Piero della Francesca – Biography

Piero della Francesca – Biography

Piero della Francesca is undoubtedly one of the greatest painters of the Italian Fifteenth Century. His spacious, monumental and impossibly rational painting is undoubtedly one of the highest achievements of the artistic ideals of the early Renaissance, an age in which art and science were bound together very deeply. Piero was a great experimenter, as Leonardo da Vinci was, even though he was born two generations after him: great master of the fresco technique in which he excelled, he was interested mainly into the implementation of the rules of perspective recently rediscovered for the narrative and devotional painting: the absolute mathematical rigor of his creations helps to enhance the quality of its abstract and iconic painting, giving his masterpieces a powerful sacred value.

“Monarch of painting” in his day – as declared the countryman Luca Pacioli (1494) -, shortly after his death his work was soon forgotten, except for the profile that he dedicated Giorgio Vasari in his the two editions of his work “le Vite” (1550; 1568) and the memories for his work as a theoretical perspective contained in some treated sixteenth century architecture. The great season of “modern way” with its protagonists – Leonardo, Raffaello and Michelangelo – was suddenly appear to artists, patrons and collectors a taste now passed all the masterpieces of the great masters of the fifteenth century. It was only in the nineteenth century that the ‘Pre-Raphaelites’ rediscovered him and his works because they were amateurs and art historians: they made people want to return to watch and appreciate the works of the master of Sansepolcro. With the studies of the twentieth century Piero della Francesca regain that prominent role that competes in the development of modern Italian painting.

Piero was born around 1415 in Sansepolcro, his father, named Benedetto, was a merchant of hides and wool, while the mother, Romana di Perino, has her origins in the nearby village of Monterchi. Sansepolcro was then a thriving center strategically located at the crossroads of Tuscany, Umbria and Marche: past by Malatesta state control of the Church in 1431, Pope Eugene IV sold it shortly after the Battle of Anghiari (29 June 1440) to the City of Florence for 25,000 florins (20 March 1441). In the city of the upper Val Tiberina Piero had to do his very first learning to paint, together with the less known Antonio d’Anghiari: but his first known works of a deep understanding of the early fifteenth century Florentine art, especially the soft bright and prospective painting of Domenico Veneziano. Alongside with this artist Piero is in fact documented in 1439 in the Tuscan capital, as an aid in the execution of the frescoes “Stories of the Virgin” for the choir of the church of Sant’Egidio. Even the masterpieces of Donatello and Masaccio had to leave a deep and indelible mark on the young painter. The most immediate reflections of this art education find themselves in one of the oldest works of Piero that has survived, the Baptism of Christ (London, National Gallery), from Sansepolcro and acquired by the English museum shortly after the middle of the last century.

From the fifth decade of the fifteenth century Piero’s career took place alternating stays at the main courts of northern Italy and in his hometown. In the second half of the forties should have had accommodated its activities in Ferrara, where he worked for Leonello d’Este, one of the finest patrons of the Renaissance: unfortunately entirely lost are the frescoes by Piero performed there in the Castello Estense and the church of Sant ‘Agostino. Dated 1451 is instead a fresco depicting Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in adoration of St. Sigismund in the Malatesta Temple, renovated in Renaissance by Leon Battista Alberti; later Piero replied the profile portrait of the leader Malatesta in the table now hosted in the Louvre Museum in Paris, unanimously assigned after cleaning and analysing it in 1977. It is likely that in the city of Romagna the painter has close relations with Alberti, who had to encourage him to pursue his investigation passionate about the laws of perspective and proportion.

Meanwhile, in 1445, his fellow citizens had commissioned the great Polyptych of Mercy (Sansepolcro, Museo Civico), to which the artist will work intermittently, to deliver it only after much insistence in 1462: the vigorous plant plastic figures – of Masaccio ancestry – is enhanced by the abstract rigor of the composition and value bright and atmospheric attributed even archaic golden background. The scenes of the dais, probably designed by Piero, were executed by the Florentine monk Giuliano Amedei.

In 1452, the death of the traditionalist Florentine painter Bicci di Lorenzo, Piero accepted an assignment to continue the work in the large chapel apse of the church of San Francesco in Arezzo, commissioned by the Bacci family. Stories of the True Cross, painted in three overlapping registers on the high walls, will occupy him in a first phase until the end of the fifties, when Piero moved temporarily to Rome (1459), invited by the humanist Pope Pius II Piccolomini to paint a fresco in the Vatican, destroyed fifty years later to make room for the famous frescoes by Raffaello’s Rooms. The cycle of Arezzo, certainly finished by 1465 after returning from the papal city, remains as a shining testimony of Piero della Francesca in the middle phase of his activity and one of the major cycles of mural painting in Italy in the fifteenth century.

Since 1454 another prestigious commission had come from their fellow citizens, the execution of the Polyptych for the high altar of the church of the Augustinian: once again the work lasted a long time and the great painting, dismembered in the sixteenth century, was delivered only in the sixties. The central of the Madonna and Child was lost, the side panels, illustrating Sant’Agostino, St. Michael, St. John the Evangelist and St. Nicholas of Tolentino, are now divided between various museums (respectively, Lisbon, London, New York, Milan), while some elements of the dais are divided between Washington (Apollonia) and the Frick Collection in New York (two Augustinian saints and the Crucifixion). In the early sixties date back well the touching Madonna of childbirth for the chapel of the cemetery of Monterchi and the extraordinary resurrection of the Conservatives in the Hall of Residence (the Town Hall) Sansepolcro (now the Museum), while civic symbol and sacred icon, that the contemporary writer Aldous Huxley called “the most beautiful painting in the world.”

In 1954 it was found in the church of Sant’Agostino in Sansepolcro a fragment of a fresco with a saint, probably San Giuliano (now Sansepolcro, Museo Civico), a work of great elegance, performed with the usual technical mastery probably after returning by Roman sojourn of 1458-59. Yet discussed is instead the dating of the Polyptych for the Franciscan nuns of St. Anthony in Perugia (Perugia, Umbria National Gallery), in which once again Piero manages to overcome the limitations imposed by clients antiquated gold background, leaving room for his genius in the beautiful scenes of the dais and in the prodigious tour de force prospective Annunciation above.

During the sixties and seventies Piero shook relations particularly intense with the splendid court of Urbino and with Duke Federigo Montefeltro, for which he completed some of his most famous works: the diptych with portraits of the dukes, Federigo and his wife Battista Sforza (Florence, Uffizi Gallery), the famous Flagellation (Urbino, National Gallery of Umbria), a veritable compendium of its investigations on the perspective, and the Holy Conversation for the church of San Bernardino (Milan, Pinacoteca Brera), with the famous portrait in armor of Duke Federigo (1472-74): a painting revolutionary who breaks with the tradition of medieval altarpiece compartments propose the concentrated dialogue between the Virgin and the Saints in a space prospectively unified and measurable, in direct relationship with the viewer.

In these paintings of extreme maturity, worthy to be remembered at least is the intimate Madonna of Senigallia (Urbino, National Gallery of Umbria) and the poetic Nativity in London (National Gallery), in which Piero reveals a deeper interest for contemporary Flanders painting, which manifests itself in more complex chromatic texture and meticulous observation of reality, analytically investigated in its relationship to light.

In these years of Urbino, stimulated by the intellectual of the court, Piero also devoted himself to the writing of some theoretical treatises, intended to bring the essential and measurable regularity of geometric shapes the infinite variety of natural objects. Come entirely to us the Treaty of the Abacus, a sort of manual of elementary mathematics as those used in the abacus schools; the Libellus de quinque corporibus regularibus, dedicated to Guidobaldo, Duke of Urbino and published by Luca Pacioli, after his death as his own work; Finally, with great effort, he wrote the De prospectiva pingendi, treated full of drawings and intended as a practical guide to the prospective techinique.

He became blind in his final years. Piero ella Francesca died in Sansepolcro on October 12, 1492.
© Fondazione Piero della Francesca | 2004
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