sources tell us that he first worked at Sansepolcro, Piero’s training
was fully Florentine, perhaps in the atelier of Domenico Veneziano with
whom he worked from 1439 on the lost frescoes in the choir of
Sant’Egidio in Florence.
Dating Piero della Francesca’s works is particularly difficult and many
scholars attribute them to different periods that are quite far apart.
The Baptism of Christ (London,
National Gallery) was painted for the Camaldolese Abbey at Sansepolcro
and it has been dated in the early ‘forties and or the late ‘fifties.
At Sansepolcro, in January of 1445 Piero received a commission from the
Confraternità della Misericordia to paint the Polyptych of the Misericordia (Sansepolcro,
Museo Civico), a complex undertaking that reveals an acute sensitivity
for rendering light and naturalistic elements and that was only
finished around 1460-62.
He made several trips to Ferrara where he did many paintings – that
have since been lost – which had a marked impact on the development of
local painting, and to Rimini where in the Tempio Malatestiano he did
the fresco of Sigismondo Malatesta Before St. Sigismund. In 1452 he was called to fresco the choir of San Franceso in Arezzo with the Legend of the True Cross,
a milestone of the Italian Renaissance in which the story is imbued by
rigorous control of form and perspective and yet at the same filled
with luminous colors. During this period his works show evident traces
of the Flemish culture, especially in the renderings of the landscape.
The Madonna del Parto in the Monterchi cemetery chapel is stylistically close to the Arezzo frescoes.
For Federico da Montefeltro Piero painted the Flagellation of Christ of Urbino (dated 1453 or 1459-1460), the Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino and of His Wife, Battista Sforza that is in the Uffizi Gallery (1465-1473, circa), the Brera Altarpiece (1472-1474), the Senigallia Madonna (1474)
works that testify to the deep bonds with northern culture and the
perfection of his knowledge mathematics-perspective that he later
presented in his treatise De prospective pingendi. Piero was
extremely busy during these years and only in 1469 did he manage to
complete the polyptych for the church of Sant’Agostino at Sansepolcro
that had been commissioned in 1454. Information about his painting
after 1475 is quite scanty, perhaps because of a vision problem which,
according to Vasari, developed into total blindness. There is
documentary proof of his having been in Rimini in 1482, and in 1487 he
wrote his last will and testament and stated that he was in sound
Portrait of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta
Piero della Francesca painted this portrait while he was in Rimini between 1450 and 1451 and, during the same period he painted the fresco of Sigismondo Malatesta Before St. Sigismund praying to his patron saint. The profile portrait of the condottiere shown with a total absorption reflects the official iconography used on medals even though the painting reveals naturalistic attention in the minute description of the fabric of his clothing, hair and complexion that reflect Piero’s familiarity with Flemish painters and Rogier van der Weyden in particular. This portrait is closely related to the portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta on the medal made by Matteo de’Pasti in 1450.
The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes
In this crowded and exciting scene Piero depicts an episode from the Legend of the True Cross based on the Golden Legend [Legenda Aurea] by Jacopo da Varagine. The Christian emperor Heraclius recovers the cross that had been taken by the Persian king Chosroes. It is in the lower left register of the chapel, opposite Constantine Defeats Maxentius. If the earlier rendering of the subject in the frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi in Santa Croce in Florence (from which Piero drew his inspiration) blindly followed Jacopo da Varagine’s text, in the Arezzo cycle the artist made a thematic selection of his subjects by trying to emphasize the salient episodes of the story. This choice also aimed at supporting the reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Greek churches with references to contemporary events, specifically the war against the Turks following the fall of Constantinople. In this fresco, that was the last of the series, we can clearly see the work of Piero’s helpers since the master had to leave for Rome.Iconography
We do not know the exact date when the frescoes in the main chapel in the Church of San Francesco were painted. They had been commissioned by Giovanni Bacci, an official of the Roman Curia and great humanist, but we can only place them between 1452 and 1466. The fresco depicts the salient episodes of the Legend of the True Cross based on the Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varagine. In this scene we see Constantine before the battle with Maxentius: an angel appears and foretells his victory as long as he fights under the sign of the Cross. The painting is a beautiful and early example of a nocturnal scene with impressive effects of artificial light for which Piero drew on his knowledge of late-Gothic northern painting. It was to serve as an example for Raphael’s Liberation of St. Peter in the apartment of Julius II in the Vatican.Iconography
Madonna del Parto
This fresco is in the Monterchi cemetery chapel, formerly the church dedicated to Santa Maria a Momentana. The wall on which it was painted had deteriorated so badly that in 1911 it was decided to detach the fresco and mount it on another support. In spite of this, the upper part of the fresco with the top of the pavilion was completely lost and has been repainted. Behind a curtain that is held open by two angels that are perfect mirror images of each other is the expectant Virgin, a very unusual subject in Italian art. The painting has been the object of highly complex theological interpretations: the pavilion would represent the Church and the Virgin in her condition symbolizes the eucharistic tabernacle as it contains the body of Christ. According to Vasari Piero did this painting in 1459, the year he was in Sansepolcro because his mother had died.Iconography
Baptism of Christ
It has recently been ascertained that this painting was originally in the Camaldolese abbey in Sansepolcro and specifically in the chapel of Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Graziani family. After various changes of hand, the painting reached the National Gallery of Art in London in 1861. Like most of Piero’s works the Baptism of Christ is open to various interpretations. The most highly endorsed hypothesis would be that of the Trinitarian dogma in a probable link between the Old and New Testaments: the three angels on the left, prefiguring the Trinity appeared, to Abraham, while the baptism of Christ is the Gospel manifestation of the same event. The zenithal light that pervades the entire scene alludes to the regeneration of the soul through the sacrament of Baptism. According to another interpretation, the three angels holding hands would be a symbol of peace between the Roman and Greek churches as represented by the catechumen and the characters in eastern clothes in the background. This unity was supported by the works of Ambrogio Traversai, the abbot of the Camaldolese order and, as we know, the painting was done for a Camaldoese church.Iconography
This painting was done for the Palazzo dei Conservatori that is now the civic museum and the subject alludes to the city which that gets its name from a relic of the Holy Sepulchre that was brought from the Holy Land by two pilgrims in the IX century. The center of the composition is Christ as he rises from the sepulchre, as we can infer from the position of the leg resting on the parapet in an iconic and abstract frontality. The figure of Christ dominates the four sleeping guards at the base of the tomb and who are portrayed from a different point with respect to the Redeemer to highlight the difference between the human and divine. Even the landscape, flooded with dawn light has a symbolic meaning: the contrast between the bare trees on Christ’s right and the leafy tress on the left signify the renewal of humanity through the light of the Resurrection. According to tradition, the sleeping soldier shown full-face would be a self-portrait of Piero della Francesca.Iconography
Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino
Piero drew his inspiration for the arrangement of this portrait from medals, showing the subject in profile, a pose that confers greater dignity and hence a more official tone. Here we see, Federico da Montefeltro the Duke of Urbino, and on the back is his Triumph – that is an allegorical cart driven by the cardinal Virtues, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice with the seated duke in full armor being crowned by an angel. Both the portrait and the Triumph are shown against magnificent “bird’s eye view” backgrounds with a naturalness and attention to minute detail derived from Piero’s knowledge of Flemish painting that Federico himself collected passionately. Even the face is portrayed with great naturalism, and in profile for reasons of decorum. Federico had, in fact, lost his right eye in 1450 during a tournament. The painting is part of a diptych, with the other half being a portrait of the duke’s wife Battista Sforza; when the diptych is closed, the two Triumphs are visible.
Portrait of Battista Sforza
This is a portrait of Battista Sforza, the wife of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Together with the portrait of her husband it forms a diptych that can be closed to reveal the two respective Triumphs. On the back of the portrait is the Triumph of the duchess, an allegorical cart drawn by two unicorns symbols of chastity, and driven by Faith and Charity, the seated Battista is flanked by two other virtues, Hope and Modesty. Like the portrait of Federico and his Triumph the painting of Battista is set against a landscape that is minutely detailed according to the Flemish style that both the artist and the duke’s family greatly admired. Extraordinary attention to the natural rendering of the materials, pearls, fabrics and jewels in general characterizes the figure which, shown in profile is set in a total abstraction and harmony of lines.
Polyptych of Saint Anthony
This complex polyptych, that was painted for the convent of the Franciscan sisters of Saint Anthony of Padua in Perugia, portrays the Virgin and Child enthroned in the center, flanked by saints, Anthony of Padua and John the Baptist on the left and Francis and Elizabeth of Hungary on the right. In the cusp there is the Annunciation, and in the upper part of the predella Saints Claire and Lucy, while the lower part features scenes from the lives of the principal saints. The central part of the reflects a rather archaistic form, and the episodes in the predella are narrated succinctly with a naturalistic style. The most unusual and innovative part of the entire painting is the stepped cornice that frames the Annunciation. The formal and chromatic inconsistencies between the upper and lower parts have led to the hypothesis that it is an assemblage of different works, perhaps deriving from the client’s specific demands. In the Annunciation that is set in a complex and luminous cloister, Piero used a sort of “intellectual perspective” that combines his spatial illusionism with the abstract mathematical calculations that were typical of his late period.
Originally this painting was the in church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Senigallia and came to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino early in the XX century. It reveals how much Piero had absorbed of the Flemish naturalistic school, such as the light that realistically shines through the window in the background and the minute representations of the everyday objects such as the white linen in the basket, the pearls, corals and cloth covering the head of the Virgin. This apparently simple naturalism is interwoven with highly complex symbols related to the mysteries of the faith: the light alludes to the conception of the Virgin, the linen in the basket to her purity, the box for the Communion wafers, and the branch of coral on the Infant Jesus’ neck are references to the sacrifice of the Eucharist to which the immobile pensiveness of the figures is also related.