Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca was primarily famous for his artistic talent more than for his excellence in geometry and mathematics. His art creations were unique and exceptional in terms of depicting graceful and tranquil humanism and the application of geometric forms. He specifically used these geometric forms to improve the depth and perspective of an object being rendered.

Piero Francesca’s did influence Cosimo Tura, Luca Signorelli and Pietro Perugino in terms of creating allegorical paintings. Some of his significant works include Saint Jerome in Penitence (1451), Portrait of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (1451), Baptism of Christ (1460), and Madonna di Senigallia (1474).

Early Life

Piero Francesca was a native of Borgo Santo Sepolcro near Tuscany. He was born anywhere between 1404 and 1422 to a merchant, Benedetto de’ Franceschi and Romana di Perino da Monterchi. His parents married in 1416 and Benedetto paid Romana’s parents some dowry later that year, of which he inherited from his family’s estate in 1410.
Piero’s parents came from a noble family in Tuscany and Florence so it is safe to assume that he came from a well-off family, allowing him to pursue his academic endeavors while being able to develop his talent in painting.

During his stay in Sepolcro, he probably gained his knowledge of Sienese art through his first master Antonio di Giovanni d’Anghiari. He worked as an assistant for him and it lasted for six years, from 1432 to 1438, but these years had been productive for the young painter as he was able to paint some frescoes for the Church. Piero’s works for d’Anghiari had all been paid, and this was confirmed by the bank records and through the written contract signed by his father.

In 1439, he worked alongside Domenico Veneziano to make wall paintings for the church of Sant’Egidio in Florence. Veneziano was the mentor of Piero back then when he was just starting out to become an independent artist. Aside from providing assistance to Veneziano, he also took the opportunity to study the popular works of Florentine painters, sculptors and architects.

There in Florence, Piero might have met some of the most popular artists of the century such as Luca della Robbia, Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico and Donatello. Although he had met up with these masters, it was Masaccio’s works that influenced him most during the early stages of his career. The classical mysticism in Masaccio’s creations like the characters in the Santa Maria del Carmine used to be Piero’s inspiration for his subjects and themes.

As an Independent Artist in San Sepolcro

Piero della Francesca began his professional work in 1442 when he was summoned by the church of the Misericordia in San Sepolcro to paint its altarpiece. He was able to complete this by 1460’s, while also keeping himself busy with other several frescoes in the church of Sant’Andrea of Ferrara and Castello Estense. This was also the time when he became very influential on his contemporaries like Cosimo Tura.

In 1444, Piero went to Rimini to paint the portrait of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. After this one, he began working on the fresco of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and Saint Sigismund for the Tempio Malatestiano court. Art historians believed that Piero could have met the universal genius, Leon Battista Alberti, in Rimini because the Alberti was tasked to restore the Tempio Malatestiano at that time. On addition to this, aside from his painting gigs in Tempio Malatestiano, Piero also had been to Bologna, Ancona and Pesaro from 1451 to 1454.

Piero then left Tempio Malatestiano for pursuing a commissioned work for the Chruch of Sant’Agostino in his home town. He was contracted to create the Polyptych of Saint Augustine of the said church. This work consisted of four panels for its wings and drawings of Saints. However, the centerpiece of this polyptych is now lost, according to art collectors.

After completing this contract, Piero quickly went to Rome to fulfill his duties for Pope Nicholas V. Over there, he was responsible for painting frescoes of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. He also did some frescoes for the Vatican Palace’s walls; however all have been lost or destroyed. But Piero moved on to painting what turned out to be one of his famous works, the Baptism of Christ, which is now in the National Gallery – London. This particular work was painted in 1460 and served as a high altarpiece of the church of the Priory of S. Giovanni Battista.

Outside of San Sepolcro

Having been an in-demand portraitist and painter, Piero della Francesca went to Arezzo in 1452 to continue what Bicci di Lorenzo started – the frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesco. He began in around 1456 and then finished the work in 1466. Apparently, it was a lot of work that included the frescoes about the Legend of the True Cross. This painting marks the golden age of his career because it drew some inspiration by a lot of other painters in Italy. It depicts the medieval age, telling a story of how the relics of the so-called True Cross was discovered and retrieved.

From 1469 to 1486, Piero was working for Count Federico III da Montefeltro as his personal court artist. The Count was based in Urbino, Italy so Piero had to stay there with his patron, and The Flagellation was among his famous paintings during that time. This painting may ring a bell to you because it was a controversial one. According to Marilyn Lavin;

“Although Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation is one of the most famous and highly regarded paintings of the Italian fifteenth century, its prominence in the history of art is relatively new. Small in scale and housed in the out-of-the-way town of Urbino, its very existence is unrecorded before the late eighteenth century. When it made its first appearance in art historical literature sometime after, Piero was, surprisingly enough considered more a technician than an artist. … Only around the turn of [the20th] century did [the Flagellation] begin to be appreciated as a great work of art. With the waning of romantic attitudes and the critical acceptance of Post-Impressionism and Cubism, it was soon drawing praise for the very qualities that had earlier been censured; its restrained expression, purity of color and, above all, the perfect equilibrium of its organization.”
Piero clearly used his geometric technique in painting this art work because of its obvious linear perspective, while the three main figures seem to emit some air of mystery as they converse with each other on the foreground matching the other figures on the background.

After The Flagellation, Piero produced the Double Portrait for Count Federico and of his wife, Battista Sforza. As a result, the portrait features two figures in profile accentuated with stucco roundels and medals. This became a masterpiece because it is one of the first few double portraits ever painted during the Early Renaissance. In addition to this, Piero also executed a number of altarpieces in Urbino entitled the Madonna of Senigllia and the Montefeltro altarpiece, which is now located in Milan’s Brera Gallery.
While Urbino, Piero della Francesca also made sure that he’ll be having a good time developing his own social circles there. Thus, he made friends with Fra Carnevele, Justus van Gent, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Melozzo da Forli and Fra Luca Pacioli. It is this reason that Piero was able gain a good number of followers of his works as well as enabling him to expand his pool of clientele.

Personal Life and Death

Piero della Francesca never got married, as there was no clear evidence to support that he had a wife nor children. And there had been rumors about him getting blind in the last decade of his life, and this was even confirmed by Vasari. However, the most recent historians and biographers refused to believe this claim of Vasari.

Before Piero’s death in 1492, he was believed to be staying in Rimini doing workshops with the would-be and the already successful painters such as Luca Signorelli and Perugino. However, this was also the time when he was seemed to be suffering from eye health problems although this case has not been documented properly. If this was the case, how come he was still able to complete some treatises that were meant for Guidobaldo da Montefeltro?

According to Beck, Piero’s visual health problems could stem from the natural deterioration of the human body, however, there is no precise evidence whether in his works or sketches that suggest of the exact date when this condition started to affect Piero’s works. Plus, there have been no in-depth research being conducted to find out the truth about this claim or to any visual impairment that he had endured.

October 12, 1492 marked the death of Early Renaissance’s finest painter. Piero della Francesca died and was buried in his home town, San Sepolcro. Meanwhile, his estate was deliberately given to the church and to his immediate family.