Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-1492), painter, mathematician, and theorist, was one of the most influential Italian artists of the early Renaissance.

Piero della Francesca was the son of Benedetto dei Franceschi, a shoemaker and tanner in Borgo San Sepolcro near Arezzo. Piero was called "della Francesca, " according to Giorgio Vasari, because he was raised by his mother, who had been widowed before his birth.

Piero was mentioned in a document of Sept. 7, 1439, as "being with" Domenico Veneziano when Domenico was painting in S. Egidio and S. Maria Nuova, Florence. During the 1440s Piero was in San Sepolcro and Ferrara. In 1451 he executed a frescoed portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta in the Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini. On April 12, 1459, he was paid for work (lost) done in the Vatican, Rome. He decorated the choir of S. Francesco, Arezzo, between 1452 and 1466. From 1467 until his death he remained in San Sepolcro except for brief periods in Bastia (1468), Urbino (1469), and Rimini (1482). He served on the town council of San Sepolcro and was a member of the Company of St. Bartholomew. His will is dated July 5, 1487. Vasari relates that the artist was blind and had to be led about by a boy during his last years. Piero died on Oct. 12, 1492.

The Baptism of Christ is a good introduction to Piero's style. Within an arched frame the baptism is taking place in a landscape strikingly similar to the countryside around San Sepolcro. The static, dour figures arranged in regular geometric patterns across the panel's surface are lit by the limpid, luminous Umbrian light. To the left, a trio of angels restricts the view into the distance; to the right, space opens up to reveal a disrobing figure and, further back, a group of bearded patriarchs before a distant landscape. In this picture Piero showed a concern for rational, measurable space, luminosity, and pearly colors. No documents are associated with this picture. Some scholars consider it Piero's earliest work, about 1440-1445; others date it in the early 1450s.

The legend of the True Cross in the choir of S. Francesco, Arezzo, is Piero's most extensive fresco cycle. The scenes are filled with impassive, static figures that impart a soothing quietness to the various episodes. Even in the battle scenes there is a sense of order and quiet rather than confusion and noise. His interest in clearly articulated, rational space can be seen in the Meeting of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba; his interest in the effects of light in the Dream of Constantine, the first realistic nocturnal scene in Italian art. These murals were painted between 1452, the date of the death of Bicci di Lorenzo, the artist first commissioned to paint them, and Dec. 20, 1466, when a document referred to them as complete.

Other noteworthy works from Piero's mature period are the Flagellation, a panel; the Madonna del Parto, a fresco in the cemetery chapel at Monterchi; and the Resurrection, a detached fresco. In the Resurrection the life-size Risen Christ steps wearily from his sarcophagus while looking directly out at the beholder. Piero depicts him as a manly figure with the awesome vigor of a Byzantine Pantocrator. Behind Christ a mauve Umbrian landscape is lit by the moist, pearly light of dawn, and in the foreground four soldiers are sleeping.

Piero was aware of Flemish painting, as can be seen in his Nativity. He probably knew the art of Rogier van der Weyden and may have met him, for Rogier was in Ferrara the same time (ca. 1450) as Piero. He would certainly have known Justus of Ghent, who served the court at Urbino. The Flemish qualities in Piero's work include his use of the oil paint technique and some iconographic types, such as the Madonna del Parto and the Madonna of Humility in the Nativity.

In 1465 Piero executed a diptych portrait of Federigo da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, and his wife. The artist's major work for Federigo was the altarpiece, Madonna with Saints and Donor, which dates in the late 1470s.

Piero wrote three treatises. De prospectiva pingendi, written before 1482, deals with linear perspective and is still the definitive work on the subject. The other treatises are concerned with painting and business mathematics.


Further Reading on Piero della Francesca

All modern scholarship concerning Piero della Francesca derives from the pioneering work of Roberto Longhi. Longhi's works, which date from 1914 to 1942, are in Italian, but the fruits of his discoveries have been incorporated in English-language works. Kenneth Clark's readable monograph is Piero della Francesca (1951; 2d ed. 1969). Also useful is Piero Bianconi, All the Paintings of Piero della Francesca (trans. 1962). Bernard Berenson wrote interesting essays on Piero in his Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1897; 2d rev. ed. 1909) and Piero della Francesca; or, The Ineloquent in Art (1954).