Piero della

Italia • 1410−1492
Piero della Francesca (c. 1415, Sansepolcro, Republic of Florence, to October 12, 1492, Sansepolcro, Republic of Florence) was an Italian painter and mathematician—one of the greatest masters of the Early Renaissance. He was born between 1406 and 1420 in what is now the northeastern part of Tuscany. There is no information on his artistic works from 1439 to 1444, so his first artistic steps cannot be traced.

Attributes of his works:
Up until the late 1430's and early 1440's, the Renaissance went unnoticed in Arezzo, one of the largest cities in Umbria. However, by 1439, thanks to his contacts with the art of Florence, Piero della Francesca had familiarized himself with the linear perspective system invented by Brunelleschi and developed by Alberti and sculptures by Donatello, Michelozzo, and Luca della Robbia and the new style they created, as well as with the art of Masaccio, which combined the laws of linear perspective with ancient traditions to create dramatically powerful forms, bold foreshortenings and carnation modeling with the help of sharp dark shadows. The influence of Masaccio can be felt strongly in Piero’s early works, for example in the altarpiece of Madonna della Misericordia, commissioned in 1445 by the Brotherhood of Mercy Borgo San Sepolcro (San Sepolcro, State Museum).

Famous works
The History of the True Cross, Flagellation of Christ, The Penance of St. Jerome, St. Jerome and a Donor, Portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta 

As an artist from a small town that wasn’t part of the sphere of cultural influence of Florence until the 16th century, Piero della Francesca had to learn from masters in other cities. From Domenico Veneziano, who was, in turn, influenced by the International Gothic style (represented in Venice by the artwork of Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello), Piero della Francesca learned the naturalistic transmission of lighting and chiaroscuro; this formed the basis of the powerful poetic realism of his works. The impressionist motifs in his interpretation of foliage, perhaps borrowed by the artist from Veneziano in his later works, and influenced by Flemish art, was one of the earliest attempts in Western European art to depict objects with light.

Despite the fact that Piero della Francesca always maintained close contact with his family and the city in which he was born, from about 1446 to 1454 he worked extensively in the courts of the rulers of Pesaro, Ferrara and Rimini, in Bologna, Ancona and Loreto. It was during this period that he created one of his most beautiful paintings, Flagellation of Christ (Urbino, National Gallery of Marche), in which figures and the surrounding architecture are created with strict observance for proportions, all geometrically verified and portrayed in accordance with the laws of linear and aerial perspective (which are altered only in the group with Christ for placing emphasis in the composition). He adds a landscape for the first time in other paintings from this period, for example, The Penance of St. Jerome (1450, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) and St. Jerome and a Donor (circa 1452, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice). Baptism of Christ (c. 1450, National Gallery, London) shows St. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus under the dove of the Holy Spirit. The three angels to the left are thought to represent Council of Florence and their goal of unifying the Western and Eastern churches.

He painted possibly his most famous work, the fresco series The History of the True Cross (c. 1456) in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo. This is his largest work, and it illustrates how wood from the Garden of Eden was made into the cross used to crucify Christ.

In Florentine painting, under the influence of northern art, a trend towards greater realism in the composition and details and the use of aerial perspective and panoramic views can be seen. In Ferrara, he painted frescoes commissioned by brothers Leonello and Barso d'Este that have not survived. The collection of Leonello included paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, who undoubtedly excited Piero's interest in Flemish oil-painting techniques, ways of painting light and an impressionistic interpretation of gold embroideries and lace so artistically portrayed by artists of the 15th century on the rich clothes worn by the figures in their paintings. The imitation of the Flemish technique and the impressionistic treatment of illuminated objects can be found as early as in the Portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta, ruler of Rimini (1451, Louvre).

From 1446 to 1454, Piero della Francesca created a style that continued throughout his career into his mature works. It is characterized by conventional depictions of hair and eyes (the famous almond-shaped eyes borrowed from the figures of Veneziano) and the idealization of facial features. He painted tall bodies according to the classical canon of Vitruvius proportions, but female images were elongated, with slightly curved necks and high foreheads—elements of the Late Gothic ideal of beauty. In regards to carnation, Piero della Francesca preferred soft tones and smooth transitions, as opposed to sharp and dark shadows, which Masaccio used in his works. In Flagellation of Christ, Piero della Francesca demonstrates a distinct reluctance to depict quick, abrupt or repetitive movements. This is primarily due to his temperament, but studies of ancient sculpture also played a role. The main action, the actual flagellation, is depicted to the left in the background, while in the foreground there are three characters ignoring the subject. The torturers of Christ seem dispassionate, frozen in their movement. In paintings with strictly canonical iconography, Piero della Francesca use original colors, preferring cold tones and a particularly large number of shades of blue.

Piero was also a very influential mathematician, which likely influenced his painting, and wrote several treatises covering arithmetic, algebra, geometry and perspective.


Piero della Francesca died at home on October 12, 1492, on the same day that Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas.
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