PIERO della FRANCESCA
(b. 1416, Borgo San Sepolcro, d. 1492, Borgo San Sepolcro)
Italian painter, virtually forgotten for centuries after his death, but regarded since his rediscovery in the early 20th century as one of the supreme artists of the quattrocento. He was born in Borgo San Sepolcro (now Sansepolcro) in Umbria and spent much of his life there. We hear of him also at various times in Ferrara, Rimini, Arezzo, Rome, and Urbino. But he found the origins of his style in Florence, and he probably lived there as a young man for some time during the 1430s, although he is documented there only once, in 1439 (the first known reference to him), when he was assisting Domenico Veneziano on frescoes (now lost) in S. Egidio. His first documented work, the polyptych of the Madonna della Misericordia (Pinacoteca, Sansepolcro), commissioned in 1445 but not completed until much later, shows that he had studied and absorbed the artistic discoveries of his great Florentine predecessors and contemporaries - Masaccio, Donatello, Domenico Veneziano, Filippo Lippi, Uccello, and even Masolino, who anticipated something of Piero's use of broad masses of colour. Piero unified, completed, and refined upon the discoveries these artists had made in the previous 20 years and created a style in which monumental, meditative grandeur and almost mathematical lucidity are combined with limpid beauty of colour and light. His major work is a series of frescos on the Legend of the True Cross in the choir of San Francesco at Arezzo (c. l452-c. l465). The subject was a medieval legend of great complexity, but Piero made from its fanciful details some of the most solemn and serene images in western art — even the two battle scenes have a feeling of grim deliberation rather than violent movement. He was a slow and thoughtful worker and often applied wet cloths to the plaster at night so that — contrary to normal fresco practice — he could work for more than one day on the same section.
Much of Piero's later career was spent working at the humanist court of Federico da Montefeltro at Urbino. There he painted the portraits of Federico and his wife (Uffizi, Florence, c. 1465) and the celebrated Flagellation (still at Urbino, in the Ducal Palace). The Flagellation is his most enigmatic work, and it has called forth varied interpretations; Gombrich has suggested that the subject is rather The Repentance of Judas and Pope-Hennessy that it is The Dream of St Jerome.
Piero is last mentioned as a painter in 1478 (in connection with a lost work) and his two final works are probably The Madonna and Child with Federigo da Montefeltro (Brera, Milan, c. 1475) and the unfinished Nativity (National Gallery, London). Thereafter he seems to have devoted himself to mathematics and perspective, writing treatises on both subjects. Vasari said Piero was blind when he died, and failing eyesight may have been his reason for giving up painting, but his will of 1487 declares him to be 'sound in mind, in intellect and in body' and is written in his own clear hand. After his death, Piero was remembered mainly as a mathematician rather than as a painter. Even Vasari, who as a native of Arezzo must have known the frescoes in San Francesco well, is lukewarm in his enthusiasm for his work. However, he had considerable influence, notably on Signorelli (in the weighty solemnity of his figures) and Perugino (in the spatial clarity of his compositions). Both are said to have been. Piero's pupils.