Andrei Tarkovsky's Madonna del Parto
James Macgillivray is from Toronto. He is currently (2003) finishing his Masters in Architecture at Harvard Design School.
This paper first appeared in the Canadian Journal of Film
Studies/Revue canadienne d'études cinématographiques, Volume 11, Number 2 (Fall 2002), and
is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and of CJFS.
The author wishes to thank Alessandra Ponte, Georges Teyssot and P. Adams Sitney.
In July of 1984, Andrei Tarkovsky attended a press conference in Milan where he announced to
the world that he would not return to the Soviet Union. When a journalist asked him if he would
be seeking political exile in Italy, Tarkovsky answered, "I'm telling you a drama. You cannot ask
me bureaucratic questions. Which country? I don't know. It's like asking me in which cemetery I
wish to bury my children" . This laconic announcement came at the end of the drama that began
in 1979 when he first chose to go to Italy to film Nostalghia. The film itself stands as a testament
to his own experience of nostalgia during his exile; in fact Tarkovsky calls the protagonist,
Andrei Gorchakov, a "mirror" of himself .
Also see Gazing into Time: Tarkovsky and Post-Modern Cinema Aesthetics by Robert Bird.
Gorchakov's exile, like Tarkovsky's, is expressed and manifested in a project: the purpose
of his trip to Italy is to research the life of Pavel Sosnovsky, an 18th century serf composer
whose nostalgia for Russia in Italy drives him to suicide. Sosnovsky's story within the film is a
mirror in which Gorchakov can better perceive his own nostalgia. Tarkovsky, in turn, can be said
to "work through" his own nostalgia by interrogating and manipulating the character of
Gorchakov. Sosnovsky is therefore the diegetic denotation of a generative structure for the work,
Nostalghia (Italy, 1982, Andrei Tarkovsky). As such, Sosnovsky is an example of a narrative
device known as mise en abyme, a condition in a work of art where a fragment of the work
replicates, in miniature, the entire composition of the work. The mise en abyme of Nostalghia is
unique because the symmetry across scales (a story within a story) ultimately points back to
Tarkovsky. The making of Nostalghia, the nostalgia of Tarkovsky himself, is contained within
Nostalghia. In Sculpting and Time, he says that "the camera was obeying first and foremost my
inner state during filming" . In this sense, the technical aspect of Nostalghia implicates
Tarkovsky's inner state just as the behaviour of Gorchakov follows the imperatives of the film's
The first scene of the film, Eugenia and Gorchakov's visit to the Madonna del Parto,
exemplifies Nostalghia's ambiguous agency. Gorchakov wants to see the painting because it
reminds him of his wife. Tarkovsky chooses the painting because it reminds him of his wife.
Tarkovsky also chooses the painting because it is not well known and, therefore, allows him
greater artistic license in using it in his film. By contrast, heavily touristed sights like the
Campidoglio require a total fidelity in order to be plausible to an international audience. At
Piero's fresco, however, he can and does take great liberties manipulating the painting so that it
"fits" in his film. Gorchakov goes to the out of the way location for a similar reason: he dislikes
Yet, the question that lies at the heart of the scene remains, why, after traveling hundreds
of miles to see the Madonna does Gorchakov not enter the chapel? The answer to this question
lies in the relationship between Gorchakov and Tarkovsky. This paper wishes to show that in this
first scene of Nostalghia the Madonna del Parto is refracted and reflected in the mirrors of the
film's mise en abyme, until it becomes something fundamentally different, both
emotionally/culturally and technically. It will be shown that this scene incorporates two primary
artistic manipulations of the Madonna del Parto in order to present Tarkovsky's idea of the work.
The first manipulation is to move the fresco to a new architectural site and to manipulate the
architecture of this new site as a decentralized field condition that brings the painting into the
film. The second, and overarching manipulation is to create the ritual of the Cult of the Virgin, a
new meaning for the painting itself. It is precisely the extent and breadth of these interventions
that exclude Gorchakov from being present in the chapel. As the director, or what he refers to in
Sculpting in Time as the "demiurge" of the film , Tarkovsky must have felt that his own presence
in the scene was too strong to include his stand-in protagonist. Gorchakov must wait outside.
The Madonna del Parto and the Capella di Cimitero
In 1979 Tarkovsky went to Italy and filmed the documentary Tempo di viaggio with his
soon-to-be collaborator on Nostalghia, Tonino Guerra. It follows Tarkovsky and Guerra as they tour Italy
in search of locations and make short studies of prospective sets. As such, Tempo di viaggio is
emblematic of the blurring that occurs between Tarkovsky's inner state and the technical
production of the Nostalghia. At this point in Tarkovsky's plans for the film, Gorchakov was to
be an architect. Guerra, who was familiar with such a protagonist through his work on
Antonioni's L'Avventura, seems to opt for similar sets in Nostalghia. With fervent admiration he
shows Tarkovsky the Baroque architecture of Lecce and many other famous sights. Yet,
Tarkovsky is not satisfied. He states, "The south shore is too beautiful, resort-like and
annoying... I want to interfere with people and accidents, feelings, not beauty and architecture" .
Later in the film he rejects not only the architecture but also the spatial sense of Italy. He says,
"Italy is a country still without the ability to understand perspective and proportions. They have
no sense of depth perception. In the south of Italy, everything is on the same plane and it
confuses me" .
When he toured Italy for Tempo di viaggio Tarkovsky was searching both for sets and
for information about himself, the Russian tourist. In this self-exploratory sense, Nostalghia does
indeed mirror Tempo di viaggio; many of Gorchakov's words are in fact direct quotations of
Tarkovsky's dialogues with Guerra. Yet Tempo di viaggio, as a stage in the technical planning of
Nostalghia's artistic image, is almost wholly discarded by the director ; it is a negative image.
Thus, while both films contain the Madonna del Parto, Tempo di viaggio is forced to show only
the painting and none of its surrounding architecture. This is due to the fact that Nostalghia will
recast the fresco in another church, within a totally different architecture. Tarkovsky must cover
his tracks. Yet the Madonna del Parto as it existed before Tarkovsky, as it existed "in itself," is
worth describing here, even if only to accentuate his moves.
|Figure 1: Santa Maria in Momentana as originally built. (after
Thomas Martone, Convegno Internazionale sulla "Madonna del
Parto" di Piero della Francesca, 1982)
||Figure 2: Santa Maria after destruction of the nave
and construction of new entrance (Martone,
Convegno Internazionale, 1982)
The original location of Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto, is the Capella di
Cimitero of the Santa Maria della Momentana in the town of Monterchi near Arezzo. This
church in its entirety was in existence before 1230; it was a simple Romanesque structure facing
east with a circular window above the door whose interior dimensions were four meters wide by
five meters high . It was also quite a long building, a feature that led Thomas Martone to
conclude that the circular window above the door was a kind of aperture for projecting light on
the Madonna . This relationship only properly exists with the church's original length, which
created enough diffraction and the proper angle for an agreeable effect (Figure 1). In 1785,
Monterchi took the site as a cemetery and destroyed two thirds of the nave, subsequently adding
an entrance along the south end of the transept (Figure 2) .
The most important losses to the church are
in the fresco itself and a construction that
surrounded it. One drawing done by the Comune di
Monterchi in their 1992 restoration, shows that this
framing architecture was similar to what Guerra
refers to in Tempo di viaggio when he says, "In the
original, the walls of the church try to engulf the
painting." The scheme shows a Romanesque
construction that is integrated with both the altar
and the wall (Figure 3). In the space between the
existing painting and the construction, Piero had
painted the curtain in such a way as to be unified
with the arch. From the quattrocento onward, the
painting underwent a thorough transformation: the
arched construction was destroyed; parts of the
fresco were chipped off and then were restored in the eighteenth century by Constantino; a gold
frame was added in place of the arch. Ultimately, in a vast restorative effort in March 1992, the
Comune di Monterchi moved the painting from the church for good. After removing all the
painting done by Constantino to the absent parts at the top of the fresco, they installed what
remained of Piero's painting behind a glass case in the Monterchi museum. This "essence" of the
painting, recreated by restorers and art historians, is thus objectified. We relate to it as a pure
quadrant of extricated wall in which a fragment of the painting remains as if by chance .
|Figure 3: Reconstructive drawing of original
architectural frame the Madonna del Parto (Guido
Botticelli, et al., Il restauro della Madonna del Parto
di Piero della Francesca, 1994)
In 1979 Tarkovsky saw the fresco for the first time in the sparse, cramped space of the
chapel. After the removal of the fresco in 1954 the painting would have appeared to him without
a frame, resting crudely against the white walls of the East end of the church. The semi-circular
top of the painting was reminiscent of the Romanesque frame but Constantino's additions and
the layers of dirt would have obscured the original. What is it about the Madonna del Parto in
this state that eventually inspires him to film it? On a more basic level, what does it mean to
Tarkovsky to film a painting, and what aesthetic and artistic rules does Tarkovsky see at the
intersection of film and art?
Painting and Cinema
In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky advocates a complete separation between cinema and the other
arts: "As it develops, the cinema will, I think, move further away, not only from literature but
also from other adjacent art forms, and thus become more and more autonomous" . On the
dangers of not separating the cinema from the adjacent arts, Tarkovsky states, "One result is that
cinema then loses something of its capacity of incarnating reality directly and by its own means,
as opposed to transmuting life with the help of literature painting or theatre.... Trying to adapt the
features of other art forms to the screen will always deprive the film of what is distinctively
cinematic...." . This quotation comes as a surprise, not only in light of Nostalghia but because
Tarkovsky's works invariably represent pictorial art, full frame, in at least one scene . For these
works to appear in his films, they must do so in such a way as not to "deprive the film of what is
The conditions for cinematic integrity in the appearance of the Madonna become even
more complex when layered with considerations of the integrity of the painted work. Paintings,
have their own laws that are compromised when depicted in a film. Comune di Monterchi's
desire to relocate the fresco was known by Tarkovsky at the time of filming Tempo di viaggio.
"We filmed Piero della Francesca's Madonna of Childbirth in Monterchi," he says in the
documentary. "No reproduction can give any idea of how beautiful it is. A cemetery on the
borders of Tuscany and Umbria. When they wanted to transfer the Madonna to a museum, the
local women protested and insisted on her staying" . (Ultimately, however, the fresco was
moved to the museum in 1992.) In his journal entry and in his conversations with Guerra in the
film, Tarkovsky is clearly in agreement with the local women on the importance of keeping the
work in its original site. On this subject Guerra is even more outspoken; while they look at a
reproduction of the Madonna in a book, he says, "The reproduction loses a lot. In the original,
the walls of the church try to engulf the painting. The dust introduces blue and white shades,
especially on her stomach. I don't believe in reproductions, or translations in poetry. Art is
always connected to the place in which it was created."
These statements by the director and his collaborator betray a view on art and context that
is strangely missing from Nostalghia. Shouldn't the Madonna del Parto be filmed in its proper
setting and ritualistic context? Furthermore, the obligatory use of a reproduction in Nostalghia
(itself a filmic reproduction) would seem to run counter to both Guerra's and Tarkovsky's
statements. Yet in light of the fresco's history one could say that both its site and its cultural and
ritualistic meaning have already been weakened if not destroyed, both by neglect and by the
modern concept of art. The narrative of the Madonna's progress through time is one of constant
deterioration, ending in reification. It has been removed from its ritualistic context and
appropriated by the museum. The extraction of the fresco from the wall (its square shape)
provides the most literal illustration of a change in the painting's use; it is as if it has been
formatted for reproduction in monographs on art. When Tarkovsky came to view Piero's
Madonna in 1979, most of the painting's ritualistic dimension has already been destroyed, leaving
it a plastic object suitable for reproduction in film .
The Move to San Pietro
Thus, when Tarkovsky returned in 1982 to film the Madonna del Parto for Nostalghia, he did
not use the original in the Capella di Cimitero in Monterchi, but a reproduction installed in the
crypt of a Romanesque church in Tuscania called San Pietro, some 120 kilometers away . The
church dates from 1093 and, as the seat of the diocese, was a thriving religious centre in the
Middle Ages. The building is built largely from spolia, cannibalized remains of Roman and
Etruscan architecture . San Pietro's crypt was the first of what would become a Tuscan
typology; the altar is not located in the apse but directly opposite, at the center of the west wall of
the transept (it can be seen in Figure 7). This configuration could be due to the fact that the apse
was used for baptisms.
The fresco above the altar depicts the Virgin and the baby Jesus . It is a
relatively large space for a crypt (roughly 90 square meters), providing ample room for the
camera work and other considerable spatial needs of the Madonna del Parto scene. Other unique
features of this crypt are its windows, due to the dramatic change in grade between the entrance
and the apse of the church (Figure 4, 5). One window is on either side of the transept, while the
third is in the apse concealed behind the Madonna in Tarkovsky's film.
Figure 4: Axonometric of San Pietro with sectional cut
showing the crypt. (Joselita Raspi Serra, Tuscania: Cultura ed
espressione artistica di un centro medioevale, 1971)
Figure 5: The exterior of San Pietro, facing southeast.
(Enrico Parlato and Serena Romano, Italia Romanica:
Roma e il Lazio vol. 13, 1992)
Figure 6: The crypt of San Pietro, facing northeast, with view of
apse. (Parlata and Romano, Italia Romanica)
Figure 7: The crypt of San Pietro, facing south,
with view of altar on right. (Serra, Tuscania)
The crypt is perhaps the only setting in which Tarkovsky could have placed "his"
Madonna del Parto. The north-south axis of the transept windows, the dark recesses of thickly
columned space, the window behind the Madonna, through which the birds exit the crypt, the
potential within this arched matrix for the creation of framing conditions similar to those of
Piero's original fresco—all of these elements create a spatial dimension which he manipulates in
order to "cinematize" the fresco. The structural tectonic system of the crypt replicates the
compositional structure of the fresco's original conditions. Furthermore, the structure of the crypt
is within the "structure" of suture, the structure of editing. This "suture of the Madonna" is
therefore a backdrop but also a structure "inside" the film itself. Tarkovsky's manipulation of the
architecture of the crypt makes it contain the meaning of the scene.
Suture, Time and the Explosion of Space
In their definitive book, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, Vida T. Johnson and
Graham Petrie include a summary of this scene, which is worth quoting here because it is typical
of most viewers' impressions :
Eugenia is seen in the pillared and candlelit interior of a church with women in black
dresses kneeling in prayer in the background... In a conversation with the elderly
sacristan she is politely reproached for lacking faith and is told that a woman is meant to
have and raise children, in a spirit of patience and sacrifice.
Meanwhile the women have carried a life-size statue of the Virgin through the
church and are praying before it; Piero della Francesca's Madonna of Childbirth is visible
on the wall behind them. As a woman opens the statue's robes, a flock of small birds
streams out. A series of virtual match-cuts takes us from a close-up of Eugenia's face to a
slow track in to Piero's Madonna and then, in black and white, to Andrei....
In their summary of the scene, Johnson and Petrie delineate the two parts of the action: first
Eugenia and the sacristan, then the statue of the virgin and the birds. Their use of the word
"meanwhile" to link the two elements as simultaneous agrees with what most people believe they
see in the scene. In fact the two elements are not simultaneous in shooting and cannot be since
they occur in the same part of the crypt and do not include each other. The fact that viewers see
the two elements as simultaneous reveals a fascinating difference between the experience of
space and time in cinema and in architecture. An architectural analysis reveals not only this
striking difference between cinema and architecture but also the brilliant ways in which
Tarkovsky uses the cinema to explode architectural space. Although Tarkovsky's art is at work
in all the shot exchanges of the scene, it will suffice to show the two most important sequences.
These will reference the plan of the crypt (Figure 8).
Figure 8: Plan of San Pietro's crypt showing figure and camera positions. (after Parlato and
Romana, Italia Romanica)
The first sequence takes place over the first three shots . The first shot begins with
Eugenia moving towards point a from the south-west entrance of the crypt on what will be called
line A. The camera begins at point w and ends at point x on what will be called track 1. As
Eugenia makes her way to point a, the camera comes around for the final framing image along
the transept axis. In the final frame of the shot, Eugenia at point a is perfectly framed under the
arch looking straight into the camera at point x (Figure 9). Her intent gaze towards the camera
imbues the coming shot exchange with the convention of suture, in this case shot-countershot.
When she looks directly at the camera and Tarkovsky cuts to the next shot, the viewer expects to
see what she is seeing, in other words to cut to a 180 degree change in view. However the next
shot is not of the north transept but instead looks east from point a at the apse which was located
90 degrees directly to Eugenia's right (Figure 10). In this shot exchange Tarkovsky has
essentially used suture to relocate the apse in the northern end of the transept. The next shot is a
sidelong shot of Eugenia at point b taken from point y as she looks into the apse, reinforcing our
perception that in the first shot she was in fact looking at the apse (Figure 11). Over the course of
these three shots Tarkovsky has exploded the architectural space by using a 90 degree distortion
of suture, thus creating a second apse.
This is not a literal creation of a second apse. After all, the viewer does not come to the
conclusion watching the film that this is a crypt with two apses. Nevertheless, the spatial slack
created by the suture and the change in the viewer's orientation allows for the physical
impossibility of the fourth shot. The importance of this spatial slack lies in the fact that the next
shot shows the Cult of the Virgin proceeding to the very space in which Eugenia and the
sacristan stand (Figure 12).
Eugenia framed in the arches of the crypt (end of shot 1).
The view of the apse 90 degrees to Eugenia's right (shot 2).
Sidelong shot of Eugenia looking into the apse (shot 3).
The Cult of the Virgin entering the space
occupied by Eugenia (beginning of shot 4).
The second sequence is that of the sixth and seventh shot in the scene . The sixth follows
a shot showing the young woman kneeling before the statue (Figure 13). It resumes the third shot
in which Eugenia was seen at point b from the camera position at point y (Figure 14). Recall that
during shots four and five, the space in which we see Eugenia was full of the procession of the
Cult of the Virgin. Yet throughout this shot which eventually tracks from point y to point z there
are no candles, no women and no statue of the Virgin. During the shot, the sacristan moves into
the frame at point e and continues walking until he reaches point f. The camera keeps him in the
frame the whole time by tracking from point y to point z, coming to a rest at z for the remainder
of the shot. In this stationary part of the shot Eugenia re-enters the frame and proceeds from
point f to point g. The sacristan follows her until he arrives at point d where he stops and
emphatically looks east (Figure 15).
Once again, because of the sacristan's emphatic gaze, the convention of suture imbues
the following shot with an expectation of the sacristan's point of view. If the viewer is aware of
the simple track that the camera has followed, then the point of view shot should contain the
empty apse where Eugenia was at the beginning of shot six. The next shot is filmed from the
sacristan's point of view at point d, but it is not an empty apse; it now appears filled with the
Cult of the Virgin, resuming the footage of shot five which showed the woman and the sculpture
sidelong in front of the background of the Madonna del Parto (Figure 16). How is it then that, by
the time the shot cuts, the viewer has forgotten the empty apse at the beginning of the shot? The
answer lies in the fact that this shot is the longest one in the scene (2:08 minutes compared to the
average of 0:32). Tarkovsky knew that the combined effects of the shot's length, camera
movement and the confusing architecture of the crypt, were enough to disorient the viewer into
thinking that the sacristan's point of view had arrived at an entirely different point.
A woman kneels before the statue (shot 5).
Eugenia, resuming shot 3 (beginning of shot 6).
The sacristan looking east (end of shot 6).
A resume of woman kneeling in front of statue from shot 5 (shot 7)
Usually, in church architecture, a grid of columns reinforces one's orientation in space
relative to the Eastern direction. In Tarkovsky's hands however this grid becomes like a dark
wood, confusing the viewer to such an extent that we don't even recognize the apse for what it is
when it is in plain view. In the criticism available on Tarkovsky and in his own writings,
montage and editing are aspects of his art which are under-represented due to the emphasis on
his long duration shots. His ingeniousness in this respect is strikingly present, however, when
unlocked by mapping the scene in plan.
The differences between the architecture in the plan and in the film reveal that not only
was Tarkovsky manipulating the Madonna but was also drastically altering the crypt of San
Pietro, creating another crypt. In opposition to a film that would make architecture legible (i.e.,
one that would explain the architectural object "as it is"), Tarkovsky gives us a totally synthetic
suture of architectural space. The architecture of the crypt after Tarkovsky must be understood as
a field condition; the actual layout of the space is of very little importance. What were once
absolutes in the architecture (the apse, the altar, the east) become relative conditions depending
upon the contingencies of the camera's field of view. The field condition inherent in the
architecture and the visual field of the camera coincide. The crypt is continuous and semi-
differentiated, this allows for the degree of meaning that we see in Tarkovsky's treatment, but no
more. For instance, the strong light that emanates from the apse differentiates the space of each
shot, but this differentiation is not powerful enough to seep into the other shots in the scene. It is
not powerful enough to create a legible architectural space, only a cinematic one.
The Cult of the Virgin
Tarkovsky's mother died on the fifth of October, 1979, after he had returned to Russia following
the filming of Tempo di viaggio . Tarkovsky admits to the idiosyncrasy of gender essentialism
mainly in relation to his mother. In Mirror (Russia, 1974, Andrei Tarkovsky), for example, when
his ex-wife accuses him of being self-centered, the autobiographical character Alexei says, "I
can't help it. I was raised by women." In light of this statement and many like it, the dedication of
Nostalghia to his mother is a reference to the ground for his gender-essentialist and anti-feminist
film. However, the words that appear on the screen at the end of Nostalghia, "Dedicato a la
memoria di mia madre," are both a dedication to Tarkovsky's mother and also a return to the first
scene of the Madonna del Parto. It echoes the reason that inspired Piero to paint the Madonna
del Parto in his mother's native village of Monterchi. Her death in November of 1459 is believed
to be the catalyst for the fresco . Yet we shall see that Tarkovsky drastically changes the
meaning of the painting itself by a process of ritualization and fetishization.
The fresco is an extremely rare work in that it shows the Madonna visibly pregnant. It is
one of the only examples, other than vernacular works, of this subject . The difference in scale
between the Madonna and the angels points to it being a devotional image, in practice a
comforting one for pregnant women. Quattrocento theology held that the Virgin had an
incredibly easy birth. St. Bernard's Legenda Aurea was still in wide circulation in Piero's time. It
declared that, "She alone conceived her son without sin and bore him without heaviness, and
gave birth to him without pain" . The projected desire for the alleviation of pain after
conception has been most likely a devotional power of the fresco since it was first painted .
In an earlier version of his script, Tarkovsky's invented ritual was to have been similar to
the fresco's use in the quattrocento. In May of 1980, he described the ceremony as having
occurred after conception: "The pregnant women come crowding here like witches, to ask the
Madonna to ensure them a safe delivery" . Ultimately however, the final scene necessitates a
departure from both this early version and its origins. Tarkovsky's idea of the ritual may have
changed due to the fact that it is called upon to criticize feminism as one of the Western tenets to
which he objected during his years of exile. Utilitarian notions of freedom and the pursuit of
happiness are bound up in Eugenia's character and it is on her shoulders that the full weight of
Tarkovsky's judgment rests. In the modern age of safe and anesthetic births, a fertility ritual that
recognizes the connection of pregnancy to mortal risk and suffering is perhaps the only way that
Tarkovsky can polemicize his anti-feminist agenda. Thus the spoken element of the ritual which
overlays its meaning upon the image of the Madonna's expression is orchestrated as an
indictment both of feminism and of the West as a whole.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the scene, however, is that Tarkovsky's attack on
Eugenia's feminism doesn't rest upon the pious example of the other women or the argument of
the sacristan. After all, Eugenia does not leave the Madonna del Parto vanquished. Her exchange
with the sacristan ends in her favour and her feminism remains largely unchallenged. Yet, once
she has proven her intelligence and freedom in this scene, the rest of the film records her
humiliation by placing her in a sexual situation where she has no power. What Eugenia never
realizes is that her humiliation in the sexual pursuit of Gorchakov is predicated upon the basic
erotic condition that is set up in the first scene and reinforced throughout the film.
Tarkovsky's concept of male/female polarity is stated succinctly in his journal: "What is a
woman's driving force? Submission, humiliation in the name of love. And a man's? Creation" .
Creation for Tarkovsky is always artistic. Furthermore, artistic creation is visualized in terms of
procreation and conception. In Sculpting in Time he writes, "It is like childbirth ... The poet has
nothing to be proud of: he is not master of the situation, but a servant" . Note that in this
instance, not only is the creative force associated with childbirth but also with the female trait of
submission. Thus within Tarkovsky's concept of male artistic creation, we find aspects that are
similar to those of pregnancy and childbirth: the work matures as a child does, and the artist
during the process of creation experiences the same humility and submission that the woman
does in miraculous, selfless love for the man.
The difference, however, is that the source of inception in the artist is not a man, as with
women, but similar to the Virgin Mary, it is God. His "child" is a result of God's calling the same
way that Mary's is a Virgin Birth. Real childbirth does not have this origin, but Tarkovsky's use
of the Madonna del Parto in the opening scene and his subsequent equation of Gorchakov's wife
with the Madonna sets up the circumstances needed for a fetishization of her natural pregnancy.
The ultimate power of the Madonna del Parto image and one of the reasons that Tarkovsky
chooses it, is that it exploits the possibility for a fetishization of pregnancy; the Virgin Birth
makes the transition into the fetish by becoming visible. The visible manifestation of the creation
facilitates the projection of the male phallus onto the female body. The Freudian notion of the
fetish is striking in this instance by its association with the miraculous power of the Virgin.
The implications of this fetish for the rest of the film are shattering in regard to Eugenia.
Throughout, the correlation between the Madonna and Gorchakov's wife are exhaustively
sexualized. Gorchakov's remark to Domenico that his wife is like the Madonna del Parto "ma
piu nera," goes without saying. Furthermore, Tarkovsky's treatment of Eugenia's costume
resonates as the unsettling frustration of the pregnancy fetish. Throughout the film, until the final
scene where she has submitted to Vittorio, Eugenia is seen wearing voluptuous, loose clothing;
these clothes connote sensuality to the viewer but to Gorchakov they simply underline the void
of her belly. In this sense, the film sustains a dramatic irony whereby Eugenia, oblivious to the
implications of her encounter with the Madonna and unaware of Gorchakov's dreams of his
pregnant wife, remains mystified by Gorchakov's frigidity. This dramatic irony reaches its height
when Eugenia mistakenly offers Gorchakov her breast and asks "Is this what you want?" A
sexual encounter without conception is simply not within Gorchakov's erotic imagination.
Through this reading provided by Freud's notion of the fetish, the romantic non-event of
Nostalghia becomes intelligible.
Tarkovsky's appropriation of the Madonna del Parto within the sexual dimension of his
film should therefore be understood as a radical adaptation of the painting's meaning. The
Madonna finds itself, as it were, between the mirrors of Tarkovsky and Gorchakov. The
nostalgia of the tourist and the relentless self-exploratory drive of Tarkovsky's artistic process
darken the fresco behind a veil of projected meanings; it appears en abyme.
References and Footnotes
 Alberto Crespi. Tempo di viaggio: Interview with Tonino Guerra, RAI — Radiotelevisione Italiana, 1995: 2.
 Tony Mitchell, "Andrei Tarkovsky and Nostalghia," Film Criticism 8, no. 3 (1984), 5.
 Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1986), 204.
 Ibid., p. 117.
 Tempo di viaggio (Italy RAI TV, 1979, Andrei Tarkovsky).
 Only two of the sets in the film are kept, the "Russian field" in the first shot and Bagno Vignoni.
 Ronald Lightbrown, Piero della Francesca. (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993), 188.
 Thomas Martone, in Convegno Internazionale sulla "Madonna del Parto" di Piero della Francesca. Comune di
Monterchi (Monterchi, AR: Biblioteca Communale di Monterchi, 1982), 13-51.
 Lightbrown, 188.
 Guido Botticelli, Giuseppe Centauro, Anna Maria Maetzke. Il restauro della Madonna del Parto di Piero della
Francesca. Comune di Monterchi (Poggibonsi: Lalli Editore, 1994), 9-35.
 Tarkovsky, Sculpting, 22.
 Ibid., p. 22.
 The most extreme example of this occurred in Tarkovsky's 1983 production of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov at
the Royal Opera House in Covent Gardens. In one scene Tarkovsky rendered the Trinity of Andrei Rublyev in a
tableaux vivant, suspended above the stage.
 Andrei Tarkovsky, Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986. trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair (London: Faber and
Faber, 1991), 196-197.
 Tarkovsky and Guerra's opinions on art run parallel to the concerns of Walter Benjamin's article "The Work of Art
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." My interpretation of Tarkovsky's artistic practices in the scene draws
heavily on this article as a precedent.
 This assertion rests on my own research. Through a comparison of the photographs and plan of San Pietro's crypt
with the one that appears in the film, I believe to have conclusively identified the set of the Madonna del Parto
 Enrico Parlato and Serena Romano. Italia Romanica: Roma e il Lazio. vol. 13 (Milan: Jaca Book, 1992), 204-230.
 Ibid., 208.
 Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1994), 284.
 These are shots two, three and four of the film proper.
 Seventh and eighth in the film proper.
 Tarkovsky's journal entry for 8 October, 1979, reads in part: "Mama's funeral... Now I feel quite defenseless. And
no one in the world is ever going to love me as she did." (Time Within Time, 207-209).
 Lightbrown, 185.
 Ibid., 193.
 Ibid., 193, quoting Giovanni Crisostomo Trombelli. Mariae Sanctissimae Vita, ac gesta, cultusque
illi adhibitus. 6 vols. (Bologna: Dalla Volpe, 1761-1762), vol. 2, 305.
 Ibid., 193.
 Tarkovsky, Time Within Time, 245.
 Ibid., 89.
 Tarkovsky, Sculpting, 43.
1–2: Martone, Thomas. Convegno Internazionale sulla "Madonna del Parto" di Piero della
Francesca. Commune di Monterchi (Monterchi, AR: Biblioteca Communale di Monterchi, 1982)
3: Botticelli, Guido; Centauro, Giusseppe; Maetzke, Anna Maria. Il restauro della Madonna del
Parto di Piero della Francesca. Commune di Monterchi (Poggibonsi: Lalli Editore, 1994)
4, 7: Serra, Joselita Raspi. Tuscania: Cultura ed espressione artistica di un centro medioevale
(Venice: Edizione Rai, 1971)
5–6, 8: Parlato, Enrico and Romano, Serena. Italia Romanica: Roma e il Lazio vol. 13 (Milan:
Jaca Book, 1992)
9–16: Nostalghia (Italy, 1983, Andrei Tarkovsky)