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Piero della Francesca

Italian, c. 1416/1417 - 1492

Franceschi, Pietro di Benedetto dei; Franceschi, Piero dei

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The date of Piero's birth in the Tuscan town of Sansepolcro can be estimated from a document dated 18 October 1436, where he is cited as a witness; thus by that time he had to have been at least eighteen years old. He is mentioned as a painter as early as 1432, associated with Antonio d'Anghiari, who was probably his first teacher. Aside from this connection,[1] nothing is known about his training. But the art of Piero della Francesca--who develops to poetic heights the subtle use of perspectival representation proposed in works of Domenico Veneziano,[2] following faithfully the theories of Leon Battista Alberti--could not have evolved solely in his local environment.

It is known that in 1439 Piero was working alongside Domenico Veneziano on scenes from the life of the Virgin in the church of Sant'Egidio in Florence (the few surviving fragments are now in the Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia there). It is possible that his Florentine sojourn began somewhat earlier or that he met and worked with Domenico Veneziano in Perugia in 1437-1438. As far as we know, Piero did not work in Florence after the late 1430s. His earliest known commissions were done for his native town of Sansepolcro: the Baptism of Christ (National Gallery, London) painted at the beginning of the 1440s, and the Misericordia polyptych (Pinacoteca, Sansepolcro), commissioned in 1445 and probably painted in large part in 1455, but finished only after 1460. To the late 1440s belong (lost) frescoes for the church of Sant'Agostino in Ferrara that were fundamental for the development of painting in that area, and in 1450 he signed and dated a panel of the penitent Saint Jerome (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).

In 1451 Piero painted a fresco of Sigismondo Malatesta kneeling before his patron Saint Sigismund in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. While various documents testify to his presence in Sansepolcro in the 1450s, probably in that same decade he also began to work for the court at Urbino, for which he probably painted his famous Flagellation of Christ (Pinacoteca, Urbino), whose date and meaning are still under debate. Probably between 1452 and 1458, taking over after the death of Bicci di Lorenzo, he began work on the fresco decoration of the main chapel in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo with its cycle of stories of the True Cross, recorded as completed only in 1466. Between 1458 and 1459 he was in Rome at the bidding of Pope Pius II, for whom he executed frescoes in the Vatican palace, which were destroyed in the sixteenth century.

In 1454 in his native town he received the commission for a polyptych for the high altar of the church of Sant'Agostino, which was delivered only in 1470. Between the middle of the 1450s and the following decade he executed a fresco of Mary Magdalene in the Arezzo cathedral; the Madonna del Parto at Monterchi; a polyptych for the church of Sant'Agostino in Perugia (Galleria Nazionale, Perugia), completed by 1468; a fresco of the Resurrection in Sansepolcro's Palazzo Comunale (now in the local pinacoteca); and other works, now lost, in the same town and the surrounding area.

His ties with the court in Urbino seem to have strengthened in the 1460s. For Duke Federico da Montefeltro and his wife, Battista Sforza, Piero painted the double portrait diptych in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, usually dated 1472, the date of Battista's death, but probably executed in 1465, as well as the famous San Bernardino altarpiece (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), in 1474-1475.

The last phase of his activity was marked by an increasingly capillary realism investigating the varying effects of light. To this period belong such masterpieces as the Madonna of Senigallia (Galleria Nazionale, Urbino), the Virgin and Child with Angels (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.), and a Nativity (National Gallery, London), which is his last surviving work.

On 5 July 1487 Piero drew up his will. By then blind, he devoted himself to compiling treatises on geometry and mathematics (Trattato d'Abaco; Libellus de quinque corporibus regularibus; De prospectiva pingendi). He was buried in the Badia of Borgo San Sepolcro on 12 October 1492. [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

[1] Frank Dabell, "Antonio d'Anghiari e gli inizi di Piero della Francesca," Paragone 35, no. 417 (1984): 73-94.

[2] Exh. cat. Florence, Scuola per Piero 1992.

Artist Bibliography

Longhi, Roberto. Piero della Francesca. Rome, n.d. [1927]; 3rd ed. [1962] in Edizione della Opere Complete di Roberto Longhi. Florence, 1963.
Hendy, Philip. Piero della Francesca and the Early Renaissance. London and New York, 1968.
Clark, Kenneth. Piero della Francesca. London, 1951. 2nd ed., London and New York, 1969.
Battisti, Eugenio. Piero della Francesca. Milan, 1971. 2nd ed. 1992.
Salmi, Mario. Piero della Francesca. Novara, 1979.
Paolucci, Antonio. Piero della Francesca. Firenze, 1989.
Lightbown, Ronald. Piero della Francesca. London, 1992. Italian ed., Milan, 1992.
Calvesi, Maurizio. Piero della Francesca. Milan, 1998.
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 578.

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