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09  |   T H E  H E R E S Y  O F  M A T T E O  P A L M I E R I
Three pairs of drawings, 1983
Graphite, ink, and acrylic color on paper
Each drawing 87.8 x 62.7 cm
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin [ Museum of Prints and Drawings, National Museums in Berlin ]
Gift from a private collection.


As much for the loveliness of its mild and ever-speaking countenance as for the lively pageant of essential awkwardness it constantly unveils, the painting of the early Italian Renaissance has long served as lodestar to my aesthetic consciousnesss. To some extent, its engagingly ungainly grace can be put down to the intractable materials and exacting working methods of the time. I’m convinced, however, that its qualities also reflect the puzzling state of social and intellectual flux in which the artists of the day existed: the ambiguous rôles they found themselves asked to take on once they had woken from their mediæval slumbers. I find it not at all unlikely that their stiff-necked ambivalence toward the picture plane was due, at least in part, to such fluidity and contradiction, since, having myself never committed, hide and hair, to any métier as monoculture, I too have some little experience in the consequences of living in what I’ll call “professional limbo.”

The painters of the Quattrocento perpetuated their predecessors’ primitive conventions and concerns: archaisms such as highly pigmented and gold grounds , elements of embossed relief , and a largely emblematic treatment of the figure, both human and divine, and of forms, animate and inanimate alike. Yet, at the same time as the maestri kept these long-established heraldic practices alive within their workshops, they were also busiily postulating and putting to the test the latest, egocentric theories of linear perspective and volumetric structure. In the process, and with great  panache, they created a hitherto unheard-of sense of pictorial space and narrative complexity.

Under the terms of an at times uneasy marriage between cutting-edge science and a baser, if consummate, craftsmanship, their renderings rarely aspired to the insouciance and descriptive ease that works of later centuries display. Their artistry remains appealingly artisanal, precariously poised between authorship and agency ; and by virtue of this very circumstance, their works tend not to age, but to mature. As if it were the most natural thing in the world—which it is—these works do not so much manifest disruptions in the simulacra with which their surfaces present us, as begin to port a patina with the grace of the materials from which they once were formed. I would even go so far as to regard many artifacts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as “concrete,” given that, five hundred years later, the Constructivists—adhering to their own rule that artworks be created using only “building materials”—themselves harked back to this perception of the artist, not as author, but as artificer.

Until early 1980, my own visual work fell into the category of what is generally referred to as “realistic,” though I personally find the term “illusionistic” more literal and enlightening. In 1981, however, while developing my first concrete panels—works I hesitate to call “pictures,” as their surfaces are synonymous with their narratives—I read of a poem, composed c. 1464, by a certain Matteo Palmieri: a poem that sets out the heresy that the souls of men and women are those of angels who remained neutral when Lucifer rebelled against the Word of God. I hoped that this poem could provide me with illumination and illustration—enlightenment, no less, originating, as it did, in my revered Rinascimento—of a subject with which I was wrestling at the time, namely, whether the Concrete might not be the true and proper sphere of genuine artistic endeavor. Youthful, absolutist, and doubtless not a little arrogant, I sought an overarching answer. 

Francesco Botticini, Assumption of the Virgin, ca. 1475, tempera on wood, 228.5 x 377 cm. National Gallery, London.

Between 1455 and 1464, Matteo Palmieri—Florentine humanist, citizen, statesman, and  writer—composed the Città di Vita, a long poem that owes much to Dante’s Divina Commedia. In the fifth capitolo of its first book, he sets forth his heretical premise regarding the provenance of human souls. According to this postulate, the angels who, during the heavenly rebellion, remained undecided as to whether they would follow God or Lucifer had been given the opportunity to prove themselves as men and women during a mortal life on earth: to choose, that is, between Good and Evil. Depending on how they decided, they would either be permitted to reassume their positions in the celestial hierarchy or, as had their fallen brethren before them, be condemned to eternal damnation in the fires of the Inferno.


Known as the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls, this theory had been advanced by the early Christian scholar and theologian Origen of Alexandria in the second century. Over twelve hundred years later, c.1473, it was depicted by Francesco Botticini in illustrations to Palmieri’s Città di Vita and again, c.1474/6, in his painting The Assumption of the Virgin—both, incidentally, later long attributed to Sandro Botticelli. The latter, a large wooden panel painted in egg-tempera, measures 228.5 x 377 centimeters—practically the golden mean—was presumably commissioned by Palmieri himself as the altarpiece for his family’s mortuary chapel in the Benedictine abbey church San Pier Maggiore, Florence.


Botticini almost certainly executed the Assumption according to his patron’s express wishes, if not to his explicit instructions, but whether minutely stage-managed by its donatore or not, the lower quarter of the composition’s mise en scène shows us, to the left and right, respectively, Palmieri and his wife as donor and donatrix, kneeling on a hillock above a broad riverscape and what have been identified as their family estates near Fiesole. This vista, rendered in pronounced aerial perspective, stretches southwestward toward the clearly recognizable walls, roofs, and spires of Firenze in the distance, where, prominent among their forms, we see the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio, as well as, just behind Matteo, what may well be a tiny San Pier. Oddly enough, the donor figures are assimilated into the painting’s pictorial narrative in such a way that, on the higher ground between them—atypically drawn to much the same scale—the twelve Apostles seem to watch with them in reverential consternation beside the Virgin’s deserted, lily-filled tomb.

Above them all, delineated in startling, even precipitous, perspective, the dome of heaven arches as a perfect hemisphere in which Christ, the Alpha and Omega, receives and crowns his kneeling mother, just below the point at which its apex’s oculus would be. Daringly, if a touch heavy-handedly, drawn from below, the nine circles of the heavenly host are portrayed. Arranged in three groups of three concentric, wide-angle ellipses, they comprise hundreds of minutely detailed figures, bathed in a flood of primrose-colored backlight, which—and here the heretical bit comes in—include not just standard-issue seraphim and cherubim, but explicitly human figures as well: a quantity of men and women reconnecting with their checkered angelic pasts. Arranged in steep tiers, as if on graduated risers, hermits, martyrs, popes, and prophets mix and mingle with their former confrères, exhibiting that brand of bonhomie one’s apt to find among those posing for a souvenir group portrait, just before the shutter clicks. Yet, despite the conviviality of this celestial reunion, and regardless of how stunning its sense of space, how fascinating the scope of its detail, or how delicate and luminous its colors may be, I find the painting’s disposition a rather constrained affair.

Ever the exemplary philospher-citizen as that he saw himself, Palmieri, well aware of his poem’s impolitic audacity—and perhaps not a little concerned for his own well-being—forewent its publication during his lifetime, while making provisions that it be displayed together with Botticini’s painting at his funeral. Conflicting sources have his widow ordering the panel’s completion only after his death in 1475 ; but, whatever the actual sequence of events, the Assumption with its impious narrative soon disappeared behind what must have been a sizable black veil, not to be retrieved from San Piero’s gloomy recesses until the ruinous church was razed, three hundred years later. The picture’s subsequent peregrinations occupied another century, until the National Gallery, London, still believing Botticelli to have been its author , purchased it in 1882.


Booklet, Xerography, frosted Mylar and tempera [not represented here]

30 x 30 cm, edition of 3 copies.

Exactly one hundred years later, I sought to arrive at images of my own based on the material in the blasphemous passages of Palmieri’s poem—the design of which, I had concluded before ever having seen a reproduction, or read a detailed description, of Botticini’s picture. Thus, in light of my own constructions, first setting eyes on its bizarrely emphasized, hemispherical layout was something of a shock. My own visualization, however, did not aim to illustrate Palmieri’s heretical idea as an iconographic drama, but rather to conceptualize and demonstrate it.


In the plans for three large panels, I translated those of his angels who had to prove themselves as the souls of men and women—the immanently Human, that is, poised between the Heavenly and Netherworldly—into a neutral, concrete plane, identical with the picture’s surface : a plane that lies between a “positive,” convex white dome of an illusionistically depicted “celestial” hemisphere and another, “negative,” concave black hemispherical abyss. I intended to render the chiaroscuro of these three large, square panels using not only ever-changing values, but all the tonal nuances of a chromatic pyramid as well.


Looking to get my bearings within the subject matter before embarking on the actual panels, I put together a booklet I called PALMIERI SQUARES (see above). Produced in an edition of just three or four copies, it measures 30 x 30 centimeters, and consists of two dozen black-and-white line drawings printed on paper and drawn on frosted Mylar. Its first image is of the nine concentric circles—corresponding to the nine circles of heaven—that record the diameters of those spheres defined by the five Platonic solids when they are nested one within the other. These circles next give rise to a cube, which in turn generates a chromatic sphere and its hemispheres, its central plane, and corresponding hexagon-based color-pyramids. The progression from page to page is decidedly episodic, even filmic, and on the last right-hand page, facing a small black-and-white reproduction of Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin—added after a friend had brought me a color reproduction of the painting from the National Gallery in London—which is positioned within a sphere, one reads the following “final credit”:

Preface to the group of works THE HERESY OF MATTEO PALMIERI, a translation of the heretical tenet illustrated in Francesco Botticini’s altarpiece Assumption of the Virgin (London, National Gallery) and Palmieri’s poem Città di Vita into studies of three Systems : color theory (chromatic hexagons), chiaroscuro (renderings of hemispheres), and geometry ( generation of Platonic solids). The superimposition of these systems determines the grid coördinates of three large panels.

The surface organization of the three panels was to be minutely predetermined : the shades of grey given by the illusion of three-dimensional, hemispherical space  (or lack of it); the tonal value through gradations of the chromatic sphere’s surface and section ; and the concrete surface pattern of each panel by the geometric forms of circles and polyhedra. To execute the actual panels, I wanted to use the collage technique that I’ve described above—thinking that if I could but find the thousands of perfectly nuanced bits of printed paper necessary, and paste them onto primed wooden backgrounds, I’d be able to render shapes and colors both, while at the same time tracing the the nine concentric circles and three Platonic solids in the minimal relief of raised seams created by the paper snippets.

Not surprisingly, in light of these daunting prospects, the three panels were never realized, and the studies that I made for them, in 1983, now bear the work’s projected title THE HERESY OF MATTEO PALMIERI. These six good-sized drawings—each measuring 87.8 x 62.7 centimeters—form three pairs, in each of which one is executed in pencil and the other in acrylic inks. The three pencil drawings are finely hatched renderings—in myriad strokes of graphite, ranging in hardness from 6B to 9H—of the convex and concave hemispheres and their grey central plane. The other three drawings depict the nine concentric circles, drawn in black ink, and, between the two outermost circles, an intensely pigmented, airbrushed ring indicating the chromatic circle. Each of these three systems is overlaid with a line drawing of one of the Platonic solids, in an aspect whose outline forms a hexagon : Cube = Earth = Underworld ; Icosahedron = Water = Man ; Octahedron = Air = Heaven.

For the next ten years, the graphite renderings of THE HERESY OF MATTEO PALMIERI remained the last pieces in which I sought to work in an illusionistic manner. However, the seductive charm of being unable to resist and deny the suggestion of space in trompe l’œil images—even as their author—is not to be underestimated, and in 1992, I succumbed to the temptation of conjuring the illusion of three-dimensional figures in a two-dimensional space, indulging in the guilty pleasure of executing the five panels EARTH AIR FIRE WATER AETHER, on which the five Platonic solids are rendered in faultless counterfeit plasticity.