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Thursday, 12 October 2017

Piero della Francesca - Renaissance painter

Mathematician famous for exploring perspective


Della Francesca's assumed self- portrait in his Ressurrection
Della Francesca's assumed self-
portrait in his Ressurrection
Piero della Francesca, recognised as one of the greatest painters of the early Renaissance, died on this day in 1492 in what was then Borgo Santo Sepolcro, near Arezzo.

He was thought to have been around 77 years old – his exact birth date is not known – and it has been popularly theorised that he was blind in the later years of his life, although evidence to support the claim is sketchy.

Della Francesca’s work was characterised by his exploration of perspective and geometric form, which was hardly surprising since in his own time he was as famous among his peers as a mathematician and geometer as well as an artist.

He came to be recognized in the 20th century as having made a major contribution to the Renaissance.

His fresco cycle The History – or Legend – of the True Cross in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, painted between 1452 and 1466, and his diptych – two-panelled – portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza - the Dukes of Urbino, dated at between 1465 and 1472, which can be seen in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, are among his best-known works.

Detail from Della Francesca's stunning History of the True Cross fresco cycle in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo
Detail from Della Francesca's stunning History of the True
Cross
fresco cycle in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo
He had been born in Borgo Santo Sepolcro – now known as Sansepolcro – in around 1415, into a fairly prosperous family. His father, Benedetto dei Franceschi, is thought to have been a wool and leather merchant, while his mother was the daughter of another wool merchant.  They saw to it that Piero had a good education. At that time, he was known as Piero di Benedetto dei Franceschi.

He may have learned his trade from one of several Sienese artists working in the town as he was growing up.  It is known that he was an associate in Florence of Domenico Veneziano, with whom he worked in 1439 on frescoes in the church of Sant’Egidio for the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. He also knew Fra' Angelico, who introduced him to other leading masters of the time, including Masaccio and Brunelleschi.

In 1442 he returned to Santo Sepolcro, where he was commissioned for an altarpiece in the church of the Misericordia, which showed the influence of Masaccio and also Donatello and highlighted the deliberation with which he worked. The altarpiece was not completed until 1462.

Della Francesca's diptych of the Dukes of Urbino
Della Francesca's diptych of the Dukes of Urbino
In 1449 he executed several frescoes in the Castello Estense and the church of Sant'Andrea of Ferrara and, during a period in Rimini, working for the condottiero Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, he painted the fresco of St. Sigismund and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in the Tempio Malatestiano, as well as Sigismondo's portrait.

In 1452 Della Francesca was called to Arezzo to replace Bicci di Lorenzo in painting the frescoes of the Basilica of San Francesco. The History of the True Cross cycle is generally considered not only to be among his masterworks but of Renaissance painting in general.

Experts say that “the simplicity and clarity of structure, controlled use of perspective, and aura of serenity (in The History of the True Cross) are all typical of Piero’s art at its best.”

Painted at the same time as the Arezzo cycle are a fine depiction of Mary Magdalene in Arezzo cathedral, the Resurrection in the Palazzo Comunale at Sansepolcro, which features a self-portrait of the artist, and his Madonna del parto in the chapel of the cemetery at Monterchi.

The Flagellation of Christ aroused controversy
The Flagellation of Christ aroused controversy
In 1454 he signed a contract for the multi-panelled polyptych of Saint Augustine in the church of Sant'Agostino in Sansepolcro. The central panel was lost and the four wing panels, with representations of Saints, are in different places around the world.

However, The Baptism of Christ, which was executed around 1460 for the high altar of the church of the Priory of San Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro, is in The National Gallery in London.

During his time working in Urbino, in the service of Count Federico III da Montefeltro, in addition to his famous diptych, Della Francesca also painted The Flagellation of Christ, which became one of the most famous and controversial pictures of the early Renaissance, with Christ pictured in the background as three unidentified figures dominate the foreground.

Della Francesca was much less active in his declining years, with little evidence that he painted much at all, yet 16th century artist and historian Giorgio Vasari's contention that he was blind in his 60s does not tally with his completion in his final decade of a geometrical treatise dedicated to Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, son and heir of Duke Federico, written in his own handwriting, and another on perspective in painting.

He passed away in his own house in Santo Sepolcro on the same day that Christopher Columbus made landfall in The Bahamas, believing he had reached Asia.

The Duomo in Sansepolcro
The Duomo in Sansepolcro
Travel tip:

Sansepolcro is a town of 16,000 inhabitants situated about 38km (24 miles) northeast of Arezzo in the east of Tuscany, close to the borders with Umbria and Marche. The historic centre is entirely surrounded with fortified walls, built in the early part of the 16th century. The centre of the town is the Piazza Torre di Berta, named after the 13th-century tower of the same name, off which can be found the impressive Palazzi Pichi and Giovagnoli and the 14th-century cathedral, dedicated to St John the Evangelist.  As well as being the place in which Piero della Francesca was born and died, it is also the home of Buitoni pasta.

Arezzo's sharply sloping Piazza Grande
Arezzo's sharply sloping Piazza Grande
Travel tip:

Arezzo is one of the wealthiest cities in Tuscany. Situated at the confluence of four valleys - Tiberina, Casentino, Valdarno and Valdichiana – its medieval centre suffered massive damage during the Second World War but still has enough monuments, churches and museums to be a worthwhile stopover on tourist itineraries. In addition to the Basilica di San Francesco and the Piero della Francesca cycle, sights to take in include central square Piazza Grande, with its sloping pavement in red brick, the Medici Fortress, the Cathedral of San Donato and a Roman amphitheatre.



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