Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca, an Italian artist, one of the greatest artists of the Early Renaissance. His painting art is characterized by its serene humanism and its use of geometric forms, particularly in relation to perspective. He wrote books on solid geometry and on perspective, and his works reflect these interests. Francesca's solid, rounded figures are derived from Masaccio, while from Domenico he absorbed a predilection for delicate colors and scenes bathed in cool, clear daylight. To these influences he added an innate sense of order and clarity. He conceived of the human figure as a volume in space, and the outlines of his subjects have the grace, abstraction, and precision of geometric drawings. Almost all of Piero's works are religious in nature - primarily altarpieces and church frescoes in which he presents scenes of astonishing beauty, with silent, stately figures fixed in clear, crystalline space. There are always large areas of white or near-white in his works, the skies are big, light and sunny. The monumental quality of his figures, the perspectival construction of the pictorial space and the spiritual calm of his compositions led, throughout Italy, to the final surmounting of the Gothic style and prepared the way for the artistic achievements of High Renaissance in Italy.

Works by Piero della Francesca

  1. Baptism of Christ (1460)
  2. The Penance of St. Jerome (1450)
  3. Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (1460)
  4. St. Jerome and a Donor (1450)
  5. Sigismondo Malatesta before St. Sigismund (1451)
  6. The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood and the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Left) (1466)
  7. The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood and the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Right) (1466)
  8. The Prophet 2 (1466)
  9. Annunciation (1466)
  10. Constantine's Dream (1466)
  11. Flagellation (1470)
  12. Battle between Constantine and Maxentius (Right) (1466)
  13. Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes (Detail 4) (1466)
  14. Discovery and Proof of True Cross (Left) (1466)
  15. St. Mary Magdalene (1466)
  16. Polyptych of Misericordia, Crucifixion (1464)
  17. Polyptych of Misericordia, Madonna of Mercy (1464)
  18. Polyptych of Misericordia, St. Sebastian and St. John the Baptist (1464)
  19. Resurrection (1463)
  20. Exaltation of the Cross (1466)
  21. Diptych Portrait of Battista Sforza (1472)
  22. Diptych Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1472)
  23. Allegorical Triumph of Battista Sforza (1472)
  24. Allegorical Triumph of Federico da Montefeltro (1472)
  25. Madonna del Parto (1465)
  26. Polyptych of St. Augustine, St. Nicholas of Tolentino (1469)
  27. The Nativity (1485)
  28. Polyptych of Sant'Antonio, Madonna and Child (1470)
  29. Madonna of Senigallia (Madonna and Child) (1485)
  30. Palo Montefeltro (The Madonna with Childs, Angels, Saints and Federico da Montefeltro) (Detail) (1474)


Baptism of Christ (1460)

Get a high-quality picture of Baptism of Christ for your computer or notebook. ‣ In 1442 Piero was recorded as town councillor in Borgo San Sepolcro. This painting is his first important commission in this period, originally it was painted for the Chapel of San Giovanni in the Pieve.

The most striking feature of this painting is the extraordinary lighting from above, creating delicate pastel colours, with pale shadows that surround the figures and enhance their three dimensionality. At the centre, the figure of Christ is portrayed as a simple man, but his stance is so solemn as to make him look as majestic as a Greek god. His torso and his legs are circular and solid, like the tree on the left; the holy dove, like a little cloud, fits into a patch of sky amidst the foliage of the tree, rendered with almost Impressionistic strokes.

The three angels on the left, with their pale but round faces, are reminiscent of the groups of children sculpted by Luca della Robbia for the Cantoria in Florence Cathedral (1432-38): and even their blonde hair, decorated with garlands, is clearly inspired by Luca's models. The face of the angel in the centre, with his fixed gaze, brings to mind Domenico Veneziano paintings in the mid-1430s.

The Penance of St. Jerome (1450)

Get a high-quality picture of The Penance of St. Jerome for your computer or notebook. ‣ This is one of the two paintings by Piero that is dated. Recently it has been restored, and all the later additions have been removed from the background and the sky. We can now see, in the crystal-clear lighting, behind the hermit saint, a receding background with the perfectly straight tree trunks reflected in the winding river. The clear sky is barely dotted with little white pointed clouds.

Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (1460)

Get a high-quality picture of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta for your computer or notebook. ‣ This portrait is taken from a a medal made by Pisanello in 1445. Yet, even though he was working within a context of traditional International Gothic iconography, Piero succeds in giving it a new depth: what was just an emblem on a coin becomes a fully-rounded, almost sculptural portrait with a proud expression of unrelenting cruelty. The three-dimensional effect is achieved also by a most realistic skin tonality, created with the technique of oil paints.

St. Jerome and a Donor (1450)

Get a high-quality picture of St. Jerome and a Donor for your computer or notebook. ‣ In 1451 Piero was in Rimini. Before that he painted two small panels, St. Jerome and a Donor (in Venice) and Penance in St. Jerome. We do not know exactly for whom these were painted, but they are probably to be included amongst the "many of small figures" mentioned by Vasari as being commissioned by several rulers during the artist's journeys in the Marches and Emilia-Romagna.

In this small panel we can see for the first time Piero's signature, on the tree trunk that forms the base of the Crucifix in the left-hand corner. On the ground, in the foreground, there is also an inscription indicating that the panel was commissioned by Gerolamo Amadi "veneziano" who is shown kneeling in prayer before the saint. The donor and his protecting saint appear to be conversing as equals, for it was obviously Piero's intention to exalt the human dignity of his patron, as he was to do again in the case of Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini. The bright hues of colour are similar to the clear sunlit atmosphere of the London Baptism of Christ, and even the background, with its rolling hills and steep country paths, confirms a vision of landscape that was first anticipated in the London painting.

Compared to Paolo Uccelo's nighttime, rather abstract and fairytale landscapes, or Fra Angelico's gentle and precious ones, Piero's are closer to Veneziano's, or even Masaccio's, with bare hills, partially covered with vegetation. And Piero makes his landscapes even more real and alive, for the vegetation is burnt out by a Mediterranean sun, the city walls are made of white lime and the water of the river is transparent.

Sigismondo Malatesta before St. Sigismund (1451)

Get a high-quality picture of Sigismondo Malatesta before St. Sigismund for your computer or notebook. ‣ Piero was favoured by some of the smaller city-states like Urbino and Rimini in central Italy. For Sigismondo Malatesta, the lord of Rimini, he painted this devotional subject in the family's church known as the Tempio Malatestiano. This building was completely remodeled by one of the great architects and theoreticians of the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti, who almost certainly had contact with Piero during the years their careers overlapped in Rimini, Urbino, and Rome. This fresco has suffered severely over time and can only be read in its basic outline. The young prince is kneeling in profile before his patron saint, the old bearded Sigismund, whose placement is not strictly frontal, as might be expected. St Sigismund bears a resemblance to the recently deceased Holy Roman Emperor by that name, which may add another layer of meaning to this work.

The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood and the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Left) (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood and the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Left) for your computer or notebook. ‣ Behind the Queen of Sheba, kneeling in adoration, is her retinue of aristocratic ladies in waiting, with their high foreheads (according to the fashion of the time) emphasizing the round shape of their heads and the cylindrical form of the neck. Their velvet cloaks softly envelop their bodies, reaching all the way to the ground. The almost perfect regularity of the composition is underlined by the two trees in the background, whose leaves hover like umbrellas above the two groups of the women and of the grooms holding the horses. And yet Piero's constant attention to the regularity of proportions and the construction according to perspective never gives way to artificially sophisticated compositions, schematic symmetries or anything forced.

The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood and the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Right) (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood and the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Right) for your computer or notebook. ‣ This famous scene takes place within an architectural structure, enlivened by decorations of coloured marble. Everything seems created according to architectural principles: even the three ladies standing behind the Queen are placed so as to form a sort of open church apse behind her. There is a real sense of spatial depth between the characters witnessing the event; and their heads, one behind the other, are placed on different planes. This distinction of spatial spaces is emphasized also by the different colour tonalities, with which Piero has by this stage in his carrer entirely replaced his technique of outlining the shapes used in previous frescoes.

There is an overall feeling of solemn rituality, rather like a lay ceremony: from Solomon's priestly gravity to the ladies aristocratic dignity. Each figure, thanks to the slightly lowered viewpoint, becomes more imposing and graceful; Piero even succeeds in making the characteristic figure of the fat courtier on the left, dressed in red, looks dignified.

The Prophet 2 (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of The Prophet 2 for your computer or notebook. ‣ At the end wall of the chapel, around the stain-glass window the artist painted two young prophets at the top, who look out like two solid guardians. The much higher quality of the righthand prophet proves that it was certainly painted by Piero himself, the other (this picture) was made by an assistant following Piero's cartoon.

Annunciation (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of Annunciation for your computer or notebook. ‣ The subject of this painting has nothing to do with the Golden Legend, this is an addition by Piero. The classical architecture is present once again with the elegant column in the centre. The symmetry of proportions is broken by vanishing point, placed not in the centre but to the right, behind the Virgin. There is great attention to even the smallest detail, brought out by the reflections of the light. From the transparent veil that covers Mary's head, to the pearls that decorate her dress, from the wood intarsia on the door, to the shadows that are projected on the white marble surfaces, there are many new elements that will be further developed in Piero's later works.

Constantine's Dream (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of Constantine's Dream for your computer or notebook. ‣ Constantine the Great (c. 280-337), was a Roman Emperor, the son of Helena. He came to overall power in 312 after defeating the Emperor Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge on the Tiber, an event traditionally regarded as the turning point in the establishment of Christianity within the empire. According to Eusebius' Life of Constantine, on the eve of the battle Constantine saw in a dream a cross in the sky, and heard a voice saying, 'In hoc signo vinces' - 'By this sign shalt thou conquer.' Henceforth, it is said, he substituted the emblem for the Roman eagle on the standard, or laborum, of the legions.

This scene is set in the middle of the night. Inside his large tent, the Emperor lies asleep. Seated on a bench bathed in light, a servant watches over him and gazes dreamily out towards the onlooker, as though in silent conversation. With a daring innovation, that almost seems to anticipate Caravaggio's modern concept of light, the two sentries in the foreground stand out from the darkness, lit only from the sides by the light projected from the angel above.

Flagellation (1470)

Get a high-quality picture of Flagellation for your computer or notebook. ‣ This panel painting - one of his most famous - was executed by Piero during his first visit to Urbino. It contains subtle references to the situation of the time, which are very difficult to understand today. The theory that seems to be proposed most frequently is that the painting was commissioned as an attempt to favour the reconciliation between the two Christian churches, of the East and of the West, in view of the imminent Turkish attack on Constantinople. Both the presence of the character in the centre, dressed after Greek fashion, and an inscription on the frame ("convenerunt in unum") would seem to support this interpretation.

From the point of view of composition and perspective the painting is very rigorously planned. The composition appears to be divided into two scenes, separated by the column supporting the temple in which the Flagellation of Christ is taking place. On the right are three figures, arranged in a semi-circle; their identity is not certain. They are probably well-known characters of the time and, as such, they would be portrayed with their real features. The importance of the architecture in this painting, with the elegant classical temple, would suggest that Piero was in touch with contemporary theoretical writings. The onlooker must stand directly in the centre of the painting, for the composition is strictly unitarian, and this unity is achieved by the rigorous use of a single vanishing point. The painting is an ultimate example of Quattrocento linear perspective.

Even though he is working in a unitary space, Piero does not give up his interest in detail, such as the ceiling of the temple or the bronze sculpture on the column with its splendid reflection of the light. The magnificent damask garment worn by the character on the far right, with its contrast between blue and gold, reveals Piero's love for luxurious clothing and for the most fashionable styles, which many Florentine painters had eliminated entirely from their work.

Battle between Constantine and Maxentius (Right) (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of Battle between Constantine and Maxentius (Right) for your computer or notebook. ‣ This episode certainly carried an important idealistic hidden meaning and also touched on contemporary events, at a time when Pius II was planning a crusade against the Turks. All attempts to reconcile the two churches had in fact failed, so that, after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, the only solution appeared to be to unite all Christians in the struggle against the Infidel.

In Piero's fresco, Constantine face is a portrait of John VIII Palaeologus, former Eastern Emperor. And just as Constantine had gone into battle, leading his troops carrying the symbol of the Cross, so the modern Emperor can defeat the Infidel by leading all Christian armies into battle. But beyond this symbolism the battle between Constantine and Maxentius is depicted as a splendid parade, from which the crashing of arms has definitely been eliminated. The absence of movement immortalizes the horses with raised hoofs in the act of jumping, the shouting warriors with open mouths, all fixed once again by the unbending rules of construction according to linear perspective. Compared to the Battle of San Romano, painted by Paolo Uccello about twenty years earlier and which was one of the highest achievements of that Florentine pictorial perspective that inspired the young Piero, in the Arezzo fresco there is a totally new depth of space between the figures. A realistic atmosphere, conveyed by the bright lighting, emphasizes the various spatial planes. Within this composition, Piero della Francesca succeeded in reproducing, thanks to his highly refined use of bright colours, all the visual aspects of reality, even the most fleeting and immaterial ones. From the reflections of light on the armour, to the shadows of the horses' hoofs on the ground, to the wide open sky with its spring clouds tossed by the wind, the reality of nature is reproduced exactly, down to its most ephemeral details.

Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes (Detail 4) (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes (Detail 4) for your computer or notebook. ‣ The Eastern Emperor Heraclius wages war on the Persian King and, having defeated him, returns to Jerusalem with the Holy Wood. But a divine power prevents the emperor from making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. So Heraclius, setting aside all pomp and magnificence, enters the city carrying the Cross in a gesture of humility, following Jesus Christ's example.

Discovery and Proof of True Cross (Left) (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of Discovery and Proof of True Cross (Left) for your computer or notebook. ‣ This is one of Piero's most complex and monumental compositions. The artist depicts on the left the discovery of the three crosses in a ploughed field, outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, while on the right, taking place in a street in the city, is the Proof of the True Cross. His great genius which enables him to draw inspiration from the simple world of the countryside, from the sophisticated courtly atmosphere, as well as from the urban structure of cities like Florence or Arezzo, reaches in this fresco the height of its visual variety.

The scene on the left is portrayed as a scene of work in the fields, and his interpretation of man's labours as act of epic heroism is further emphasized by the figures' solemn gestures, immobilized in their ritual toil.

At the end of the hills, bathed in a soft afternoon light, Piero has depicted the city of Jerusalem. It is in fact one of the most unforgettable views of Arezzo, enclosed by its walls, and embellished by its varied coloured buildings, from stone grey to brick red. This sense of colour, which enabled Piero to convey the different textures of materials, with his use of different tonalities intended to distinguish between seasons and times of day, reaches its height in these frescoes in Arezzo, confirming the break away from contemporary Florentine painting.

To the right, below the temple to Minerve, whose facade in marble of various colours is so similar to buildings designed by Alberti, Empress Helena and her retinue stand around the stretcher where the dead youth lies; suddenly, touched by the Sacred Wood, he is resurrected. The sloping Cross, the foreshortened bust of the youth with his barely visible profile, the semi-circle created by the Helena's ladies-in-waiting, and even the shadows projecting on the ground - every single element is carefully studied in order to build a depth of space which, never before in the history of painting, had been rendered with such strict three-dimensionality.

St. Mary Magdalene (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of St. Mary Magdalene for your computer or notebook. ‣ More or less at the same time as he was working on the final scenes of the San Francesco cycle, Piero was given another important commission in Arezzo: the fresco of Mary Magdalen in the Cathedral. This monumental figure is created entirely by large patches of bright colours, rather like an early 16th-century Venetian painting. Yet even with this new use of colour Piero still concentrates on the attention to detail typical of his mature works: the shining light reflections on the small bottle, the hair that is depicted strand by strand on the saint's solid shoulders.

The fresco is located in the Cathedral near to the door of the sacresty.

Polyptych of Misericordia, Crucifixion (1464)

Get a high-quality picture of Polyptych of Misericordia, Crucifixion for your computer or notebook. ‣ This is the central part of the tympanum of the polyptych. It represents the Crucifixion which reveals the influence of Masaccio's polyptych for San Francesco in Pisa. But Masaccio created a dramatic atmosphere both with the moving gestures of the characters and with the strong, almost violent, colours; Piero's composition, on the other hand, is orderly and symmetric and the gestures of the figures are solemn, almost ritualistic.

Polyptych of Misericordia, Madonna of Mercy (1464)

Get a high-quality picture of Polyptych of Misericordia, Madonna of Mercy for your computer or notebook. ‣ The last part of the polyptych is this central panel showing the Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy). The difficulty of dealing with a solid gold background, requested by the patrons, is solved here by Piero by placing the kneeling members of the confraternitas (who commissioned the altarpiece) in the realistic space created by the Madonna's mantle, held open around the figures like the apse of a church. The Virgin is perfectly central positioned and she is seen frontally.

Polyptych of Misericordia, St. Sebastian and St. John the Baptist (1464)

Get a high-quality picture of Polyptych of Misericordia, St. Sebastian and St. John the Baptist for your computer or notebook. ‣ In 1445 the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro, commissioned Piero to paint a polypych for them, within three years. According to the taste of the time, the polyptych was to be painted with precious colours and have a solid gold background. Piero did not respet the time limits set down in the contract, for he was busy working on other, more important projects. The polyptych was only finished almost twenty years later.

The oldest parts are the two panels with St. Sebastain and St. John the Baptist, to the left of the main panel. No other figure of Piero's, more than this St. Sebastian, shows such close connection with Masaccio's nudes, even in his rather graceless but realistic pose. A little later Piero painted the panels of the tympanum, with the Crucifixion in the centre, and St. Benedict, the Angel and the Madonna of the Annunciation, and St Francis in the sides. Towards 1450 Piero finished the figures of St. Andrew and St. Bernardino.

Resurrection (1463)

Get a high-quality picture of Resurrection for your computer or notebook. ‣ One of Piero's greatest masterpieces, painted for his native city, probably just before his journey to Rome in 1458. This exemplifies Piero's ability to use archaic iconographic elements, belonging to the repertory of popular sacred images, yet placing them in an entirely new cultural and stylistic context.

Within a framework, formed at the sides by two fake marble columns, the composition is divided into two separate perspective zones. The lower area, where the artist has placed the sleeping guards, has a very low vanishing point. Alberti, in his theoretical writings, suggests that the vanishing point should be at the same level as the figures' eyes. By placing it on a lower level, Piero foreshortens his figures, thus making them more imposing in their monumental solidity. Above the figures of the sleeping sentries, Piero has placed the watchful Christ, no longer seen from below, but perfectly frontally. The resurrected Christ, portrayed with solid peasant features, is nonetheless a perfect representative of Piero's human ideal: concrete, restrained and hieratic as well. The splendid landscape also belongs to the repertory of popular sacred images: Piero has symbolically depicted it as half still immersed in the barenness of winter, and half already brought back to life - resurrected - by springtime.

Exaltation of the Cross (1466)

Get a high-quality picture of Exaltation of the Cross for your computer or notebook. ‣ The last episode of the cycle. The figure of the the Emperor is almost entirely illegible now. The Oriental noblemen wear splendid Greek headdresses, the exotic elegance of them had been admired by all Florentines at the time. Piero's interest in these enormous hats, cylindrical or pyramidal in shape, is dictated by the same motives which had driven Paolo Uccello to concentrate on the complex armour of contemporary warriors - the study of shapes and perspective.

And the colours of the garments are more lively, too. In the midday light and under the blue sky, they vary from pale blue to violet, from bottle-green to pearl-white. This scene is the confirmation that Piero wishes to depict an ideal mankind, healthy and strong, with a peaceful expression, characterized by calm, measured gestures. He conveys the impression of a race of mature men, rationally at peace with themselves.

Diptych Portrait of Battista Sforza (1472)

Get a high-quality picture of Diptych Portrait of Battista Sforza for your computer or notebook. ‣ The Montefeltro family in Urbino was Piero's most generous patron towards 1465. The diptich with the portraits of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro can be dated at the beginning of this period. In these two relatively small panels Piero attempts a very difficult compositional construction, that had never been attempted before. Behind the profile portrait of the two rulers, which is iconographically related to the heraldic tradition of medallion portraits, the artist adds an extraordinary landscape that extends so far that its boundaries are lost in the misty distance. Yet the relationship between the landscape and the portraits in the foreground is very close, also in meaning: for the portraits, with the imposing hieratic profiles, dominate the painting just as the power of the rulers portrayed dominates over the expanse of their territories. The daringness of the composition lies in this sudden switch between such distant perspective planes.

Piero's ability in rendering volumes is accompanied by his attention to detail. Through his use of light, he gives us a miniaturistic description of Sforza's jewels, of the wrinkles, moles and blemishes on Federico's olive-coloured skin.

Diptych Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1472)

Get a high-quality picture of Diptych Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino for your computer or notebook. ‣ The Montefeltro family in Urbino was Piero's most generous patron towards 1465. The diptich with the portraits of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro can be dated at the beginning of this period. In these two relatively small panels Piero attempts a very difficult compositional construction, that had never been attempted before. Behind the profile portrait of the two rulers, which is iconographically related to the heraldic tradition of medallion portraits, the artist adds an extraordinary landscape that extends so far that its boundaries are lost in the misty distance. Yet the relationship between the landscape and the portraits in the foreground is very close, also in meaning: for the portraits, with the imposing hieratic profiles, dominate the painting just as the power of the rulers portrayed dominates over the expanse of their territories. The daringness of the composition lies in this sudden switch between such distant perspective planes.

Piero's ability in rendering volumes is accompanied by his attention to detail. Through his use of light, he gives us a miniaturistic description of Sforza's jewels, of the wrinkles, moles and blemishes on Federico's olive-coloured skin.

Allegorical Triumph of Battista Sforza (1472)

Get a high-quality picture of Allegorical Triumph of Battista Sforza for your computer or notebook. ‣ Piero's panels depicting the Duke and Duchess of Urbino are both painted on the reverse in a style that can be regarded as miniature. This picture shows the reverse side of the Portrait of Battista Sforza. It represents a Triumph matching that on the reverse of the portrait of her husband, and it is shown in the same scale.

Allegorical Triumph of Federico da Montefeltro (1472)

Get a high-quality picture of Allegorical Triumph of Federico da Montefeltro for your computer or notebook. ‣ Piero's panels depicting the Duke and Duchess of Urbino are both painted on the reverse in a style that can be regarded as miniature. This picture shows the reverse side of the Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro. It is the image of a triumphal carriage pulled by white horses. The Duke is shown in his role as a professional soldier, baton in hand, and dressed in shining armor. A humanistic Latin inscription praising Federico is shown below.

Madonna del Parto (1465)

Get a high-quality picture of Madonna del Parto for your computer or notebook. ‣ The figure of this Madonna, the protector of pregnant women, with her austere expression and natural stance of a woman heavy with child, stands out against the damask canopy, held open at the sides by two angels. The sacred and ritual nature of the image is further emphasized by the fact that the angels are drawn from the same cartoon, repeated in mirror image.

Polyptych of St. Augustine, St. Nicholas of Tolentino (1469)

Get a high-quality picture of Polyptych of St. Augustine, St. Nicholas of Tolentino for your computer or notebook. ‣ The panels represent St. Augustine and St. Michael the Archangel.

In 1454 Piero agreed to paint polyptych for the Augustinians of Borgo San Sepolcro; the painting was to be finished within eight years and was intended for their monastery. As usual, the work was not completed until much later. The polyptych later was replaced and dimembered. It was only in this century that scholars succeeded in reconstructing this work. Among the parts of the polyptych that have unfortunately not survived there is also the central panel. The panels that originally formed the predella are in the Frick Collection in New York. The figures of four saints are the outer decorations.

St Augustine, portrayed with a mitre and a splendid bishop's cope is one of the high points of Piero's painting, for here he achieves perfect harmony between the imposing solidity of his three-dimensional forms and his miniaturistic attention to detail. Since the art of Gentile da Fabriano, no Italian painter had succeded in giving such a detailed reproduction of a saint's vestments. Piero paints every single scene depicted on this precious cope as though he were painting a small predella panel, using, for the soft decorations of the fabric, a "dot" technique worthy of a miniature by Fouquet. And yet, it is the monumental values that prevail in the figure of this austere saint.

Archangel Michael is portrayed as an ancient warrior, his athletic limbs made more elegant by his precious armour, by the graceful tunic and by his beautiful boots decorated by with tiny pearls. There is nothing violent nor dramatic in the killing of the dragon, who is shown as a snake, its decapitated body lying on the ground.

The Nativity (1485)

Get a high-quality picture of The Nativity for your computer or notebook. ‣ Among Piero's surviving paintings, the last one in chronological order is the Nativity in the National Gallery in London. The missing patches of colour, which might almost indicate that the painting is unfinished, are in fact probably the result of overcleaning.

The Child lies on the ground, on a corner of Mary's cloak, following traditional Northern iconography which is reflected also in the features of the Child. Other elements of Northern culture can be found in a few naturalistic details, interpreted in a highly original fashion by Piero, such as the strange figure of St. Joseph, nonchalantly sitting on a saddle, or the two animals in the background, depicted with great realism. No landscape view of Piero's is as miniaturistic as the city depicted in the background at the right: even the streets and the windows of the buildings are visible, just like in a landscape by Petrus Christus. Even the composition of the painting is quite innovative compared to Piero's previous production. The wide expanse of ground, dotted with patches of grass, and the roofing of the hut, with its shadow projecting onto the ruined brick wall, seem to indicate an attempt by the artist to fragment the space of the picture, breaking the rule that he had always rigorously abided by. The vanishing point is slightly raised, as in the Brera altarpiece, and gives one an almost bird's-eye view of the spectacular river landscape, which extends into the distance with trees, bushes and sheer rockfaces that remind one of some of the young Da Vinci's drawings.

These aspects of new perspective composition, of experimental naturalism and even of movement must be read as symptoms of the aging painter's incredible ability to update his art to the latest novelties being developed by Florentine and Netherlandish artists. But it is also clear that Piero could not have gone any further in this direction, for it would have meant abandoning the basic principles of his art. The directions that painters like Verrocchio and the young Leonardo were taking, with their almost scientific studies of action and movement, were leading too far away from the principles of spatial construction elaborated and developed by Piero and Alberti. Piero della Francesca's background culture, still very much alive in this last painting in the group of angels clearly inspired by Luca della Robbia's Cantoria in Florence Cathedral, was the 'heroic' environment of the early Renaissance, created in Florence by Brunelleschi and Donatello, by Leonardo Bruni and Paolo Toscanelli. Compared to the ideals of the earlier generation, the refined and courtly culture which was developing around the artistic patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent, with its poetic Neo-Platonic abstractions and its archeological nostalgia for the romantic nature of classical antiquity, must have seemed superficial and ephemeral - almost a betrayal of its origins.

Polyptych of Sant'Antonio, Madonna and Child (1470)

Get a high-quality picture of Polyptych of Sant'Antonio, Madonna and Child for your computer or notebook. ‣ Among the many works that, according to Vasari, Piero painted in Perugia, the historian describes with great admiration the polyptych commissioned by the nuns of the convent of Sant'Antonio da Padova. This complex painting, today in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Perugia, was begun shortly after Piero's return from Rome, but was not completed for several years.

The central part of the composition, the Madonna and Child with Staints Anthony, John the Baptist, Francis and Elisabeth, reveals in its unusual damask-like background the artist's aquaintance with a trend of contemporary Spanish painting, which Piero would have had the opportunity to see in Rome. We can therefore date the panel at around 1460. The polyptych is also made up of three predella panels showing St. Anthony of Padua resurrecting a child, the Stigmatization of St. Francis and St Elisabeth saving a boy who had fallen down a well, as well as two roundels placed between the main panel and the predella. The quality of this predella is extraordinary: Piero's characteristic spatial and light values are achieved here, on a small scale, by emphasizing the white walls of the interiors, the splashes of light and the deep shadows of the night scene in the open countryside. These scenes, where the bodies and even the shadows are fully three-dimensional, were to set an example for predella panels which was widely followed by Italian artists of the second half of the 15th-century, from the young Perugino to Bartolomeo della Gatta and, via Antonello da Messina, to the Neapolitan 'Master of Saints Severino and Sossio'. A few years later, Piero della Francesca completed the Perugia polyptych: above the ornate and still basically Gothic frame, he painted his extraordinary Annunciation.

The lack of compositional unity with the central part of the polyptych has led some scholars to suggest that Piero simply added this Annunciation to the altarpiece, much later.

According to others, the whole polyptych has a structural unity; Piero simply cut out the top part, originally intended to be rectangular, and transformed it into a sort of cusped crowning. Once again Piero has succeeded in overcoming the limitations imposed by patrons with old-fashioned artistic taste, giving us one of the most perfect examples of his use of perspective. Thanks also to his use of oil paints, Piero della Francesca achieves the extraordinarily detailed depiction of the series of capitals, running towards the vanishing point. Each architrave, and each column as well, projects a thin strip of shadow into the splendid cloister arcade, which appears to go beyond any inspiration derived from Alberti's architecture. The subtle analysis of the decorations painted on the walls reaches an unprecedented level; yet everything is contained in a single and organic space. Distances, so perfectly calculated, are neither forced nor artificial: they are conveyed by the realistic light and atmosphere.

Madonna of Senigallia (Madonna and Child) (1485)

Get a high-quality picture of Madonna of Senigallia (Madonna and Child) for your computer or notebook. ‣ The painting, originally in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Urbino, is quite different from Piero's previous production. The faces still have an expression of aloofness and of superior rational wisdom, but they also convey a sense of precious, almost exotic, beauty. This is one of the paintings in which the artist most clearly reveals his interst in light values, both in terms of reflections and of magical transparencies. From Mary's veil, slightly puckered on her forehead with subtle light variations, to the coral necklace around the Child's neck, to the angels' shining pearls - these are all effects which, together with the light streaming in from the window, and forming a perfectly geometrical shape on the end wall, will appear again and again in Dutch painting of the 17th century.

The blond hair of the angel on the left, because of the reflection of the light coming in from behind, acquires an almost magical golden glow, as though it were a natural halo.

Palo Montefeltro (The Madonna with Childs, Angels, Saints and Federico da Montefeltro) (Detail) (1474)

Get a high-quality picture of Palo Montefeltro (The Madonna with Childs, Angels, Saints and Federico da Montefeltro) (Detail) for your computer or notebook. ‣ Shortly after the Madonna of Senigallia, Piero set to work on the most grandiose of his paintings dating from this period. This was the huge altarpiece showing the Madonna and Child with Saints, today in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. Probably painted for the church of the Osservanti di San Donato in Urbino, this panel was transferred, after the death of Federico in 1482, to the church of San Bernardino, the modern mausoleum built for the deceased Duke. Federico da Montefeltro, shown kneeling at the foot of the Madonna's throne, is portrayed in his warrior's armour, but without the insignia awarded to him by Pope Sixtus IV in 1475.

The absence of these emblems, which Piero would certainly have included in an official portrait like this one, leads us to date the splendid Brera altarpiece, previously believed to be Piero's last work, at around 1472-74. The complex and majestic architectural background, against which the 'sacra conversazione' takes place, is clearly derived from designs very similar to the ones followed by Alberti in his construction of the church of Sant'Andrea in Mantua. Yet, at the same time, the architecture anticipates certain 'classical' elements which will be used by the young Bramante - another extraordinary artist from Urbino. In this painting, too, the artist's mastery of proportions is remarkable; it is almost symbolized by the large ostrich egg hanging from the shell in the apse. The shape of this symbolic element is echoed by the near perfect oval of the Madonna's head, placed in the absolute centre of the composition. In this painting Piero places his vanishing point at an unusually high level, more or less at the same height as the figures' hands, with the result that his sacred characters, placed in a semicircle, appear less monumental.

Piero's extraordinary invention of an architectural apse echoed below by another apse, consisting in the figures of the saints gathered around the Madonna, was taken up time and again by artists working at the end of the 15th century and at the beginning of the 16th, particularly in Venice, starting with the almost contemporary paintings of Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini. This organized composition, typical of Piero's work, contained within a unity of space and lighting, seems however to have a new feel about it, as though the artist were taking part in the new currents being developed in Italian art after 1470. The new trends are dictated primarily by the great popularity that Netherlandish painting was enjoying, particularly in Urbino. The most descriptive and 'miniaturistic' aspects of Netherlandish painting are echoed in the Brera altarpiece in the Duke's shining armour, for example, and in the stylized decoration of the carpet. Netherlandish art was popular among the patrons of the period as well, as we can see by the rings on Federico's hands, which Piero had painted by Pedro Berruguete, a Spaniard with a Northern training.

The other aspect of this painting that must not be underestimated is its similarity with the new developments of Florentine painting, visible primarly in the work of Verrocchio and some of his young pupils. The angels' garments are decorated with jewels and with huge precious brooches, their hair is held back by elegant diadems: these elements, and even their melancholy expression, are certainly influenced by the recent developments in Florentine art. In the same way, St. John the Baptist's and St Jerome's bony limbs, emaciated by deprivations in the wilderness, recall some of Verrocchio's studies; and the sleeping Child, in his extraordinary contorted position, anticipates some of the young Leonardo's drawings of putti.


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