PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). PAINTERS OUTSIDE TUSCANY. Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca was born ca. 1415 in Borgo Sansepolcro (today in the Province of Arezzo, eastern part of Tuscany), near Perugia, and died in the same town in 12 October 1492. During the last five years of his life, Piero lost his sight and had a guide who led him through the streets of his small town.

Piero was born Piero di Benedetto. His father died before his birth, and he was later called Piero della Francesca after his mother, who was referred to as “la Francesca” due to her marriage with Piero’s father Benedetto de’Franceschi. During his formative years, Piero came in contact and trained with several Sienese masters active in Sansepolcro during his youth (e.g. Sassetta). After this period, he entered into the court of Urbino around 1445. The then Count of Urbino, Federico III da Montefeltro, an old condottiero more or less bandit, ruled his state as an enlightened prince lover of arts and letters. He was the one who commissioned the Palace of Urbino from Luciano Laurana, as we have already explained in other essay, and who also called Paolo Uccello and Melozzo da Forli; he also collected medals and old statues, and Alberti himself thought of dedicating his “De Re Aedificatoria” (or ‘Treaty of Architecture’) to him. The first group of Piero’s works belongs to this period: the Polyptych of the Misericordia (1460-1462), the Baptism of Christ (ca. 1448-1450, today in the National Gallery in London) and the Flagellation of Christ (ca. 1468–1470). The Polyptych of the Misericordia was commissioned in 1445 by the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo Sansepolcro, and is probably the oldest of the artist’s conserved works, although it already brings together what will be the essential characteristics of Piero’s art: an impressive dignity and calm that derive from a monumental placement of figures in space. This Virgin of Mercy, who’s shown protecting the devotees under her mantle, reproduces a common gesture of the International Gothic iconography (artists like Enguerrand Quarton and Bernat Martorell had similar compositions), but in Piero this silent Virgin, of peasant majesty, radiates on her worshipers an admirable peace, full of ineffable security. The Flagellation of Christ, today still in Urbino, represents a fantastic exercise in perspective that uses elements derived from Alberti’s architecture. But here, Piero places in the crystalline space defined by the columns, the architraves and the floor mosaic, a group of characters typically his own, in which he has refrained to represent their passionate instincts, bitterness and violence so that they remain only as monuments full of dignity within an incredibly serene space.

Madonna della Misericordia, oil and tempera on wood panel, by Piero della Francesca, 1460-1462, 134 x 91 cm (Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro). In 1445 the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo Sansepolcro, commissioned Piero to paint this polyptych, which he finished in its entirety (see picture below) almost 20 years later. The central panel of the polyptych, the last to be painted, depicts the Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy). As the patrons asked Piero to paint a solid gold background, he solved the “flatness” of the depiction by placing the kneeling members of the confraternity in the realistic three-dimensional space created by the Madonna’s mantle, which is open around the figures like the apse of a church. The Madonna is in the very center of the composition, she is seen frontally, and is still portrayed larger in size than the human figures, a tradition of medieval painting. However, the fully three-dimensional rendering of the figure, inspired by Masaccio, and the perspective study, inspired by Brunelleschi, are directly from the Renaissance.
Polyptych of the Misericordia, oil and tempera on wood panel, by Piero della Francesca. 1445-1462, base 330 cm, height 273 cm (Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro). The oldest parts of this tryptych correspond to the two panels with St. Sebastian and St. John the Baptist, to the left of the Madonna della Misericordia central panel. The panel with St. Sebastian was closely influenced by Masaccio‘s nudes, which Piero would have seen in an early visit to Florence. The panels of the tympanum (top), represent the Crucifixion in the center, and St. Benedict, the Angel Annunciate (left) and the Madonna Annunciate and St. Francis (right). To the right of the central panel are the figures of St. Andrew and St. Bernardino. The predellas (in this polyptych running on the sides and base), include five scenes of Jesus’s life and were mostly executed by assistants.
Baptism of Christ, egg tempera on poplar panel, by Piero della Francesca, 1448-1450, 167 x 116 cm (National Gallery, London). This painting was originally placed in the Chapel of San Giovanni in the Pieve and was commissioned by the Camaldolese Monastery of Sansepolcro. The most striking feature of this panel is the extraordinary lighting from above, creating delicate pastel colors, with pale shadows that surround the figures and enhance their three dimensionality. At the center, the figure of Christ is portrayed in contraposto while he is being baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Behind St. John, a man is taking off his clothes getting ready to be baptized next. The dove of the Holy Spirit fits into a patch of sky amidst the foliage of the tree, mimicking the clouds in the sky. The figure of Christ, John’s hand and the bowl, and the bird, form an axis which divides the painting in two symmetrical parts. Piero created a second division by placing the walnut tree on the left, with its white bark that echoes the white skin of Christ; this divides the painting according to the golden ratio*. The three angels on the left are reminiscent of the groups of children sculpted by Luca della Robbia for the Cantoria in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and as a break from traditional iconography, Piero depicted them holding each other’s hands. This gesture is probably an allusion to the unification of Western and Eastern Churches. This fact is also suggested by the figures dressed in oriental (Greek) fashion placed behind the figure of the man that’s getting ready to be baptized. The town depicted in the middle distance in the painting, to Christ’s left, may be Sansepolcro. This panel was originally the center piece of a triptych, with side panels representing St. Peter and St. Paul and a predella by Matteo di Giovanni, now in the civic art gallery in Sansepolcro. Piero was renowned in his time as an authority on perspective and geometry, for example, his attention to these details was such that he represented John’s arm and leg forming angles of the same size.
The Flagellation of Christ, oil and tempera on wood panel, by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1468-1470, 59 x 82 cm (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino). This is one of Piero’s most famous panel paintings. It was executed during his first visit to Urbino. The painting contains subtle references to the situation of the time, which are very difficult to interpret today. The theory most accepted by art scholars today is that it was commissioned as an attempt to favor the reconciliation between the two Christian churches (East and West), in view of the imminent Turkish attack on Constantinople. This claim seems to be supported by both the presence of the character in the center, dressed after Greek fashion, and an inscription on the frame (“convenerunt in unum“, “together in one”). As in other works by Piero, the composition and perspective was very rigorously designed. The composition appears to be divided into two scenes, separated by the column supporting the temple in which the Flagellation of Christ is taking place. On the right are three figures (who seem to have no involvement with the flagellation in the other half of the picture), arranged in a semi-circle, whose identities are not certain. They are probably well-known characters of the time and, as such, they would be portrayed with their real features. Piero structured this composition rigorously by using a single vanishing point and as such, the painting is an ultimate example of the use of linear perspective during the Quattrocento. Piero also gave extreme attention to detail, such as the ceiling of the temple, the bronze sculpture on the column with its splendid reflection of light or the magnificent damask garment worn by the character on the far right, with its contrast between blue and gold. The scene is setting in the portico of Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. Pilate, who observes the torture from a throne, is thought to be a portrait of Mahomet II, who conquered Constantinople, though the image closely resembles the type created by Pisanello for the Medal of the Emperor John VIII Palaeologus (1438). The seated man on left of the painting wears a very similar hat. The painting is signed on the lowest step of Pilate’s throne. Art scholars established the idea that the painting implies two time frames in the composition due to the fact that the flagellation scene is illuminated from the right while the “modern” outdoor scene is illuminated from the left.

Around 1450, Piero was in Ferrara and Rimini, where he painted an impressive portrait of the condottiero Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and in 1451 he executed the famous fresco of St. Sigismund and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in the Tempio Malatestiano.

Portrait of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, oil and tempera on wood panel, by Piero della Francesca, 1451, 44 x 34 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This portrait was based on a medal made by Pisanello in 1445, and although the composition was done within a context of traditional International Gothic iconography, Piero succeeded in giving it a new depth: the sitter here becomes a fully-rounded, almost sculptural portrait with a proud expression of unrelenting cruelty. Piero achieved three-dimensionality by depicting an ultra realistic skin tonality using oil paints. The condottiero and lord of Rimini and Fano Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta is depicted in profile with special attention for naturalist details in the textures and hair. This is all proof of Piero’s good knowledge of works of Flemish masters such as Rogier van der Weyden.
St. Sigismund and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, fresco, by Piero della Francesca, 1451, 257 x 345 cm (Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini). Piero was favored by some of the smaller city-states like Urbino and Rimini located in central Italy. For Sigismondo Malatesta, the lord of Rimini, he painted this fresco with a devotional subject in the family’s church known as the Tempio Malatestiano. This building was completely remodeled by one of the great architects and theoreticians of the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti, who almost certainly had contact with Piero during the years their careers overlapped in Rimini, Urbino, and Rome. In this fresco, Piero depicted young Sigismondo kneeling in profile before his patron saint, the old bearded Sigismund. St. Sigismund bears a resemblance to the recently deceased Holy Roman Emperor by that name, which may add another layer of meaning to this work.

A little later, from 1452, Piero began his most celebrated work: the decoration of the apse of the church of San Francesco in Arezzo with frescoes on the theme of The History of the True Cross which he finished in 1464. This is considered as one of the masterpieces of painting, and today particularly appreciated for the connection between the harsh spirit, permeated with seriousness and strength, typical of della Francesca, and the general spirit of XXth century art. The narrative program of these frescoes derives from legends in medieval sources related to the finding of relics of the True Cross. These stories were collected in the Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varagine (mid-13th century).

The general effect of these frescoes is unforgettable. In them, Piero defined himself as the painter of space and light; his great concern was to illuminate the scenes and define the figures by means of a diaphanous light.

Frescoes with the cycle of the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1452-1466 (Cappella Maggiore, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo). This fresco cycle narrates the stories of the True Cross (the cross on which Christ was crucified). This vast work demonstrates Piero’s advanced knowledge of perspective and color, his geometric orderliness and skill in pictorial construction. Although Piero designed the frescoes, parts of the paintings were executed by his assistants, as it was usual.

According to an ancient medieval legend, whose theological purpose was to show the indissoluble relationship between the Old and New Testaments, between original sin and redemption by Christ, the wood with which the Cross was built came from a tree born from a seed that the sons of Adam placed under their father’s tongue when burying him. Thus, Piero begins his story: Adam dying in the arms of Eve, begs Seth to ask the angel of Paradise for the promised seed for the salvation of humanity, while a young man, naked, seen from behind, leans on a cane. A character seen from the front, dressed in a kind of black apron, puts an impressive note in this scene. Other famous scenes of this fresco cycle depict the episodes of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and the Annunciation. Further on, other fresco represents Constantine’s dream the night before the battle with Maxentius, when he received divine inspiration to place the sign of the Cross on his banners to obtain victory. We see the emperor sleeping in a half-open tent, but a mysterious light is enough for Piero to indicate that a supernatural phenomenon is taking place inside, and that the emperor isn’t peacefully sleeping, but is dreaming something very important. In the fresco of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, which takes place outdoors, the transparent blue of the sky stands out with more force on the large emblazoned flags that captains wave and on the black tones of the horses of the foreground. Other fresco, opposite this one, represents the Finding and Proof of the Cross by Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother. In it, Piero introduces a female type that he will repeat in later frescoes. She is no longer the Florentine patrician girl painted so many times by Botticelli, but a tall woman, with a straight nose, a robust neck and a broad, clear forehead, with hair carefully gathered by the cap. When not depicting female portraits, Piero della Francesca always used this same type, quite impersonal.

Death of Adam, from the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca, 390 x 747 cm (Cappella Maggiore, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo). On the right of the lunette, the old Adam, seated on the ground and surrounded by his children, sends Seth to Archangel Michael. He gives Seth some seedlings from the tree of the original sin to be placed in his father’s mouth at the moment of his death. In the background we see the meeting between Seth and Michael, while on the left, in the shadow of a huge tree, Adam’s body is buried in the presence of his family while Seth places the seeds under his tongue. Directly behind the grave stands the tree that will later sprout from one of the seeds. This tree that grows on the patriarch’s grave is chopped down by King Solomon and its wood, which could not be used for anything else, is thrown across a stream to serve as a bridge. Adam’s family is gathered around the grave, their gestures expressing grief.
Death of Adam (detail). Adam dispatches his son Seth (standing, with white beard) to the gates of paradise, while he is being supported by Eve who stands behind him. A youthful couple also appears in the scene: a nude man seen from the back, leaning on his staff, and a young woman in a dark “apron”, standing behind Adam and turned frontally toward the viewer.
Death of Adam (detail). Adam’s family is gathered around the grave, while their gestures express their profound grief.
Death of Adam (detail). This two youths on the left, who witness with dismay the first death in the history of man, are undoubtedly among the most noble and natural creations of the painting of all time. They can be considered either as Adamites (part of Adam’s family) or can also be mythological figures. The two stand apart from the others and are deeply involved with one another, in an intensely emotional rapport expressed by their gazes. The young man, dressed in a skin with a long tail, grasps the arm of the young woman, who is dressed in Roman style garments and whose face is of an affable beauty.
Procession of the Queen of Sheba; Meeting between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, from the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca, 336 x 747 cm (Cappella Maggiore, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo). The narrative continues in the second register on the west wall. Two episodes are shown in the same fresco, separated by the column of the royal palace in the middle of the composition and the vanishing point for the whole fresco. The Procession of the Queen of Sheba scene (on the left) is taking from the “Golden Legend“, while the Meeting between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon (on the right) is a scene added by Piero. The Queen of Sheba, on her journey to see Solomon and hear his words of wisdom, is about to cross the stream, when by a miracle she learns that the Savior will be crucified on the wood that serves as a bridge. She kneels then in devout adoration. The grooms and horses on the far left seem to reminisce the horses Ucello painted for his Battle of San Romano. When Solomon discovers the nature of the divine message received by the Queen of Sheba, he orders that the bridge be removed and the wood, which will cause the end of the kingdom of the Jews, be buried (right). But the wood is found and, after a second premonitory message, becomes the instrument of the Passion.
Procession of the Queen of Sheba (detail). As the Queen of Sheba passed by on her visit to the wise Solomon, she came to the wood on the bridge and foresaw that one day the world’s savior would hang from this beam. She therefore refused to step on it, and instead knelt before it in veneration. Behind the Queen of Sheba is her retinue of aristocratic ladies in waiting, with their high foreheads (according to the fashion of the time). Their velvet cloaks softly envelop their bodies, reaching all the way to the ground.
Meeting between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. To the right of the fresco we see the Queen of Sheba’s encounter with Solomon, which takes place in a temple-like structure enliven by decorations of colored marble. Solomon stands with his courtiers; the queen, entering from the right, deferentially bows to him (see detail picture below). The queen prophesied to Solomon that the dominion of the Jews would one day be destroyed by the man who would hang from that beam. Solomon’s response was to have the beam sunk in a well. Here, Piero depicted a real sense of spatial depth between the characters witnessing the event, while their heads, one behind the other, are placed on different planes. This distinction of spatial spaces is emphasized also by the different color tonalities.

Annunciation, from the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca, 329 x 193 cm (Cappella Maggiore, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo). The Annunciation is to the left in the lower register on the altar wall. The subject of this painting has nothing to do with the Golden Legend and the story of the True Cross. This is an addition by Piero. This fresco serves as a reminder of the incarnation of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross. Again we see classical architecture present in the elegant column in the center. The symmetry of the proportions is broken by the vanishing point, placed not in the center but to the right, behind the Virgin. Piero gave great attention to the smallest details, brought out by the reflections of the light: the transparent veil that covers Mary’s head, the pearls that decorate her dress, the wood intarsia on the door, the shadows that are projected on the white marble surfaces… From up in heaven the Eternal Father, seen in half-length, stretches down his arms sending the Holy Spirit in the form of golden rays of light. The archangel Gabriel brings the announcement to Mary who is inside her home: an elegant Roman style setting, decorated with valuable red and green marble. Before a closed, wooden door with intarsia panels, the kneeling archangel brings the divine message to the Virgin. He is depicted in perfect profile, according to the 14th-century iconographic tradition.
Annunciation (detail). The light highlights the pure white marble column that divides the scene in two parts and supports the entablature of the porch where Mary stands. Unlike many other Virgins of the Annunciation, who receive the announcement humbly and almost fearfully, Piero’s Virgin stands and is rather taller than life-sized. She appears regal, with a very beautiful expression, serious, but untroubled. In the background to the right, there is a small glimpse of the nuptial chamber, with the rear wall decorated with a motif of cubes in perspective.
Vision of Constantine, from the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca, 329 x 190 cm (Cappella Maggiore, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo). The story continues in the lower picture compartment to the right of the altar with this fresco. On the eve of the battle for power with Maxentius, Constantine saw in a dream a cross in the sky, and heard a voice saying, ‘By this sign shalt thou conquer.’ Henceforth, he substituted the traditional emblem for the Roman eagle on the standard of his legions. The scene takes place at dawn, when the first rays of sun are coming glittering in the sky. Inside his large tent, the Emperor lies asleep. Seated on a bench bathed in light, a servant watches over him and gazes dreamily out towards the viewer, as though in silent conversation. With a daring innovation and extraordinary execution, that almost seems to anticipate Caravaggio’s novel concept of light, Piero painted the two sentries in the foreground standing out from the darkness, lit only from the sides by the supernatural light projected from the angel above. The angel descends from on high, showing the Cross made of light to the emperor deep in sleep.
Constantine’s Victory over Maxentius, from the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca, 322 x 764 cm (Cappella Maggiore, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo). In this fresco, Piero’s portrayed Constantine face based on the portrait of John VIII Palaeologus, former Eastern Emperor, who was portrayed on a medal by Pisanello. The battle between Constantine and Maxentius is depicted as a splendid parade, from which the crashing of arms has been eliminated. Accepting the invitation of the angel, Constantine leads his armed horsemen from the left with arm outstretched brandishing the Cross (see detail below). Their very long standards and lances stand out sharply against the bright, clear sky of the early morning. Constantine’s group is dominated by the large, yellow banner with the black imperial eagle. To the far left of the scene, right behind the horseman with the Roman-style leather armor and the large metal helmet, the bugler puffs up his cheeks with all of the air in his lungs ready to play his instrument. Maxentius and his troops flee; only one of the soldiers in flight has remained nearly completely intact, he looks back as he is crossing the river and his face is marked by fear, he clutches the horse’s mane with his hands, as the reins are useless for guiding the horse through the water. The view of the river is extraordinarily original, with the crystalline water acting as a limpid mirror to the buildings and trees along its banks. For the composition of this fresco, Piero was inspired by the Battle of San Romano, painted by Paolo Uccello about 20 years earlier. In this fresco though, Piero achieved a realistic atmosphere, conveyed by the bright lighting which in turn emphasizes the various spatial planes. From the reflections of light on the armors, to the shadows projected by the horses’ hoofs on the ground, to the wide open sky with its spring clouds tossed by the wind, nature is reproduced with realism, down to its most ephemeral details.

In this same fresco cycle with the story of Saint Helena, on the left, Empress Saint Helena, along with other spectators, attends the Finding of the Cross. On the right, she performs the Proof of the Cross: a naked young man is resurrected when the Cross is placed over his grave while Saint Helena and the ladies of her entourage kneel before the grave. The building that serves as the background to this scene, a basilica decorated with white circles on a dark background (of an incredible architectural novelty), contrasts with the typically medieval view of Jerusalem that appears above the scene of the Finding. Finally, Piero narrates the episode that occurred years later: Khosrau, king of Persia, conquers Jerusalem and steals the Cross. Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor, defeats him in battle and returns the Cross to that city. This battle, a subject that by nature should be dynamic by essence, reveals the extent to which the characters of Piero della Francesca live in a serene, orderly and slow space: the soldiers of Khosrau move slowly, like good workers doing their job. It would seem that the characters in Piero’s scenes are solemn witnesses who seem to show us that “there are men and women who have seen amazing things.”

Finding and Recognition of the True Cross, from the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca, 356 x 747 cm (Cappella Maggiore, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo). The story continues in the middle register of the left (east) wall. This is one of Piero’s most complex and monumental compositions. After Constantine’s victory, his mother Helena travels to Jerusalem to recover the miraculous wood of the Cross. No one knows where the relic of the Cross is, except a Jew called Judas. On the left is the discovery of the three crosses in a ploughed field, outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, while on the right, in a street in the city, is the Recognition of the True Cross. The scene on the left is depicted in the fields, and as background, up on the hills and bathed in a soft afternoon light, is the city of Jerusalem, which Piero painted after the likeness of the city of Arezzo, enclosed by its walls. Judas, wearing a red hat, stands next to Helena, pointing at the cross that’s just being unearthed. One man in the foreground is still standing waist-deep in the hole, while three others, carrying axes and shovels, stand next to the first cross that was excavated, one of them (seen in profile) rests exhausted on his spade. He wears a black woolen jacket, left open over an ample white blouse, beneath which appear his muscular legs, nude as far as the knees, as he has rolled down his stockings to work more comfortably. After excavating all the three crosses, Helena brought them to the city, for she had no idea which of them was the cross of Christ. In the scene on the right, below the temple of Minerva, modeled after buildings designed by Alberti, Empress Helena and her retinue stand around the dead youths; suddenly, touched by the Holy Wood, one is resurrected.
Finding of the True Cross (detail). Here we see Judas the Jew, with a red hat, standing next to Empress Helena, while pointing at the cross that’s being excavated.
In the scene of the Recognition of the True Cross, the action takes place in an urban square. In the background the richly encrusted facade of a temple almost fills the space. Judas has used all three crosses to touch the dead body of a young man that’s being carried to his grave. At the touch of the third cross, the young man revived and sat up, thus revealing which of the three was the true cross of Christ. The kneeling figure of Helena is a repetition of the figure of the Queen of Sheba in the scene of Procession of the Queen of Sheba. At the touch of the third cross, the young man revived and sat up, thereby revealing which of the three was the true cross of Christ. The kneeling figure of Helena is a repetition of the figure of the Queen of Sheba in the scene of the Procession of the Queen of Sheba. The succession of buildings on the right follows a road that leads to a church with a typical bell tower and a high, rounded dome ending in a lantern. This could be a reference to Piero’s native town of Sansepolcro. The sloping Cross, the foreshortened bust of the youth with his barely visible profile, the semi-circle created by the ladies-in-waiting, and even the shadows projecting on the ground, every single element is carefully studied in order to build a depth of space showing a strict sense of three-dimensionality.
Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, from the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca, 329 x 747 cm (Cappella Maggiore, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo). In the year 615, the Persian King Khosrau steals the wood and uses it as an object of worship. The Eastern Emperor Heraclius wages war on the Persian King and, after defeating him, returns to Jerusalem with the Holy Wood. In this scene Piero didn’t include a landscape, but concentrated instead on the battle scene. The lower part of the composition is filled with the legs of horses and people, while above masses of steel, torsos and heads collide. Khosrau, defeated, on the far right awaits the executioner’s sword, his face was painted using the same cartoon of the face of King Solomon in the scene of Meeting between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon (see pictures before). Above him the True Cross is blasphemously incorporated into his throne’s canopy. Next to Khosrau stand Emperor Heraclius wearing a red helmet, who grasps the staff of command as he condemns him. The armored horsemen coming from the left and clad in their shining armor, seem to play a decisive role in the outcome of the battle. In the upper part of the composition, standards wave against the morning sky: the rampant lion is followed by the large, white Cross on a red field, emblem of the faith of the Christian soldiers. To the right (falling down) are the flags of the defeated enemy: one black with yellow, other torn, with moor’s heads, and a third with a white background, three six-pointed stars, and the Turkish crescent moon.
Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau (detail).

This monumental work of the apse of San Francesco de Arezzo occupied Piero for several years. During this period, he made some trips to Rome, which laid the foundations of what should have been the Roman school of painting, and painted other various works, very few of which have survived to us: the Resurrection of Christ (ca. 1460’s, Museo Civico, Santo Sepolcro), the Madonna del Parto (ca. 1460 or 1467, Musei Civici Madonna del Parto, Monterchi, Tuscany) and the mural with the figure of St. Mary Magdalen (ca. 1460) next to the entrance to the sacristy of the Cathedral of Arezzo. The last two works show two types of woman characteristic of Piero, in the style of which we have commented before. Like the ladies of the retinues of the Queen of Sheba or of St. Elena, despite their poetic strength, these female figures retain a domestic, provincial aftertaste. The Madonna del Parto has a beautiful wide and open forehead under which are some strange half-open eyes (see picture below); St. Mary Magdalene is represented as a noble and down-to-earth woman, whose strength comes from the posture and features of both her head and neck. These female bodies are above all solid volumes located in space.

Resurrection, fresco in tempera, by Piero della Francesca, 1463-1465, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro). This painting is recognized as one of Piero’s masterpieces. It was originally painted for the Town Hall of Sansepolcro, in where the chief magistrates and governors before starting their councils, would pray before the image. Within a framework formed by two painted marble columns, Piero divided the composition into two separate perspective zones: one is in the center of the sarcophagus, and the other is in Christ’s face. The top of the sarcophagus forms a boundary between the two points of view, and the steepness of the hills painted in the background prevents the transition between these two points of view from being too upsetting for the viewer. The lower area, where the sleeping guards are, has a very low vanishing point. The guard holding the lance is depicted sitting in an anatomically impossible pose, and appears to have no legs. Piero probably left them out so as not to break the balance of the composition. Above the sleeping sentries, stands the watchful Christ, not seen from below, but perfectly frontally. Christ is portrayed with solid peasant features, concrete, restrained and hieratic. The splendid landscape of the background is half still immersed in the barrenness of winter (left), and half already brought back to life (“resurrected”) by the spring (right). The resurrected Christ holds the banner of Sansepolcro. According to tradition, the sleeping soldier in brown armor to the left is a self-portrait of Piero.
Madonna del Parto, fresco, by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1460 or 1467, 260 x 203 cm (Musei Civici Madonna del Parto, Monterchi, Arezzo). The fresco was originally placed in Santa Maria di Momentana (formerly Santa Maria in Silvis), an old country church in the hill town of Monterchi. The figure of this Madonna, as protector of pregnant women, is represented with an austere expression and the natural stance of a woman bearing a child. She stands out against a damask canopy decorated with pomegranates (a symbol of Christ’s passion), held open at the sides by two angels. Piero depicted this Madonna without her traditional characteristics (books,  royal attributes, girdle) as it was customary. The upper part of the painting is lost. The meaning of the painting has been controversial. It has been suggested that the canopy represents the Ark of the Covenant, and thus Mary would represent the new Ark of Alliance in her role as Mother of Christ. For other art scholars the canopy is a symbol of the Catholic Church and the Madonna would symbolize the tabernacle, as she is portrayed containing Jesus’ body.
Madonna del Parto (detail).
Saint Mary Magdalen, fresco, by Piero della Francesca, 1460, 190 x 105 cm (in a wall near the church’s sacristy, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo). Piero portrayed the monumental figure of St. Mary Magdalen by painting large patches of bright colors. Even so, he displayed particular attention to detail typical of his works: the reflections of light on the small bottle, the hair that is depicted strand by strand falling over the saint’s shoulders, the garment’s folds and the reliefs on the marble arch. Piero suggests space and distance in the blue sky of the background, while at the same time, he locks the action in the foreground. The painting’s light source comes from the front, behind the viewer, and particularly bouncing off the garments. Magdalene’s halo, seen in perspective, was gilded, as were probably the belt and the sleeve of her dress.

In contrast, in the last group of Piero’s works, painted after 1465, he seems to be interested in humanistic individualism. The Double Portrait of the Dukes of Urbino (ca. 1473-1475) shows that the profiles of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza participate in what most surprised Alberti: the irreducible character of the personality and the deep differences that separate human beings. Perhaps these portraits have influenced the air of psychology that shows up in Piero’s last works. The terrible plague of 1468 forced him to flee his hometown and take refuge in the small village of Bastia.

Double Portraits of the Dukes of Urbino Federico da Montefeltro and His Wife Battista Sforza (reverse sides), oil on wood, by Piero della Francesca, 1473-1475, 47 x 33 cm (each) (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The reverse panels of this double portrait are painted in a style that can be regarded as miniature. They represent Triumphs of the sitters matching each one of their portraits. Each one includes a triumphal chariot, drawn by white horses (for Federico’s side), and unicorns (for Battista’s). These chariots bear the personifications of virtues. In Federico’s case these are the cardinal virtues of justice, wisdom, courage and moderation. His wife is accompanied by the theological virtues: faith, hope and love, and additionally by pudicitia, namely chastity or modesty. The chariots are driven by cupids as the servants of marital love. In this context, they represent the triumphal chariots of the masculine virtues of fame, and of the feminine virtues. The Duke (in the left panel) is shown in his role as a professional soldier, baton in hand, and dressed in shining armor. Beneath these scenes of triumph, Latin inscriptions celebrate the virtues of Federico and Battista. Federico’s inscription extols the “fame of his virtues” and Battista’s says she is “honored by the achievements of her husband.”
Double Portraits of the Dukes of Urbino Federico da Montefeltro and His Wife Battista Sforza, oil on wood, by Piero della Francesca, 1473-1475, (47 x 33 cm (each) (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). In this famous diptych, portrayed on the left is Battista Sforza, Duchess of Urbino; on the right is Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. As one of the most celebrated portraits of the Italian Renaissance and one of Piero’s most famous works, these paintings follow the tradition of the 14th century inspired by the design of ancient coins: the two portraits are shown in profile, the Duke and Duchess of Urbino appear unaffected by turmoil and emotions. The couple are facing each other and the spatial element is suggested by the light and the continuity of the vast landscape that develops in the background, representing the area of the Marches over which the Duke and Duchess ruled.
Double Portraits of the Dukes of Urbino Federico da Montefeltro and His Wife Battista Sforza, (1473-1475). The chromatic contrast between the bronze skin tones used for Federico and the pale tones of Battista Sforza is striking; the pale appearance of the Duchess not only respects the aesthetic conventions fashionable during the Renaissance but could also allude to her untimely death in 1472. Piero thus created the left half of the painting as a memorial for the Duchess after her death. In the background landscape, Piero uses atmospheric perspective, which makes the objects recede into the distance.

Piero’s last works are the Madonna di Senigallia (ca. 1474, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino), the Nativity (ca. 1470-1475, National Gallery, London) and the Virgin and Saints with Federico de Montefeltro, also called Pala Brera (1472) because it is preserved in the Pinacoteca di Brera, in Milan. Probably all were painted in the decade of 1470-1480, during which Piero frequently resided in Urbino. The Madonna di Senigallia, one of Piero’s most beautiful works, surprises us with its ability to harmonize the monumental with the intimate. In this Virgin there’s no hint of the impassivity of the priestesses of his Arezzo frescoes, but we find in her the calm of an ancient dynasty of kings. In the Nativity of London, the fine Virgin, with pointed chin, takes us away from the feminine type to which Piero has accustomed us, and the whole of the work shows that the artist moves away from abstraction to devote himself to the observation of detail, of the anecdote, with an exquisite taste for small wild flowers, mosses, birds, details of luxurious garments and jewelry. Finally, in the Pala Brera, next to the impressive portrait of Federico da Montefeltro clad in his shining armor, we find again the delicious geometry young Piero painted for the Flagellation of Christ in Urbino. In this painting ten characters describe a semicircle around the Virgin; behind them there’s an apse made up of as many porphyry panels, which support a coffered barrel vault and a monumental marble shell. We can also see a shocking detail due to its mystery: an eggshell hangs by a thread in the center of the space, exactly above the head of the Virgin. An impossible transparent light falls on the characters, without bathing them with shadows.

Madonna of Senigallia, oil on wood panel, by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1470-1474, 61 x 53 cm (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Ducal Palace of Urbino, Urbino). Originally painted for the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Urbino just outside Senigallia (Marche), hence its current name, this painting shows the immense interest Piero had in the treatment of light, both in terms of reflections and of magical transparency. From the observation of Mary’s veil, slightly puckered on her forehead with subtle light variations, to the coral necklace around the Child’s neck, to the angels’ shining pearls, these are all effects which, together with the light streaming in from the window, and forming a perfectly geometrical shape on the end wall, have astonished viewers. The blond hair of the angel on the left, because of the reflection of the light coming in from behind, acquires an almost magical golden glow, as though it were a natural halo. Other Flemish influence in Piero’s painting is demonstrated by other details such as the basket with linen gauze to the right, the coral necklace of the Child Christ, and the fabric covering the Madonna’s head. The light entering the window on the left, is a symbol of the Virgin’s conception. The linen in the basket is an allusion to her purity, while the case for hosts in the shelf (top right corner) and the necklace and pendant of coral worn by the infant Jesus both hint to the Eucharist sacrifice.
Nativity, oil on poplar panel, by Piero della Francesca, 1470-1475, 124 x 123 cm (National Gallery, London). Among Piero’s surviving paintings, the last one in chronological order is this Nativity. The painting was made for the artist’s family palace in his home town, perhaps an altarpiece for a private chapel. The missing patches of color, which might almost indicate that the painting is unfinished, are in fact probably the result of overcleaning. The Child lies on the ground, lying on a corner of Mary’s cloak, following traditional Flemish iconography which is reflected also in the features of the Child. Other elements of Flemish influence can be found in a few naturalistic details, such as the strange figure of St. Joseph sitting on a saddle crossing his legs in a pose recalling the Hellenistic Spinario bronze sculpture, prominently revealing the sole of his right foot to the viewer, or the two animals in the background, depicted with great realism. At the right, Piero depicted a miniaturistic view of a city (perhaps Piero’s birthplace of Borgo Sansepolcro), even the streets and the windows of the buildings are visible, just like in the landscapes by Petrus Christus. The composition of the painting is quite innovative: the wide expanse of ground, dotted with patches of grass, and the roofing of the hut, with its shadow projecting onto the ruined brick wall, seem to indicate an attempt by the artist to fragment the space of the picture, breaking the rule that he had always rigorously abided by. The vanishing point is slightly raised and gives an almost bird’s-eye view of the spectacular river landscape to the left, which extends into the distance with trees, bushes and sheer rockfaces that reminds us of some of the young Leonardo’s drawings. The group of serenading angels (see detail below) playing lutes and singing were clearly inspired by Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria in Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. To the right, one shepherd is holding a staff and gesturing heavenward, while the other gazes upwards, perhaps towards a star (not visible). The scene includes plants and birds, like a magpie on the roof of the stable, temporarily silenced from its incessant chattering, and a red-faced goldfinch, symbol of the passion, in a shrub to the left.
Nativity, (1470-1475), detail.
Madonna and Child with Saints (also known as “Montefeltro Altarpiece”, “Brera Madonna” or “Pala Brera”), oil and tempera on wood panel, by Piero della Francesca, 1472-1474, 248 x 170 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). This huge altarpiece was probably painted for the church of the Osservanti di San Donato in Urbino, and was commissioned by Federico III da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, to celebrate the birth of Federico’s son, Guidobaldo. The painting was done in such meticulous perspective that the feigned depth of the coffer-vaulted apse at the rear can be calculated. Federico da Montefeltro, shown kneeling at the foot of the Madonna’s throne, is portrayed wearing his armor, he removed his helmet and hand coverings in sign of respect. The complex and majestic architectural background, against which the ‘sacra conversazione‘ takes place, is clearly derived from designs by Alberti in his construction of the church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua. At the same time, the architecture anticipates certain ‘classical’ elements which will be later used by the young Bramante, another extraordinary artist from Urbino. Piero again displays here his mastery at managing proportions. The Madonna’s head is placed in the absolute center of the composition. The vanishing point was placed at an unusually high level, more or less at the same height as the figures’ hands, with the result that the sacred characters, placed in a semicircle, appear less monumental. Piero’s extraordinary invention of an architectural apse echoed below by another apse, consisting in the figures of the saints gathered around the Madonna, was taken up time and again by artists working at the end of the 15th century and at the beginning of the 16th, particularly in Venice. Again, Flemish influences are noticeable in this painting: the Duke’s depiction of his shining armor, the stylized decoration of the carpet, the angels’ garments decorated with jewels and with huge precious brooches, their hair held back by elegant diadems, the pearls on the Virgin’s mantle… St. John the Baptist’s and St. Jerome’s bony limbs (to the left), emaciated by deprivations in the wilderness, recall some of Verrocchio‘s studies, St. Bernardino of Siena stands behind them; and the sleeping Child, in his extraordinary contorted position, anticipates some of the young Leonardo’s drawings of putti. The Child wears a necklace of deep red coral beads, a color which alludes to blood, a symbol of life and death, but also to the redemption brought by Christ. Back then, coral was also used for teething, and often worn by babies. To the right are Sts. Francis, Peter Martyr and Andrew. The apse is crowned by a shell semi-dome from which an ostrich egg is hanging (see detail below). The shell was a symbol of the new Venus, Mary (in fact it is perpendicular to her head) and of eternal beauty. According to other art scholars, the egg would be a pearl, and the shell would refer to the miracle of the virginal conception (the shell generates the pearl without any male intervention). Additionally, the egg is generally considered a symbol of the Creation and, in particular, to Guidobaldo’s birth; the ostrich was also one of the heraldic symbols of the Montefeltro family.
Madonna and Child with Saints (1472-1474), detail.
Madonna and Child with Saints (1472-1474), detail showing St. Francis’ hands holding a jeweled cross and revealing his stigmata.

Now an old man, enriched by so many experiences, Piero retired at the end of his life to the town where he was born, Sansepolcro. There he wrote —before blindness condemned to darkness and emptiness to this artist who was the brilliant painter of atmospheric light and volumes in space— two treatises in Latin on perspective and geometry, On Perspective in painting (“De Prospectiva pingendi“, mid-1470s to 1480s) and Short Book on the Five Regular Solids (“De Corporibus regularibus“, 1485) respectively, both the result of a long meditation that he had experienced throughout all his life. Piero made his will in 1487 and he died five years later, on 12 October 1492, in his own house in Sansepolcro. Piero’s art with its geometrical perfection and depictions of almost magic atmospheric light inspired modern (20th century) painters like Giorgio de Chirico and Felice Casorati.

The Ideal City, panel painting, attributed to Piero della Francesca, ca. 170, 60 x 200 cm (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Ducal Palace of Urbino, Urbino). Piero gradually stopped painting almost 20 years before his death. Certainly one of the reasons would have been his ill health and his growing blindness; but it is also probable that he wanted to examine further the theories on perspective and proportions. It is precisely from his drawings in his treatise on perspective in painting, “De Prospectiva pingendi“,  that the perspective construction of the panel so-called Ideal City, was born. This painting is so closely connected to Piero’s theoretical writings that it must have been painted by a very close collaborator of his. It was formerly attributed to Piero, but more recently to Luciano Laurana, Francesco di Giorgio Martini or Melozzo da Forlì. It shows a religious central-plan building in the middle of a square. The center of its door is the vanishing point of the composition. Behind this building to the right is probably another religious building: a basilica. The left and right of the square is limited by richly decorated Italian-style palazzi.

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Golden Ratio: In mathematics, two quantities are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. It is represented by the Greek letter phi (). The golden ratio is also called the golden mean, golden section, divine proportion, golden proportion and golden number.

12 thoughts on “PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). PAINTERS OUTSIDE TUSCANY. Piero della Francesca

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