio’s death. The allusions to alchemy in the painting, he says, support this idea—allusions such as the black circle beneath Christ’s feet and the golden statue of Apollo holding a silver object. The background is not simply a flagellation scene, says Aromatico, but a portrayal of an alchemist scheme used to kill Oddantonio.
This part of the puzzle, Aromatico believes, is necessary to solve the La Flagellazione di Cristo. “If you can solve this equation you have in your hand an algorithm that can resolve all the mystery in Urbino history.”
Aromatico has spent his life, literally, in search of the meaning of the painting. “It was tradition for my family to have breakfast outside on Saturdays,” says Aromatico. “We would then take a walk through the Palazzo Ducale and see the painting.” The painting always fascinated him: “We [humans] do everything to understand and to discover something. I think that this is the real meaning of life. When you eat new food, drink something new or even make love it is a way for us to search and find new things. A picture becomes successful when it is mysterious. Everyday is a new discovery and the same thing goes for this picture.”
Standing in the 1,600-year-old piazza, Aromatico points first to an image of La Flagellazione on his iPad, then to the features he thinks support his theory. “As a journalist,” he says, “my duty is to see facts, make an analysis, and then tell the story in a simple way.”