Piero della Francesca
An overall view
Piero della Francesca occupies an entirely special position amongst the artists of the Italian Early Renaissance. Where his artistic importance is concerned, he can be mentioned in the same breath as Masaccio, Uccello and Fra Angelico. He succeeded uniquely in harmonizing the intellectual and spiritual values of his age, the diverse artistic influences and impulses, and the tensions between religious piety and the human need for development.
In his artistic endeavors, Piero della Francesca was driven by a strong intellectual curiosity. The decisive factor in this, apart from what we know of his theoretical mathematical talent, was the experience he gained during his early years as a student and assistant in Florence, working for as important an artistic personality as Domenico Veneziano. These experiences, his theoretical studies, new and stimulating contacts, as well as his own experiments, enabled him to develop his own unmistakable idiom of expression. He created works of art which, in their harmonious appearance blending the traditional and modern, spiritual exploration and earthly presence, theoretical competence and aesthetic consciousness, were amongst the most typical works that were produced in Italy during the 15th century.
In his works, in his mathematical and in particular his geometrical investigations and writings, and in his political involvement in the administration and planning of his native town of Sansepolcro, Piero contributed to the overcoming of the strict medieval separation of fields of knowledge and professions, and played an active part in the cultural development of his age.
One serious problem when looking at and evaluating art nowadays is the fact that the work of an artist, which is after all of primary importance, often comes down to us in a decidedly fragmentary way, and that a major part of it has been lost during the course of the centuries. In the context of Italian Quattrocento painting, this is particularly true of fresco painting, which was the preferred method of decorating churches as well as sacred and secular state rooms, and which was prone to falling victim to structural alterations made during later periods and changes in stylistic requirements. What remains of the work of Piero della Francesca can be compared with the remains of a ruined palace, whose carefully guarded remnants convey a pale reflection of its former size and splendor.
Much the same is true where the artist's life is concerned. Compiling a conclusive and homogeneous biography such as art historians often present to us, making frequent use of acrobatic twists and turns, from the few definite dates in the life and work of an artist is particularly difficult, if not impossible, in the case of Piero della Francesca, due to the extremely scant information available.
Piero's precise date of birth is unknown. His name first appears in official records on 18 October 1436, as a witness at the drawing up of a will in Sansepolcro, and he must already have been at least twenty years old at this time, as that was the minimum age required for this purpose. This makes it likely that he was born in 1416/17. The fact that his artistic development had already progressed a long way by 1436 is proven by a receipt for a payment to the local artist Antonio d'Anghiari for the painting of standards and flags. Piero's name appears amongst the master's assistants. Though there are records showing that Piero was again working in Sansepolcro, or Borgo San Sepolcro, as the place was known at the time, in 1438, there is nothing to contradict the possibility that he received further artistic training in a large centre, such as Florence. In 1439, at any rate, he was working with Domenico Veneziano and other assistants to create the frescoes in the choir of the Florentine church of Sant' Egidio. Piero's decision to perfect his art with Domenico Veneziano speaks for his interest in the brightest and most colorful line of development in Early Renaissance painting, an interest that would have a determining influence on the rest of his life.
This is true of one of Piero's first larger works, the altar painting of the Baptism of Christ destined for the main church in Sansepolcro. Various iconographical elements indicate that the work was created in about 1439, the year in which the Council of Ferrara and Florence attempted to reunite the Eastern churches with the Western church. In this work, with its conical bodies which seem stilted and are lit and modelled by a strong light, the further stylistic development of Piero is, as it were, programmatically arranged.
On 11 January 1445, Piero was commissioned by the Compagnia della Misericordia in Sansepolcro to produce a large altarpiece with several panels. In the contract, three years were given for the completion of the polyptych, but the altar was not finished until 1460, when the central panel showing the Madonna of Mercy was finished. The first two panels, St. Sebastian and St. John the Baptist, have a heaviness which is clearly reminiscent of Masaccio's figures. For the panel of St. Bernardine of Siena, the year 1450 is considered to be the earliest possible date. He was canonized in 1450 and is already surrounded by a halo on the picture, which means that it must have been produced after this date.
Recently discovered sources show that during the 1440s Piero stayed and worked in Urbino, Ferrara and presumably also Bologna. The frescoes produced during this period no longer exist. In 1451 he was in Rimini. There he signed a monumental fresco of St. Sigismund and the portraits of Sigismondo Malatesta, the ruler of Rimini.
All of Piero's works display the artist's interest in detailed landscapes and garments, indicating influences from the north, in particular Flemish ones. This is also true of two early picture panels showing St. Jerome, one of which is dated 1450. Above all, the saint's books, which are depicted in detail, can only be understood through a knowledge of northern models. They do not appear in Italian painting before Piero.
The painted architectural elements which were introduced for the first time in the Sigismondo fresco in Rimini accord with Leon Battista Alberti's theoretical requirements (which he demonstrated in practice in the Tempio Malatestiano) for the imitation of classical architecture. The Flagellation, a painting produced after Piero's period in Rimini, was an early highlight in the arrangement of a pictorial space according to the laws of perspective by means of skillfully composed architectural backdrops.
From an artistic point of view, the year of 1452 was particularly important for Piero. Bicci di Lorenzo, the Florentine artist who had been engaged upon painting the decorations for the main chapel in San Francesco in Arezzo, died, and Piero was appointed to continue and complete the cycle of frescoes depicting scenes from The Legend of the True Cross that the Bacci family had commissioned. There are records that the work was completed by 1466, though it is possible that it was finished earlier.
Characteristic of the cycle is the consistent perspectival arrangement of the scenes and the soft and light-filled colors, once again reminiscent of Domenico Veneziano, which is enclosed in a strict style of drawing characteristic of Florence, though its rigor weakens somewhat during the course of the work. The first phase of the work, up to 1458, comprised the scenes in the lunettes and the painted frames, which were carried out by several assistants to cartoons produced by the master.
In 1458/59, Piero was working in Rome. Nothing remains of the frescoes mentioned in documents, including some in the Vatican. His encounter with the Flemish and Spanish artists working in the Vatican was directly reflected in the subsequent sections of the frescoes in Arezzo: Piero increasingly emphasized details and realistic atmospheric phenomena. An example of this is the night scene of Constantine's Dream.
The fresco of the Resurrection in the town hall in Sansepolcro also dates from the time of his journey to Rome. The almost unapproachable solemnity of this monumental composition is highlighted by the pyramid-shaped arrangement of the scene and the hieratic frontal view of Christ.
The fresco painting of St. Mary Magdalene in the cathedral of Arezzo signaled the completion of the work in San Francesco.
In the meantime, Piero created a polyptych for the nuns of Sant'Antonio in Perugia, which Vasari praised very highly.
In about 1465, the double portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, the duke and duchess of Urbino, was produced. The rear of the panels was decorated with allegorical triumphal processions with painted inscriptions of homage. The distant, meticulously painted landscape backgrounds are reminiscent of the atmospheric landscape of Jan van Eyck.
In 1454, Piero was commissioned by the Augustinian monks of Sansepolcro to produce a large polyptych, to be finished within the space of eight years. However, the final account was not drawn up until 1469. In this work,
Piero chose to omit the usually obligatory golden background. He particularly emphasized the linearity and statue-like monumentality of the saints' figures, which he positioned in front of open skies and classical balustrades.
Twenty years after the first wave of enthusiasm for perspective that Piero had unleashed in the Emilia-Romagna region, and which had been particularly influential on the works of Cosimo Tura, Francesco Cossa, Ercole de Roberti and the Lendinara brothers, Piero returned to Urbino once more in the early 1470s. The first work he produced at the Montefeltro court was the Madonna of Senigallia, a majestic depiction of the Madonna with what, in the context of European painting, is a unique background, a mysterious mixture of architecture and light production.
It is likely that the so-called Pala Montefeltro was created before 1475, as the duke is depicted in the picture without the Order of the Garter that was conferred upon him in 1474. In this painting, the northern and Flemish influences are not restricted to the reflections of light on the carpet and armor: the Spanish painter Pedro Berruguete, who was trained in Flanders, is said to have completed several details in the picture.
The complex, colorful architectural backdrop is once again in keeping with Albetti's creations and is clearly reminiscent of motifs with which we are familiar from Sant'Andrea in Mantua. Competing with the architecture are the monumental figures in the picture, also arranged as it were in a tectonic manner, and bathed in a light, atmospheric range of tones.
This quality of color is characterized even more comprehensively in the last known painting by Piero, the Nativity. Though the assimilation of cultural influences is no less intellectual in this work than in the earlier ones, it is still surprising to see the reduced perspectival arrangement and the loving attention to detail.
In 1482, Piero bought a house in Rimini. In 1487 he drew up his will, "sound in spirit, intellect and body" as it says in that document. At this point the artist was not yet suffering from the eye problems which were to lead to his becoming totally blind during the last years of his life. Piero della Francesca died on 11 October 1492, in his native town, where in accordance with the wishes expressed in his will he was also buried.
The early works
Many of Piero's works no longer exist today, and there are very few definite dates for those that have survived the years. The only means that can be used to somewhat narrow down the period during which they were created are contracts that give the date on which a work was commissioned, and a few biographical details. Frequently, however, there are references to contemporary historical events in the paintings themselves. It is also occasionally helpful to take into account events in ecclesiastical history: often, for example, the date on which a particular saint was canonized is known. If that person is depicted with a halo, the picture was presumably created after that date. One of the few dated works we have of Piero's is St. Jerome Penitent. The painting, the signature on which was originally visible, was until 1968 covered by an old overpainting, which made it impossible to conduct an art historical evaluation of the work. The inscription, attached to the tree in the foreground on the right, gives the name of the artist and the year the work was created: PETRI DE BURGO OPUS MCCCCL. According to this, it is possible that the picture was produced during one of the journeys which Piero undertook at this time.
St. Jerome, a Father of the Church (ca. 347-420), is said to have spent three years living in retreat in the desert of Chalcis; previously he had been engaged in studying the sciences in Rome. Western Christianity has him to thank for the translation of the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek into Latin, known as the Vulgate. In accordance with the detailed description of his life in the "Legenda Aurea" (the important collection of saints' legends), there were two basic ways in which the saint was depicted, both of which appeared in about 1400. One was as a penitent hermit, and the other type - most popular amongst the Dutch - was as a scholar indoors, seated at the desk in his study. This latter method of depiction interpreted the saint as the prototype of the humanist scholar.
Piero decided in favor of a peculiar combination of these iconographical patterns: the rock in front of which St. Jerome is kneeling has a niche in which books and writing implements are contained. The shining red cardinal's hat is lying on the ground, like an implement which is useless in this situation, and is an allusion to the future career of the saint. This part of the composition to a certain extent represents the interior character of the indoor depictions. The rest of the painting is devoted to the landscape, which is anything but a desert: a fertile plain extends behind the penitent, and there is a building in front of the hills in the background. A stream winds its way across the landscape and among the trees, and a path crosses it and winds between the trees into the background.
The gentle colors are presumably a result of the relatively poor state of preservation of the work. It is, however, also possible that this is an early attempt on the part of Piero to develop his own entirely individual colors which create a realistic representation of the atmospheric conditions of a scene under an open sky. The shapes of the clouds are reminiscent of rotating geometrical bodies. We encounter them repeatedly in Piero's works. The colors play at least as important a role in defining the space as the forms. Thus, for example, the brown shades which are rhythmically repeated in the picture and gradually become lighter guide the gaze of the observer through the picture and prompt him to comprehend the spatial relationships. This aspect would in later years become a characteristic of Piero della Francesca's art.
Piero created a further depiction of St. Jerome in the painting of St. Jerome and a Donor, a work which is generally given an earlier date. As with the painting just described, it is signed with an inscription on the tree trunk serving as the base for the crucifix: PETRI DE BURGO SANCTI SEPULCRI OPUS. It is not, however, dated. A variety of dates have been suggested, varying from 1440 to 1450. The diagonal position of the Cross is noticeable. The reason for this seems, however, to have less to do with the perspectival structure of the painting than with the desire to highlight the relationship of the Cross to St. Jerome. The believer, depicted in a red garment and identified by an inscription as Girolamo Amadi, has visited St. Jerome in his hermitage. He is clearly disturbing him at his studies: the saint is in the process of turning over a page in his book. The expression on his face reveals that he is unwilling to be interrupted at his reading. Piero uses contrasts to separate the two figures and their "worlds" from each other. Above the believer, who is wearing a red garment, arches the dense, green crown of a tree, while the saint himself appears in his penitential robe beneath the open, bright blue of the sky.
Piero was able to study the clever spatial shaping achieved by placing color contrasts into the depths of the picture in the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, created in 1425 by Masaccio; here, Masaccio created a masterly example of the concept of advancing and retreating colors, where colors gradually lighten the further away they are, which was perfected during the course of the Quattrocento. In his early work, which includes the Brancacci frescoes, he still preferred the interplay of light and shadow to depict space and positioned contrasts evenly right into the background of the picture.
Piero's Baptism of Christ has a similar accentuation of depth, coupled with a brightness that is permeated by light, as in St. Jerome and a Donor. The painting, which is semicircular at the top, is the central panel of an altar in several parts, produced by Matteo di Giovanni in about 1465. The lavish construction of the frame leads us to the conclusion that the structure was destined to be the main altar in a larger church. Some art historians consider this piece to be a work by the mature Piero in about 1460, whereas others give it a particularly early date, as its light pastel colors are reminiscent of Domenico Veneziano's altar in Santa Lucia de' Magnoli, created in about 1445.
It has repeatedly been mentioned in art historical research that the construction of the picture is based on geometric shapes. One of the suggestions is that the composition is based on the Platonic shapes with which Piero deals in his treatise "De Corporibus Regularibus". The painting is constructed of simple basic forms: a semicircle sitting on a square. If a sketch of an equilateral triangle with the tip pointing down were drawn in the square, it would meet the toes of Christ's engaged leg. In the centre of the triangle are the folded hands of the Son of God, and the centre of the base line is marked by the dove. The square, circle and equilateral triangle are shapes whose special feature lies in the fact that they are regular and cannot be simplified further. That they not only determine the format but also the posture and shape of Christ in this picture means that they must be interpreted as a first reference to the theme of the depiction: in the Baptism, Christ is revealed to us as the Son of God. In consequence, all other pictorial figures - with one exception - are arranged by Piero parallel to the frontal figure of Christ, which is not overlapped by anything else. The most conspicuous example of this is St. John the Baptist. The fingers of his left hand do not extend beyond the limits of his garment - as if to maintain an imaginary border.
In this baptismal scene, the laws of nature appear to have been annulled: the river has stopped flowing at the point where Christ's feet are standing in the bed of the river. In accordance with iconographical tradition, Jesus is shown being baptized in the Jordan. Piero was particularly interested in using the water as a reflective surface. This preference, entirely related to his endeavors for perspective, made it possible to achieve heightened spatial effects. It was, however, also problematic in that it was not traditionally permitted to depict Christ as a reflection or simply doubled. Almost unnoticeable reflections around the ankles of the two protagonists show that they are standing in water. The way in which Piero della Francesca paints the river as flowing almost vertically from the middle distance of the picture into the foreground is unusual in 15th-century Italian painting.
The frescoes in Arezzo
Piero della Francesca put his theoretical expertise on depiction using perspective into practice in extremely varied ways. The compositional breaks, which are at variance with theory, are always intentional. Much has, so to speak, been deliberately "badly designed", which is to say that the spatial relationships have intentionally been designed in such a way that they cannot be easily understood straight away.
The purpose of this is to require the observer to make a more intensive study of the pictures. At the same time, this method keeps him at a distance from the events depicted. It produces a moment of confusion which increases the religious humility and spiritual attentiveness towards what is being depicted: human understanding is not capable of grasping what can be seen in the paintings.
This interesting aspect is characteristic of the majority of Piero's paintings, in particular his main work, the frescoes in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo.
When Piero della Francesca was commissioned to decorate the main chapel in the Franciscan church, he was already known beyond the borders of his immediate native region. He had worked for the royal courts of Ferrara, Rimini and Urbino and was a respected artist.
At the beginning of the 1450's, Piero started work on the cycle of frescoes in Arezzo. The choir of the Franciscan church of San Francesco, with its typical single-aisled ground plan, was built at the very beginning of the Quattrocento. The right of patronage was adopted by the Baccis, an old-established family of merchants. In 1417, Baccio di Maso Bacci had died, and in his will he had decreed that the chapel should be decorated. His heirs did not fulfil his wishes for another 30 years. In 1447, Francesco Bacci commissioned the already elderly Florentine artist Bicci di Lorenzo to decorate the chapel, and sold a vineyard in order to be able to finance the work. However, Bicci di Lorenzo was not able to complete his designs, which owed much to the Late Gothic style, as he became ill shortly afterwards and died in 1452. It is probably at this point that the commission was given to Piero by Francesco's son, Giovanni Bacci, who was closely connected to the humanist circles in Arezzo. Piero may therefore have begun work on the extensive cycle of frescoes, which was to be his main work, in about 1452; even the considerable damage which many sections of the cycle have suffered during the course of the years has not been able to diminish its magic.
The frescoes were completed by 1466 at the latest, when Piero was commissioned by the Arezzo confraternity of the Misericordia to paint a standard: in the contract, the successful frescoes are mentioned as the criteria for his selection for the task.
The scenes present the eventful story of the True Cross from the beginnings mentioned in Genesis to the year AD 628, when the stolen Cross was returned to Jerusalem. They are derived from the "Legenda Aurea", put together by Jacobus da Voragine between 1224 and 1250.
In the Franciscan orders, there was a tradition of venerating the Cross. The allusion is clear: because of his piety, God marked St. Francis of Assisi - through a vision - with the stigmata, the five wounds that Christ received on the Cross. As a result, two famous painted versions of the material already existed: Agnolo Gaddi had decorated the church of Santa Croce in Florence with scenes from the Legend of the True Cross, and Cenni di Francesco had also used them as his model in San Francesco in Volterra.
Piero della Francesca's work differed considerably from that of his important predecessor, Agnolo Gaddi. Many of the differences are not of much consequence -the Burial of the Wood, for example, is shown as an independent picture -, but there are other things that are significant and can be viewed as iconographical innovations. These include the The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood and the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Constantine's Dream and the Baffle between Constantine and Maxentius.
Piero does not arrange the individual scenes according to the chronological sequence in which they happened, but uses formal points that make it possible to relate them to each other thematically.
Works in Rimini and Urbino
All of Piero della Francesca's works considered so far are based on Christian themes. They were mainly located in churches and were, as a result, accessible to all.
From an early point, though, princes were interested in engaging the much-famed artists for their own private purposes. After the first works for Lionello d'Este in Ferrara, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in Rimini entrusted Piero with the production of portraits. Commissions from royal courts meant fame and money, though the rulers' standards of payment frequently left much to be desired. On many occasions, however, it was precisely those princes that were most reliable in this respect who, in political matters, lacked any sense of morals whatever. The ruler of Rimini was said to behave in much this manner.
The church of San Francesco in Rimini was the traditional burial place of the Malatestas. Between 1447 and 1450, Sigismondo had it changed into a dynastic temple, the Tempio Malatestiano. The architect he engaged was none other than Leon Battista Alberti, and it is probable that Piero got to know him in person on this occasion.
The works of this architect, who was primarily an architectural theoretician rather than an architect, were distinguished by the synthesis of classical motifs, which Alberti, with archaeological interest and a thorough acquaintance with classical literature, had studied in the Roman ruins. The influence Alberti had on Piero is clearly felt in the fresco in the chapel of St. Sigismund. As an example, the pilasters in the background are fluted with five grooves instead of the six we are familiar with from Masaccio's fresco of the Trinity or the buildings of Brunelleschi. It was Alberti who had considered the axis of symmetry - that fifth fluting. The fresco of Sigismondo Malatesta before St. Sigismund is dated 1451. At first sight the unusual arrangement of the composition is impressive. Allowing the gaze to wander across the picture from the lower edge to the top, the space appears to be framed by the architectural elements, adorned with flowers, and one enters the pictorial space as through a portal. If, however, the eye moves from top to bottom, the space appears to topple over. The upper edge, which at first appears to be in the foreground, is being carried by the pillars in the background. In this way the artist creates an interesting sense of spatial drama.
In addition, the fresco is brought to life by the tense relationship between the evident asymmetry and the illusion of symmetry which is achieved by positioning the figure of Malatesta almost exactly in the middle between the pilasters. The goal is to structure the center in an asymmetrical composition. In the discussions of art historians it has almost become a topos to use Jan van Eyck's Madonna and Child with Chancellor Rolin as a comparison, as in that work an analogous composition was used for the picture. Here, Piero constructed a clever spatial situation which requires the observer to look more closely at the work. The monumental nature of the composition and the calm statuesque character of the figures are an indication of the frescoes to come in Arezzo.
The great altar paintings
During the Renaissance, the altar painting enjoyed a special position. The fact that artists worked mainly on this type of picture meant that it was here that stylistic changes, which involved a certain liberation from the liturgical purpose of the picture, were most conspicuously manifest. A successful composition came to be more important than the work's functional purpose. It is, however, not possible to speak of Renaissance works as not being intended for a special purpose, as can be said of art in the modern sense.
The large altar paintings in many sections that Piero della Francesca produced also show that the painter was gradually freeing himself from traditional restrictions and prescriptions and working towards an independent pictorial conception.
In his first altarpiece, the Polyptych of the Misericordia, Piero was still tied down to the precise restrictions in the contract with the Compagnia della Misericordia in Sansepolcro. Piero was commissioned to produce the polyptych on 11 June 1445, and was to finish it within the space of three years. There was an additional condition that he should repair all damages that might appear over the space of ten years. Further, he was required to use certain materials: "...gilded with fine gold and painted with fine colors, in particular with ultramarine blue" - at the time one of the most expensive pigments. The conditions would, however, prove to be superfluous, for it took twenty years for the work to be completed, and the brotherhood repeatedly issued reminders in vain. On the one hand this was caused by the numerous other commitments that Piero had undertaken. In addition, the painter had the reputation of working very slowly - a circumstance which the brotherhood had possibly hoped to influence by including the above mentioned stipulation. Proofs of payment suggest that the major part of the polyptych was produced after 1459. As early as the 17th century the altar was dismantled, so that the form that the polyptych now presents is a reconstruction of the original condition.
Piero discreetly integrated the new perspectival effects into the traditional iconography in which the Madonna of Mercy, being a more important figure, appeared larger than the believers gathered under her cloak. The motif of the Madonna of Mercy is derived from a custom of the Middle Ages: if victims of persecution appealed for help to high-ranking women, they could be granted asylum "under her cloak". The arrangement of those in need of help is remarkable: a group of three on the left and right, and a couple at the front with space between them. One might well think that this space is being left open for the observer. The black surface on which the kneeling figures are placed is constructed according to the laws of perspective. The vanishing point lies between the two front figures. This gives us a second reference to the position the observer should take up. This is at eye level with the two figures.
The hems of the garments, which protrude into the panels with saints on the right and left, create a connection between the central picture and the side panels. This unites the individual parts of the polyptych optically into one great panel. The number of circular and conical elements in the head, crown, nimbus and cloak of the Madonna reflects Piero's interest in basic geometric shapes. In addition, they unalterably fix the figure of Mary in the format of the picture panel. In the end, she belongs to two spaces: the religious one, manifested in the gold background behind her, and the secular one: she is sharing the floor with those under her protection and serves as an element connecting them with the life hereafter.
The panel showing St. Sebastian and St. John was presumably the first to be produced. From about 1350 onwards, the preferred way of depicting St. Sebastian, who was an auxiliary saint during the Plague and later a patron saint of the brotherhoods of archers, was naked except for a loincloth and shot full of arrows - during the Early Renaissance this provided artists with a welcome opportunity to create an anatomical study.
Piero's last works
We know nothing definite about the people who commissioned the last remaining works by Piero della Francesca.
In addition, the attribution of the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Four Angels is also disputed. The panel has been described as a spiritless compendium of "Piero quotations" which was almost certainly produced by a student or copyist, but it has also been seen as a mature late work, particularly because of the numerous typical Piero motifs. In the figure of the right angel, whose function is that of a festaiulo, Piero is turning full circle back to one of his earliest works, the Baptism of Christ. The balanced relationship of the architecture and figures, which is composed to be strictly proportional, also suggests that this work is an original.
The arrangement of the Nativity is much freer. It can serve as an example of Piero's late style. Many motifs in the composition are drawn from Flemish models, above all the naked Christ Child who is lying on a section of Mary's cloak directly on the ground. This representation of the Nativity is a mysterious picture. It is surely not just the condition of the painting that contributes to this impression. It appears to be incomplete, but was probably merely cleaned too forcefully. On one side is the group of five angels who are united not only by their lute playing and singing but also by a compositional element. The heads of the figures are at the same level. In art history such a composition is called isocephaly. This, what one might call the Italian part of the picture, is brought face to face with a northern part which is characterized by realistic details instead of harmony. The ox and ass have formed part of the depiction of the birth of Christ from a very early date, the 3rd century. Their presence is derived from the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider" (1:3). Here, the ass is braying as if trying to outdo the music made by the choir of angels. As conspicuous as his wide open mouth is the raised hand of one of the shepherds. From time immemorial he has been seen as a representative of mankind awaiting salvation. His hand - reddish in front of the greenish brick wall - and the gesture with which he is pointing up to heaven make an impression on the mind. Joseph is sitting to one side of his wife and child. He has crossed one leg over the other and is, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, showing us the naked sole of his right foot. Mary appears as if detached from all this, devoting her attention to her child exclusively.
In early examples of Christian art the stable - or the inn - is normally only indicated as the place where the birth took place by means of a brick rear wall. What is conspicuous about Piero's construction of the stable is the fact that the upper edge of his roof does not run parallel to the top edge of the picture. This fact can be connected to observations about the pictorial space. Given the way the stable is depicted, it must be standing diagonally in the space. On the other hand, there is a remarkable counterbalance to this factor: the Christ Child who is lying on the ground parallel to the bottom edge of the picture. The old world, which was ruinous and does not particularly inspire confidence, can finally pass away, the new life has begun.
It is stated that Piero della Francesca gradually lost his sight during the last years of his life. However, this blindness cannot have progressed very rapidly, for the artist continued to be capable of writing down his theoretical knowledge in three treatises.
Piero's pamphlet on applied mathematics, "Trattato del Abaco" (On the Abacus), is the earliest chronologically, as it includes examples of its application that reappear, arranged more systematically, in the other two treatises. "De Prospectiva Pingendi" (On Perspective in Painting) was dedicated by Piero to his patron Federico da Montefeltro. This dates the treatise to the time before 1482, which was the year when the duke died. In 1485, he dedicated the treatise "De Quinque Corporibus Regularibus" (On the Five Regular Bodies) to Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, the son of Federico. It was published posthumously by Luca Pacioli in the appendix to his "De Divina Proportione" (On the Divine Proportions) in 1509.
The art of Piero della Francesca
In his descriptions of the lives of the most important Italian artists ("Le vite de' piu eccellenti architetti, pittori et scultori italiani"), which first appeared in 1550, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) of course also included Piero della Francesca. Although he was aware of the importance of Piero's academic studies in particular and referred to them emphatically, he was surely also aware of his artistic quality: "besides excelling in the sciences mentioned above, he also excelled in painting."
The fact that Vasari repeatedly mentions Piero's theoretical studies on geometry and perspective is due entirely to the fact that during the lifetime of the art historiographer they had lost none of their validity.
One of the fundamental aspects of Quattrocento culture in Italy appears to have been the continually spreading predominance of visual perception. The fundamental changes in the ways of seeing things clearly dominated, at least from the middle of the century, all other possible ways of perceiving reality. The new visual sensitivity brought about a predominantly figurative culture which depicted its determining symbols and values, as well as the changing themes of the age - the division of the Church, the threat of the Turks, the tensions between the rulers in the peninsula and between ecclesiastical and secular power - in visual form. Decisive elements in the cultural development of the century were the discovery of perspective in painting, the developing ability to think spatially in three dimensions, also in a geographical context, and the invention of printing - all aspects which address the sense of sight.
Perspective made it possible to depict spaces, objects and figures in three dimensions and to produce an apparently perfect match of our real experiences of vision. This was an artistic revolution which was to retain its validity for the next five centuries. Piero della Francesca was the Italian artist who made comprehensive use of the initial experiences made by his predecessors in this field and consistently applied his own theoretical knowledge, which he had presumably acquired through hard work, to the medium of painting. His exceptional artistic intuition always, however, kept him from the danger of making the perspectival composition of the picture and volumetric depiction of figures the most important factor in his paintings. Piero saw this process as a means of presenting his specific message in a topical - and that meant a classic and truthful - manner. This modern concept of art and its deep spiritual and symbolical content, the connection between avant garde dynamics and archaic statics - statuesqueness; between complex picture structures and clear readability, are responsible for the fact that, even today, Piero has lost none of his currency.
Piero's capacity for synthesis was probably developed to a not inconsiderable degree by the social circumstances of his age. The exchange of ideas on a regional and national scale increased enormously during the second half of the century. Borders and territories were constantly changing and therefore lost what in the Middle Ages had been their inescapable significance. This was noticeable even in so small a town as Sansepolcro, which changed its political affiliation on three occasions during Piero's life. In addition, artists from all over Europe were keen to come to Italy, where they were given lucrative and prestigious commissions by the powerful religious rulers in Rome in particular.
Piero understood, in a way that was unique at the time, how to let these non-Italian artistic tendencies have a stimulating effect on his art without in the process destroying its own monumental power and typical coloring.
Let us conclude by turning, once again, to one of Piero's most impressive works, the Pala Montefeltro.
The problem with which Piero was here getting to grips was how to translate the perspectival projection to the curved space: the semicircle of saints repeats, on a larger scale, the curve of the apse. By connecting the saints with the architecture which opens out at the sides, the entire pictorial space seems to open out for the observer. This is also where the light is falling onto the scene, focused on the central figure of the Madonna and her child, and breaking off at the circular apse in the background. Nowhere else but here does it become more clear how, in Piero's works, the theoretical knowledge of the precise perspectival spatial conception has to be subordinated to the concrete pictorial idea, the experience of nature, history and sacredness. His artistic and spiritual intuition cannot be curbed by geometric rules. One need only look at the ostrich egg floating from the tip of the shell vault above the oval, egg-shaped head of Mary. Despite apparently correct perspectival foreshortening, the oval is hanging, like an optical illusion, over the ovals of the heads and refers to the universality of this form, its significance and the religious event.
Even though the picture appears to open up to the observer and to be fixed against a realistic architectural backdrop, the composition is characterized by an unapproachable quality, a celestial and mysterious distance. This unapproachable quality is created by the features of the faces, which seem to have been turned to stone like those in a snapshot. In addition, the parallel and symmetrical arrangement seals the figures into an impermeable unity. However, the real mam role in the painting is played by the light. The virtuoso direction of the light is how Piero convinces us of the "reality" of his invented picture, both clarifying and defamiliarizing his spatial conception at the same time.
The line of shadow on the rear wall of the apse proves that this must lie far further back than we realize. The bright areas of light on the egg, on the faces of figures and, in particular, on the armor of the duke of Urbino kneeling in the foreground, once again draw the composition together and create the impression that the figures are standing directly in front of the apse, even though the architectural motifs are telling us something different. The appearance that a single strong source of light from the left transept of the church is causing the fields of light, shade and highlights, is contradicted by the window which is clearly reflected in the duke's armor. Light - the bright, blazing light of central Italy - bewitches the composition, qualifies the references and keeps the composition and the observer's gaze in an indissoluble tense relationship that filled Piero's contemporaries with enthusiasm and is still capable of fascinating us today.
Piero's scientific and artistic legacy had a lasting influence on the development of art during the late 15th and early 16th century. With regard to theory, he had a decisive effect on scientists such as the mathematician Luca Pacioli and artists such as Da Vinci and Durer, who recognized the value to art of the mathematical and geometric laws that Piero had written about, and based their own work on them.
As the artistic trends of his age, both traditional and modernizing, were united as an ideal type in Piero's artistic work, it became a milestone in the development of art and an essential benchmark for his successors. 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 soaring artistic achievements in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century.
Piero is born in Borgo San Sepolcro. He is followed by four younger brothers, two of whom die at an early age, and a sister.
On 18 October Piero's name appears in official documents as witness to the drawing up of a will.
Works with Domenico Veneziano in Perugia.
A written document exists showing that Piero is working as an assistant to Domenico Veneziano on the production of the choir frescoes in the church of Sant'Egidio in Florence.
Piero is one of the Consiglieri popolari in the People's Council in Sansepolcro. In order to take up this position one had to be at least 20 years old.
Piero signs the contract for the polyptych for the Compagnia della Misericordia in Sansepolcro.
It is probably at about this time that Piero creates a fresco that no longer exists, in the Este palace in Ferrara.
Piero completes the St. Jerome in Venice.
Fresco in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini.
The start of work on the frescoes on the Legend of the True Cross in San Francesco in Arezzo.
The Compagnia della Misericordia in Sansepolcro sends a reminder about the completion of its polyptych. On 4 October the contract for a polyptych for the church of Sant'Agostino in Sansepolcro is signed.
Piero is in Rome and presumably works on frescoes for the papal chambers in the Vatican, which are later overpainted by Raphael.
Piero's mother dies on 6 November.
Signing of the frescoes of St. Louis of Toulouse in Sansepolcro.
Receipt of payment for the Misericordia altar.
Piero's father dies on 20 February.
The Annunziata confraternity in Arezzo commissions Piero to produce a processional flag.
Piero works on a processional flag in Sansepolcro and holds official positions there.
Piero completes a banner in Bastia, as he had to leave Borgo San Sepolcro because of the Plague.
Piero enters into negotiations with the Corpus Domini brotherhood in Urbino about the completion of an altar painting started by Uccello. He receives part payment for the Sant'Agostino polyptych.
Piero pays his taxes in Borgo San Sepolcro on 23 February.
Final payment for an undetermined work, possibly the polyptych for the monastery of Sant'Agostino.
Final payment for a lost painting for the Lady Chapel in the Badia in Sansepolcro.
From 1 July and with occasional breaks, Piero stays in Sansepolcro until 1480, and is a regular member of the council there.
Completion of another fresco that no longer exists in the chapel of the Compagnia della Misericordia.
Piero is the head of the Brotherhood of St. Bartholomew in Sansepolcro.
Piero rents an apartment in Rimini on 22 April.
Piero dedicates his treatise "Libellus de Quinque Corporibus Regularibus" to Guidobaldo Montefeltro, the son of Federico da Montefeltro.
Piero draws up his will on 5 July.
Piero dies on 11 October and is buried on 12 October in the Badia in Sansepolcro.
© 2007 B. L.
Piero della Francesca Art
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