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Piero della Francesca (Piero di Benedetto de' Franceschi) (1416?-1492)

( Originally Published 1955 )

One of the towering figures of the Italian Renaissance, he was born in the Umbrian town of Borgo San Sepolcro between 1414 and 1420-probably in 1416. The earliest document referring to him (1439) finds him in Florence working with Domenico Veneziano on frescoes in Santa Maria Nuova. Prior to this he may have been in contact with the Sienese painters Domenico di Bartolo and Sassetta in Umbria. When he returned to Borgo, shortly after 1441, he was in complete possession of his own style, which incorporates elements of form, modeling, geometry and perspective that he could have learned only in Florence. It is probable that while there he was in contact with the architects Brunelleschi and Alberti and the sculptor Donatello, who were the promoters of the new theory of perspective that Piero had mastered by the time he returned to Borgo. Masaccio's frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, were also a profound influence. He was made a councilor of the people in Borgo in 1442. In 1445 he was commissioned to paint the Madonna della Misericordia (now in the Palazzo Communale, Borgo) ; it was finished many years later, with a predella and smaller panels probably executed by assistants. He visited Ferrara to paint some decorations in the Este palace (now lost), and exerted some influence on the Ferrarese school. In 1451 he painted the fresco of $igismondo Malatesta with his patron saint in the Tempio Malatestina at Rimini. Alberti also worked for both of these patrons and Piero's friendship with Alberti lasted until the latter's death in 1472, and influenced Piero profoundly.

During the period 1452-66 he painted his chief work, the magnificent frescoes of the Legend of the True Cross, in the choir of San Francesco at Arezzo. This series, drawn from several literary sources, especially the Golden Legend of Jacopo Voragine, has been called one of the greatest achievements of fifteenth-century Italian art. Piero's art here comes nearer than any contemporary work to the quality of ancient Greek classical style, yet without any specific reference to antique art in figures or accessories. According to Vasari he was called to Rome to decorate papal apartments by Nicholas V, but the work is lost and there is no other evidence of this trip except for a much damaged fresco in Santa Maria Maggiore thought to be by Piero. In the early 1460's he painted the profile portraits of Federigo da Montefeltro of Urbino and his wife, Battista Sforza. Between 1454 and 1469 he worked sporadically on an altarpiece for the church of Sant' Agostino in Borgo, of which four panels are extant in Lisbon, London, the Frick Collection, and the Brera. About 1472 he painted the Madonna and Child with Saints and the kneeling Federigo da Montefeltro (Brera) commemorating the birth of the Duke's son and the death of his wife. During the 1470's he was close to the ducal court at Urbino and held civic offices in Borgo. About 1478 he ceased painting and until his death occupied himself with a treatise on perspective, another on the "five regular bodies," and a small book on arithmetic and geometry. In the treatises he sets forth how the visible world might be reduced to mathematical order.

Of undocumented major works by Piero the outstanding are the Baptism and the Nativity (London), the Flagellation (Urbino, gallery), the Madonna del Parto (Monterchi, cemetery chapel), and the Resurrection (Borgo, Palazzo Communale). Piero's style was austere, impersonal and monumental. Once formed, it changed very little, which accounts for the difficulty in dating many of his important works. His color is cool and light, with frequent combinations of blue, grey and pink. Several paintings include extensive landscape backgrounds which reproduce faithfully the hills and valleys of his native Umbria. His influence was felt throughout Umbria and Tuscany (especially Siena), and is found in Melozzo da Forli and Signorelli, and ultimately in Perugino and even the early Raphael.

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