Fine Artists: Piero della Francesca Italian Artist 1415-1592

Piero della Francesca painting "Malatesta before St. Sigismund"Piero della Francesca was an Italian artist of the Early Renaissance. To contemporaries, he was known as a mathematician and geometer as well as an artist, though now he is chiefly appreciated for his art. Piero della Francesca clearly formulated the geometrical rules for building perspective and made wonderful empirical discoveries in the use of color and light. His painting was characterized by its serene humanism and its use of geometric forms, particularly in relation to perspective and foreshortening. Most of his work was produced in the Tuscan town of Arezzo. Piero della Francesca painted religious works that are marked by their simple serenity and clarity. Piero was skilled in perspective, and his paintings are also known for the care with which he rendered the landscapes that provide the backgrounds for his figures. Throughout his life he maintained his ties with his birthplace of Sansepolcro, but he traveled widely.

Although the date and place of Piero della Francesca's birth are not definite, it seems likely that he was born in about 1420 in Sansepolcro, Italy. His father was a well-to-do tanner and shoemaker, and Piero's varied accomplishments indicate that he received a good education. He probably studied painting with one of several skilled artists of the Sienese school who lived in Sansepolcro. By 1439 Piero della Francesca was working with Domenico Veneziano on frescoes for the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. His experience and contacts in Florence, where he would have seen the works of such sculptors, artists, and architects as Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Fra Angelico, had a profound influence on Piero's style.

"Baptism of Christ" Piero della Francesca paintingPiero della Francesca's painting the "Baptism of Christ" (shown here)was completed between 1448-1450.The panel was commissioned by the Camaldolese abbey of Sansepolcro (Tuscany), originally part of a triptych. Its dating to Piero della Francesca's early career is evidenced by the strong relationship with the "light painting" of his master, Domenico Veneziano. The artwork portrays Christ being baptized by John, his head surmounted by a dove. Christ, John's hand and the bird form an axis which divides the painting in two symmetrical parts. A second division is created by the tree on the left, which instead divides it according to the golden ratio. The three angels on the left wear different clothes and, in a difference from the traditional iconography, are not supporting Christ's garments, but are holding each other's hands.

This would be an allusion to the contemporary council of Florence, whose goal was the unification of the Western and Eastern Churches. The Camaldolese Ambrogio Traversari was in fact a strong supporter of the union. Such symbolism would be also confirmed by the presence, behind the neophyte on the right, of figures dressed in an oriental fashion. Piero della Francesca was renowned in his times as an authority on perspective and geometry: his attention to the theme is showed by John's arm and leg, which form two angles of the same size. In the 1450s Piero della Francesca worked for the court of Rimini. Piero della Francesca executed several works for the Prince of Rimini, including the fresco Sigismondo Malatesta before St. Sigismund (shown top of page) and the Portrait of Sigismondo.

In 1452 Piero della Francesca began the wonderful cycle of frescoes dealing with stories of the True Cross for the choir of the Basilica of San Francesco (Church of St. Francis) in Arezzo. The frescoes were inspired by stories from the thirteenth-century Golden Legend. The painter ignored the chronological sequence of the scenes in favor of "a structured rhythm and clear symmetry between the walls". This work demonstrates Piero’s advanced knowledge of perspective and color, his geometric orderliness and skill in pictorial construction. His cycle of frescoes depicting the Legend of the True Cross is generally considered among his masterworks and those of Renaissance painting in general. Its theme, derived from the popular 13th century book on the lives of saints by Jacopo da Varagine, the Golden Legend, is the triumph of the True Cross – the wood from the Garden of Eden that became the Cross on which Christ was crucified. This work demonstrates Piero della Francesca’s advanced knowledge of perspective and color, his geometric orderliness and skill in pictorial construction.

Piero della Francesca painting "The Dream of Constantine"Piero della Francesca has painted the moment just previous to the awakening of Constantine in The dream of Constantine”(shown here), who is going to be visited by the angel who appears in the top left corner in a spectacular effect of backlighting. This light is really the true protagonist of the painting, a light that creates an excellent volumetric effect in the conical roof above the King, a light that hides the faces of the soldiers, with the exception of the one who, with the elbow unusually placed in the Emperor's bed, looks directly to us.

Piero della Francesca diverged from his source material in a few important respects, including the story of King Solomon's meeting with the Queen of Sheba in a chronologically inaccurate place and giving greater emphasis to the two battles in which Christianity triumphs over paganism. The cycle ends with a depiction of the Annunciation, not strictly part of the Legend of the True Cross but probably included by Piero for its universal meaning. Dating of the frescoes is uncertain, but they are believed to date from after 1447, when the Bacci family, commissioners of the frescoes, are recorded as having paid an unknown painter. It would have been finished around 1466. Most of the choir was painted in the early- to mid-1450s. Although the design of the frescoes is evidently Piero della Francesca's, he seems to have delegated parts of the painting to assistants, as was usual. The hand of Giovanni da Piamonte, in particular, can be recognized in some of the frescoes.

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Piero della Francesca
Italian Artist of the Early Renaissance. Artwork includes "The Dream of Constantine" "Baptism of Christ" "Malatesta before St. Sigismund"