Piero della FrancescaPiero della Francesca (also called Piero dei Franceschi and Petri del Borgo) was born in the little town of Sansepolcro (formerly Borgo San Sepolcro) at the north-eastern edge of Tuscany, which was then under Malatesta rule but passed to the Papacy in 1431 and was ceded to Florence in 1441. He was the son of Benedetto dei Franceschi, a tanner and cloth and wool merchant, and Romana di Perino da Monterchi. There is no conclusive evidence as to his date of birth, and his master has not been identified. He is first mentioned in June 1431, when he received payment from the Confraternity of Santa Maria Notte at Sansepolcro for painting the poles of some processional candles.
In the 1430s he worked on projects ranging from banners to frescoes and altarpieces, mainly in collaboration with Antonio di Giovanni, a local artist from Anghiari (none of whose works has been certainly identified). He is recorded in Florence on 12 September 1439 as an assistant or associate of Domenico Veneziano, who was painting frescoes (now lost) in the choir of Sant’Egidio. By 1442 he was back in Sansepolcro, and was contracted to paint a polyptych there in 1445. In 1450-51 he was in Rimini, working for Sigismondo Malatesta. Some time after 1452 he started work on the great fresco cycle of the Story of the True Cross in San Francesco at Arezzo. In 1458-59 he was in Rome, where (according to Vasari) he frescoed for Pope Pius II the room of the Vatican now known as the Stanza d’Eliodoro, which was redecorated by Raphael in 1512-14. During the 1460s and 1470s he was much employed at the court of Federico da Montefeltro at Urbino. He also worked in Ferrara, but his frescoes in the Este palace there were probably destroyed as early as 1479 (when the palace was largely rebuilt) or 1509 (when there was a fire). He is last recorded as a painter in 1478, and appears to have devoted his last years to mathematics, writing books on geometry and perspective. Vasari says he went blind from a cataract. He died on 12 October 1492 and was buried in his family tomb in the tower of the Badia at Sansepolcro. He was eighty-six according to Vasari, eighty according to a local chronicler (Anton Maria Graziani).
Piero is one of the most admired and studied artists of the fifteenth century. His beautifully ordered and harmonious compositions are often conceived in terms of geometrical figures. He also applied rigorous mathematical rules to the portrayal of the human form, such as the foreshortening of a head, and used pricked cartoons even for the smallest parts of a composition. His figures are solid, grave and dispassionate. His colour, like Domenico Veneziano’s, is pale and cool, and he used light to suggest space and distance.
Piero seems to have been an habitually slow worker, taking many years to complete some major commissions. He maintained a workshop, which seems to have played a substantial part in the execution of his altarpieces and fresco cycles. Giovanni di Piamonte is documented as his assistant on the Story of the True Cross, and Vasari mentions Lorentino d’Andrea of Arezzo, a certain Piero da Castel delle Pieve (once mistakenly identified as Pietro Perugino) and Luca Signorelli as his pupils.
Piero had a considerable reputation in his lifetime and was highly praised by Vasari (whose account was admittedly coloured by the fact that he was himself from Arezzo). Although Piero’s fame was eclipsed in later centuries, he was never forgotten and from the late 1850s his works attracted the interest of British connoisseurs and collectors (including the National Gallery’s Director, Sir Charles Eastlake, who bought two of Piero’s rare panel paintings and tried to acquire two others). Foreign artists studied Piero’s frescoes and made copies in watercolour and oils. The young Edgar Degas visited Arezzo in 1858, and some of his early pictures were clearly influenced by what he saw there. Motifs from the Arezzo frescoes have also been detected in paintings by Seurat and Cézanne, who did not visit Italy but could have known the frescoes through copies or prints. Crowe and Cavalcaselle, who devoted a substantial chapter to Piero in their monumental History of Painting in Italy (1864), laid a basis for serious study of the artist, and Bernard Berenson’s essay on Central Italian Painters (1897) acknowledged Piero as a ‘great artist’ whose ‘impersonality … holds us spellbound’. However, the mass admiration for Piero really started in the 1920s, at a time when modern art was coming into vogue. Parallels were drawn with Cézanne and one critic even hailed Piero as ‘the first Cubist’. The Italian first edition of Robert Longhi’s brilliant, poetical and immensely influential Piero della Francesca was published in 1927.
In his day, Piero also enjoyed a high reputation as a mathematician. Vasari called him the ‘greatest geometrician of his own or indeed of any other time’. The famous mathematician Luca Pacioli, who was also from Sansepolcro and allegedly taught by Piero, published some of Piero’s writings without attribution and was accused by Vasari of plagiarism. Three of Piero’s ‘many’ mathematical treatises were rediscovered in the early twentieth century. The parchment manuscript of one (De quinque corporibus regularus) is preserved in the Vatican Library.
Arezzo. San Francesco. Cappella Maggiore (Choir).
Story of the True Cross. Frescoes, larger scenes about 335 x 730.
The subject, which is quite common in Franciscan churches, is drawn largely from the Golden Legend. It is a tale of fantastic complexity, beginning with the death of Adam and the origin of the wood of the True Cross in a tree that grew over his grave.
The cycle begins at the top of the right wall of the very high and rather dark chapel. To the right of the lunette, the immensely old Adam, seated on the ground, announces his imminent death to three of his children. Eve, now wrinkled and with sagging breasts, stands behind him supporting his head. The oldest son, Seth, had been sent by Adam to the Gates of Paradise to fetch ‘oil of mercy’, and he is shown in the distance asking the Archangel Michael for the miraculous oil that would save his father. Seth was given instead a branch from the Tree of Knowledge. By the time he had returned, his father had died, and the scene to the left shows the funeral. Seth plants the branch from the Tree of Knowledge into Adam’s mouth, and the branch grows into a magnificent tree (which originally filled the upper centre of the lunette but is now partly destroyed).
The next fresco, below, jumps to the discovery of the sacred wood by the Queen of Sheba. The tree over Adam’s grave had been felled by Solomon, who tried to use the wood in the building of his Temple. But, however they were cut, the planks turned out to be too big or too small, and the wood was finally thrown over the brook of Siloah to serve as a bridge. The sanctity of the wood was recognised by the Queen of Sheba when she journeyed from the East to test Solomon’s wisdom. The left half of the fresco shows the Queen, attended by her ladies-in-waiting, kneeling before the sacred wood in veneration. The right half shows her telling King Solomon of her premonition that from the sacred wood ‘the realm of the Jews shall be defaced and cease’.
King Solomon, alarmed by the Queen of Sheba’s prophecy, had the sacred wood buried deep in the earth. This episode is usually thought to be that shown as the first of the two vertical scenes to the right of the window. (An alternative view is that this fresco represents the earlier episode of the lifting of the wood from the ground and its carrying to the brook of Siloah.)
The fresco below is a celebrated night scene. It shows the Emperor Constantine dreaming before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. An angel (now hard to make out because of the loss of plaster along the left edge) appears to the Emperor, asleep in his tent on the battlefield, and exhorts him to fight under the sign of the Cross. Two armed soldiers, in dark silhouette, stand guard, and a sleepy servant sits on a bench beside the bed. The subject of Constantine’s dream – the sign of the Cross in heaven – is nowhere to be seen.
Constantine’s victory over his rival emperor, Maxentius, at the Milvian Bridge is represented in the lowest fresco on the wall. Constantine holds out a little cross and the enemy scatters. His profile is taken from the famous portrait medal of John VIII Palaeologus, Constantine’s penultimate successor as Emperor of Byzantium, cast by Pisanello in 1439. Maxentius scrambles ignominiously up the river bank, looking fearfully back over his shoulder. Much of the right side of the fresco is lost. (The complete composition is recorded in an early nineteenth-century watercolour copy painted by the German artist Johann Anton Ramboux and preserved at the Dusseldorf Academy.)
The cycle continues with the first of two vertical senes to the left of the window. A Jew called Judas was the only one who knew where the True Cross was buried. When he refused to tell his secret, St Helena had him thrown into a dry well and threatened with starvation. After seven days, he revealed that the Cross was buried beneath a temple dedicated to Venus. The fresco shows Judas being hauled out of the well.
The discovery of the Cross is shown in the middle fresco on the left wall. To the left, Helena directs excavations that uncover three identical crosses. The city of Jerusalem in the background is actually a faithful representation of Arezzo. To the right, the True Cross is identified by holding it over the body of a dead youth, about to be buried, who is immediately restored to life. The beautiful pedimented Temple of Venus, with a façade encrusted with coloured marbles, was probably inspired by Alberti’s architectural ideas.
The furious battle scene below shows the victory of Heraclius, the Emperor of Byzantium, over the Persian King Chosroes, who had stolen the Cross from Jerusalem and placed it sacrilegiously on the right of his throne. Heraclius is the horseman with a plumed helmet riding beneath the standard with the black Imperial eagle. The defeated Chosroes is being beheaded on the far right. Just above him, we can see the Cross next to his empty throne.
Finally, in the left lunette, Heraclius (the upper part of his figure mostly destroyed) brings the Cross back to Jerusalem. The solemn procession is greeted outside the city walls by a crowd kneeling in veneration.
There are also several frescoes outside the main cycle. The chief of these is the Annunciation at the lower left of the window. (Kenneth Clark argued that the subject is actually St Helena’s vision of her death, but his theory has not won acceptance.) In the top left corner, God the Father sends down the Holy Spirit, represented by golden rays of light that have now almost entirely disappeared. The monumental figure of Mary seems too large for the splendid classical portico, her head nearly touching the ceiling. Towards the top of the altar wall are two full-length figures of Prophets – Jeremiah(?) to the left of the window and Isaiah(?) to the right. The saints on the entrance arch are by Piero’s assistants, but the decorative Blindfolded Cupid (upper left) and Head of an Angel (lower right) appear to be from Piero’s own hand.
The frescoes have always been considered Piero’s most important work. They were financed by Luigi Bacci, a rich merchant from Arezzo, who initially, in 1447, commissioned the Florentine artist Lorenzo di Bicci to decorate the choir. When Lorenzo di Bicci died in 1452 he seems only to have painted the Four Evangelists in the Gothic vaulting and part of the Last Judgement over the entrance arch. Piero’s work on the frescoes cannot be precisely dated. It was possibly completed by 1458-59 (when Piero is documented as working in the Vatican) and certainly finished by 1466 (when, in a contract to paint a standard for the company of the Annunziata at Arezzo, Piero is described as the ‘artist who painted the great chapel in San Francesco’). The frescoes were executed in about 230 giornate (equivalent to around 300 days of work). Piero had at least two assistants: Giovanni di Piamonte (whose style is known from an altarpiece signed and dated 1456 in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Città di Castello) and the local painter Lorentino d’Andrea. Piero appears to have worked almost unaided on the right wall, but assistants’ participation is evident in almost all the frescoes on the left wall. The execution of the small scenes of the Burying/Raising of the Wood and the Torture of the Jew and of the figure of the Prophet Isaiah(?) has often been ascribed to Giovanni di Piamonte).
The frescoes, which were flaking badly, were heavily restored by Prof. Gaetano Bianchi in 1860. His repaints were removed when the frescoes were cleaned in 1960-64, exposing serious gaps in some of the compositions. Yet another, even more extensive, programme of restoration was carried out in 1985-2000.
Saint Mary Magdalene. Fresco, 190 x 80.
The fresco is on the wall next to the sacristy door. The saint stands in a painted niche, imitating marble, holding her vase of ointment in her left hand and her mantle in her right. The bottom of the fresco was damaged in the 1820s when a holy water stoup was set against it. Probably painted in about 1466-68, when Piero painted a processional standard for the company of the Annunziata in Arezzo; Vasari mentions the fresco and the lost standard at the same point in his biography of the artist.
Saint Jerome in Penitence. Wood, 51 x 38.
A small devotional panel, still in its original frame, presumably intended for a private chamber rather than a church. Signed ‘Petri de Burgo’ and dated 1450. The saint holds in his right hand a stone to beat his breast and in his left hand a paternoster. Behind him is his lion. The panel was overpainted (perhaps in the sixteenth century), and before a restoration in 1968-72 its authenticity was often doubted. The overpainting was not done (as formerly supposed) because the panel was unfinished. It was done apparently to repair the damage done by an early attempt at cleaning. The original paint surface, now exposed, is badly abraded, and the green underpainting shows through the flesh tints. Acquired in 1922.
Boston. Gardner Museum.
Hercules. Detached fresco, 151 x 126.
A fragment, considerably damaged and restored, which was uncovered in the 1860s in the Casa Graziani (then owned by the Collacchioni family) in Sansepolcro. Piero is said to have lived in the house (which is in Via Aggiunte, opposite San Francesco). The fresco, Piero’s only surviving secular painting, probably dates from the 1460s or early 1470s. It was situated in an upper corner of the room, which accounts for the low viewpoint. Behind the figure are horizontal beams decorated with a simple leaf pattern. The lower part, from the middle of the shins, is said to have been destroyed when a doorway was built. After its discovery, the fresco was detached from the wall and taken to the Collacchioni villa outside the town. It was bought by Mrs Gardner from the Florentine dealer Elia Volpe in 1903 (but the Italian authorities delayed its export until 1908).
Urbino Diptych. Wood, each panel 47 x 33.
After the murder (in which he may have had some hand) of his half-brother Oddantonio in 1444, Federico da Montefeltro seized the small city state of Urbino and ruled it for the next thirty-eight years. He was a highly successful soldier, who fought as a condottiere for Milan, Florence, Naples, the Papacy and Ferrara, and an enlightened patron of the arts, who made Urbino a famous centre of the Renaissance. He married his second wife, the thirteen-year-old Battista Sforza, daughter of Alessandro Sforza, Lord of Pesaro, in 1460. After producing eight daughters in eleven years, Battista died of pneumonia in July 1472, just six months after providing Federico with a male heir.
On the front of the two panels are bust-length profile portraits of Federico, who is plainly dressed in a red surcoat and hat of state, and Battista, who wears a sumptuous dress with gold damasked sleeves and has her braided hair dressed with ribbons. There is no attempt to conceal the disfiguring injury incurred by Federico in a tournament, when his opponent’s lance glanced upwards from his armour and shattered his nose. On the back are Allegorical Triumphs: Federico, crowned by Victory, is accompanied by the cardinal virtues, Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude; Battista, on a chariot drawn by two unicorns, a symbol of chastity, is accompanied by the theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity (who holds a pelican). The landscapes, both front and back, are nearly continuous (after allowing for the break caused by the frame). The current pseudo-Renaissance frame is only of the nineteenth century. The diptych was originally hinged. It has sometimes been dated about 1465-66, on the grounds that Ferabo, a Veronese Carmelite humanist, was in Urbino at that time and mentions a portrait of Federigo by Piero in a poem. It has alternatively been dated in or after 1472, the year Battista died, on the grounds that the inscription on the back of her portrait is in the past tense and she appears older than she would have done in 1465-66 (when she was barely twenty). A later dating is also supported by the argument that the coronet being placed over Federico’s head in the Triumph and the scarlet mantle draped across his shoulders refer to his title of Duke of Urbino, bestowed on him by Sixtus IV in August 1474. The portraits came to Florence from Urbino in 1631 with the Della Rovere inheritance. Until around 1800 the Uffizi catalogued them as portraits of Sigismondo Malatesta and his mistress Isotta.
Lisbon. Museu de Arte Antigua.
Saint Augustine. Wood, 133 x 60.
The saint holds a crosier of transparent crystal and wears a jewelled mitre and magnificent cope embroidered with scenes from the Life of Christ. One of a series of four panels of saints: the others are in London (National Gallery), Milan (Poldi Pezzoli) and New York (Frick). As two of the panels show Augustinian saints, the altarpiece is assumed to be the one documented as painted by Piero for the high altar of the church of Sant’Agostino at Sansepolcro (remodelled and reconsecrated as Santa Chiara in 1555). The altarpiece was commissioned on 4 October 1454, but appears to have taken many years to complete (perhaps because Piero had already started to paint the great cycle of frescoes at Arezzo). It was essentially finished by November 1469, and Piero received final payment of the fee (320 florins and a piece of arable land) by May 1470. It is last mentioned in situ by Vasari (1550). It was probably dismantled in 1652, when the church was restored after a wall collapsed, and around 1680 the four panels of saints are recorded in the house at Sansepolcro of Lucca and Francesco Ducci. It is not known what became of the central panel (a Madonna and Child). The Lisbon panel was purchased in 1936 from the Count of Burnay, and exhibited as a work of Cima da Conegliano. It was identified as part of Piero’s Sant’Agostino Altarpiece by Kenneth Clark in 1947.
London. National Gallery.
Baptism of Christ. Wood, 167 x 116.
St John baptises Christ. The Holy Ghost descends as a dove. Three androgynous angels, wearing wreathes of red and white roses, myrtle and pearls, stand on the left waiting to dry and clothe Christ. A man strips on the right. Behind, four bearded elders in Eastern (actually Greek) costume cast reflections in the waters of the Jordan. The tree growing on the riverbank is a walnut; the wild plants include buttercup, licorice, bindwind, clover and plantain. The picture is thinly painted in tempera, which has grown transparent, and the green underpainting shows through the flesh tints. There is little agreement on dating: it is judged Piero’s earliest work (1440-45) by Longhi, considered much later by Clark and Lightbown (early 1450s) but even earlier by James Banker (late 1430s). It was the central panel of a triptych. The two wings and predella were painted in about 1460-65 by the Sienese workshop of Matteo di Giovanni, and are in the museum at Sansepolco together with the frame. The predella contains the arms of the Graziani family, who presumably commissioned the wings and predella but not necessarily Piero’s Baptism. The altarpiece is recorded in 1629 in the Camaldolese priory of San Giovanni Battista, although that may not have been its original location. When the priory was suppressed in 1807-8, it was moved to the cathedral. In 1859 Piero’s central panel was sold for 23,000 lire to Sir J. C. Robinson, acting for an English collector, the railway magnate Matthew Uzielli. When Uzielli died in 1861, Sir Charles Eastlake bought it for 230 guineas and placed it in the National Gallery.
Saint Michael. Wood, 133 x 60.
He wears the armour of a Roman soldier and has white, swan-like wings. Satan is represented by an enormous snake; the saint holds up its severed head by one of its ears and stands on its writhing body. The Saint Michael was painted in walnut oil but is almost as light in tone as Piero's earlier works in tempera (eg. the Baptism). Three other panels of saints – at New York (Frick), Milan (Poldi Pezzoli) and Lisbon – came from the same altarpiece, painted between 1454 and 1469 for the church of Sant’Agostino in Sansepolcro. The low marble wall, with Corinthian pilasters and palmette frieze, would have been continous across all four panels. The central panel, now lost, seems to have represented the Madonna and Child Enthroned. The Saint Michael would have been on the left, and the brocade of the Virgin’s gown and step of the throne are seen in the bottom right-hand corner. Bought by Sir Charles Eastlake in 1861 for £50 from Fidanza’s in Milan. In 1867 his widow sold it to the National Gallery for the same price.
Nativity. Wood, 125 x 123.
Possibly unfinished. But parts, including the faces of the two shepherds and the figure of St Joseph sitting on the saddle on the right, were damaged by overcleaning in a crude nineteenth-century attempt at restoration. Probably a late work. The oil technique and the types of the Madonna and the newborn Child suggest the influence of Flemish painting (particularly Hugo van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece), while the five wingless angels on the left recall musicians from Luca della Robbia’s famous Cantoria for Florence Cathedral. First recorded in 1828 in the possession of Giuseppe Marini-Franceschi of Sansepolcro, a descendent of Piero’s brother Marco. It could be a picture listed among the effects of Marco’s son Francesco, who died in 1492, and Lightbown (1992) suggests that it was painted for Francesco’s marriage in 1482 to a Madonna Laudomia. Acquired in Florence in 1861 by Sir Alexander Barker of London. At the Barker sale in 1874, the National Gallery paid the astonishing sum of 2300 guineas for it – more than twice as much as for Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, which was in the same sale.
Madrid. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.
Portrait of a Young Boy (Guidobaldo da Montefeltro?). Wood, 41 x 28.
This little picture came from Urbino, with a false inscription on the parapet, as a portrait of Raphael at the age of six by his father, Giovanni Santi. It was bought in 1838 by James Dennistoun (author of the Dukes of Urbino) from the painter Giuseppe Crosti. It entered Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s collection in 1934 from the collection of Leopold Hirsch of London, and was initially catalogued as a work of Melozzo da Forlì. The young sitter was identified as Guidobaldo da Montefeltro (son of Federico and future Duke of Urbino) on the evidence of a resemblance with a portrait medal of 1483 and the famous portrait by Justus of Ghent at Windsor Castle. The attribution to Piero della Francesca was published in 1964 by Philip Hendy (Some Italian Renaissance Pictures in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection). The attribution was accepted in De Vecchi's L'Opera Completa (1967) and repeated in catalogues and guidebooks of the collection. But the picture has been ignored in much of the subsequent literature on Piero (the monographs by Clark, Lavin and Lightbown all failing even to mention it).
Virgin and Child with Six Saints (‘Montefeltro Altarpiece’). Wood, 248 x 170.
The Virgin, hands folded in prayer and the nude Child asleep in her lap, is enthroned in the apse of a splendid Renaissance chapel. Four angels, richly dressed and adorned with jewels, stand behind the throne. Federico da Montefeltro, kneeling in adoration in the right foreground, wears a suit of gleaming armour (note the reflection of an arched window on the shoulder plate), with his helmet, steel gauntlets and baton of command on the ground before him. Federico’s profile head is identical in size to the portrait in the Uffizi and may have been taken from the same cartoon. His praying hands seem to have been painted by another artist (probably the Netherlandish painter Justus of Ghent or the Spaniard Pedro Berruguete, who were also employed at the Court of Urbino). The semidome is filled by a sculptured conch shell, from which hangs an ostrich egg on a slender golden chain. The symbolism of the egg has been much discussed. In fact, hanging eggs are not uncommon in Italian Renaissance altarpieces: they have been variously supposed to symbolise the Creation, Mary’s virginity or fecundity or Christ’s Resurrection, or to act as admonitory examples directing the soul towards God. The saints on the left are John the Baptist (the name saint of Federico’s wife Battista Sforza), Jerome and Bernardino of Siena. Those on the right are Francis, Peter Martyr (sometimes identified as a portrait of Luca Pacioli, Piero’s pupil in mathematics) and a bearded saint sometimes identified as Andrew or Paul but probably John the Evangelist. The altarpiece was probably intended for Federico’s future tomb. It came to the Brera in 1811 from the Observant convent of San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti, a mile outside Urbino, where Duke Federico and his son Guidobaldo were buried. However, the convent was not built until 1483-91, and the picture is likely to have hung originally in another Franciscan church, San Donato degli Osservanti, which was the earlier mausoleum for Lords of Urbino. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the picture was often misidentified with an altarpiece at Urbino attributed by Vasari (in his Life of Bramante) to the obscure Fra Carnevale. While clearly a late work of Piero, the picture was probably completed before August 1474, when Federico was elected to the Orders of the Garter, Ermine and Golden Fleece and his title raised from Count to Duke. He wears no insignia of these new honours. There is a popular tradition, dating back to the eighteenth century, that the Child is a portrait of Federico’s only son Guidobaldo (born January 1472) and the Virgin is a posthumous likeness of Battista Sforza (died July 1472). The panel has been cut down by about 10 per cent at the bottom. Restoration, completed in 1981, removed repaint and patches of old varnish, and revealed the original brilliant colours. Its previous condition can be gauged from Clark’s description (1969) of the painting as ‘uniformly dead and cramped’.
Milan. Museo Poldi Pezzoli.
Saint Nicholas of Tolentino. Wood, 136 x 59.
The portly saint, formerly known as Thomas Aquinas, is identified by his Augustinian habit and the gold star above his right shoulder. A side panel from the Sant’Agostino Altarpiece, painted by Piero between 1454 and 1469. Other side panels are in Lisbon, London and New York (Frick Collection). The centre panel is lost. The Saint Nicholas was on the extreme right. It has been suggested that the head of the saint is a portrait of the donor of the altarpiece, Angelo di Giovanni di Simone, a citizen of Sansepolcro. The panel was part of Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli’s original bequest of pictures to the city of Milan in 1879.
Monterchi. Museo della Madonna del Parto.
‘Madonna del Parto’. Detached fresco, 260 x 203.
Monterchi, about equidistant from Sansepolcro and Città di Castello, was the birthplace of Piero’s mother, Romana di Perino. Two angels (evidently painted from the same cartoon) pull aside a curtain to reveal the pregnant Madonna pointing to the Child in her womb. The subject is extremely rare in Italian art (though common in Spain). The frescoed altarpiece, which was much venerated by pregnant women, was originally in the little church of Santa Maria a Momentana (or della Selva). The church was largely destroyed in 1785 by an earthquake, which left only the wall with the fresco standing. The apse of the ruined church was then turned into a little cemetery chapel. The fresco does not seem to have been referred to in print until 1889, when it was discovered by chance by a journalist. It was detached from the wall in 1911 and taken to Florence for restoration. The chapel was hit by another earthquake in 1917; but the fresco again escaped destruction and a new chapel was built from the ruins. Following expert restoration in 1992-93, the fresco has been housed in a former school building on Via della Reglia. The fresco (unsurprisingly) has suffered some damage. There are losses at the edges, and the upper part of the canopy is a reconstruction. Some critics have ascribed the execution partly to an assistant (Lorentino d’Andrea?).
New York. Frick Collection.
Saint (St John the Evangelist?). Wood, 134 x 62.
The aged saint, absorbed in the book he is reading, wears a voluminous crimson cloak over a green robe, the hem of which is embroidered with gold and encrusted with gems. A side panel from the Sant’Agostino Altarpiece (1454-69), other surviving parts of which are in Lisbon, London and Milan (Poldi Pezzoli). The identity of the saint is not quite certain: he is probably John, the name of the donor, but could be Simon (Zelotes), the name of his deceased brother, in whose memory the altarpiece was commissioned. He resembles the saint (John the Evangelist?) on the right of the Brera Altarpiece. The gold embroidered and jewelled border of the Frick saint's robe could allude to Saint John's legendary talent for turning wood and stones into gold and gems. All four surviving side panels from the Sant'Agostino Altarpiece were recorded in about 1680 in the possession of Lucca and Francesco Ducci at Sansepolcro. The Frick panel formerly belonged to the Miller zu Aicholz family of Vienna and was acquired in 1936 from Knoedler of New York for the huge price of $400,000.
Augustinian Monk; Augustinian Nun. Wood, 40/39 x 28.
The young monk, wearing the belt and black habit of the Augustinian order, might represent St Leonard (a legendary hermit, venerated by the Augustinians, to whom the earliest chapel in Sansepolcro was dedicated) or the Blessed Angelo Scarpetti (an Augustinian monk who was buried beneath the high altar of Sant’Agostino in Sansepolcro). The nun is probably St Monica, mother of St Augustine and traditionally the founder of the Augustinian order of nuns. Two of a series of small three-quarter length panels of saints; another (Saint Apollonia) is in Washington; and a fourth (St Nicholas of Bari) is lost. The panels are usually thought to have belonged to the Sant’Agostino Altarpiece (either decorating the pilasters or forming parts of a predella), though Ronald Lightbown (1992) suggests that they originated rather from relic cupboards. In 1848 all four panels were in the possession of Giuseppe Marini-Franceschi of Sansepolcro. By 1914 the two Frick panels were in the Leichtenstein collection at Vienna; they were acquired by the Frick in 1950. They are usually ascribed to Piero’s workshop.
Crucifixion. Wood, 38 x 41.
Damaged (the paint surface worn and cracked) and retouched. One of four small panels (quadretti) recorded in about 1680 in the Ducci collection at Sansepolcro; the others were a Flagellation, a Deposition and a Resurrection. Presumably parts of a predella, they may have come from the Sant’Agostino Altarpiece or another altarpiece from the same church. Having passed through the Colonna collection in Rome and the Doria collection in Milan, the Crucifixion was acquired by Bernard Berenson in 1914 and was later in the New York collections of Carl W. Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller Jr, who bequeathed it to the Frick in 1961. The execution is sometimes ascribed to an assistant of Piero.
Portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta. Wood, 45 x 35.
Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta was Lord of Rimini from the age of fifteen in 1432 until his death in 1468. As a skilled and unscrupulous condottiere, he served at various times each of the five major Italian city states, frequently changing sides. He commanded the Papal armies for a time, but after the election of Pius II (who hated him for his supposed treachery to Siena) he had to fight the Papacy constantly to preserve his fiefdom. At Christmas 1460, he was tried in absentia by Pius II, accused of sexual depravity and impiety, declared a heretic, excommunicated and consigned to Hell. After his army was routed at the Battle of Senigallia (1462) by Papal forces led by Federico da Montefeltro, he was driven to an humiliating surrender in which he lost all his territory along the Adriatic coast except for the city of Rimini and a few towns. An enthusiastic patron of the arts and learning, Sigismondo is remembered chiefly for the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco (Tempio Malatestiano) as a monument for himself and his mistress (eventually third wife) Isotta degli Atti. Work, which had started in 1447, was suspended when his fortunes declined, and the church remained unfinished.
The Louvre portrait is thought to date from around 1450. Sigismondo is depicted in identical profile in Matteo de’ Pasti’s portrait medal and in Piero’s Rimini fresco of 1451. Nothing is known of the history of the portrait before the late 1880s, when it came to light in St Petersburg and was taken to Italy. It was acquired in the 1930s by the famous dealer Alessandro Contini Bonacossi, and remained with him and his heirs until 1978, when it was bought by the Louvre. It was included among Piero’s indubitable works by Roberto Longhi in the 1942 edition of his famous monograph. But before cleaning in 1977, the attribution often doubted.
Perugia. Galleria Nazionale.
Altarpiece. Wood, 338 x 230.
The Virgin's throne resembles a classical niche with a coffered semi-dome. A Masacciesque Child holds a goldfinch, symbol of the Passion, in his left hand, and raises his right hand in blessing. Two pairs of saints – Anthony of Padua and John the Baptist on the left and Francis and Elizabeth of Hungary on the right – stand at the sides. The gold backgrounds are tooled with a pineapple pattern in imitation of damask cloth. Above (in a curious stepped triangular pinnacle which seems incongruous on the florid Gothic frame) is the Annunciation with ‘a perspective of columns, beautifully done’ (Vasari). There are two predellas (probably executed largely by assistants). The first has roundels of St Clare and St Agatha (the centre panel is missing). The second has three narrative scenes from the lives of the three Franciscan saints in the main panel: the Stigmatisation of St Francis (a night scene), St Anthony reviving a child, and St Elizabeth saving a child who had fallen down a well. The altarpiece is from the Franciscan convent of Sant’Antonio delle Monache at Perugia. It must have been painted between 1455 (when the nuns got permission to have Masses said at the altar) and 1468 (when they asked for help from the town council to pay for the completed altarpiece). It was moved to the gallery in 1810.
Rimini. Tempio Malatestiano.
Sigismondo Malatesta before St Sigismund. Detached fresco, 257 x 345.
Piero’s earliest surviving fresco. It hung until recently in its original position in the Cappella di San Sigismondo (or Chapel of the Relics) – the first chapel on the right of the nave – but has now been moved to the right transept. The young Lord of Rimini kneels in prayer before his elderly patron saint, Sigismund of Burgundy. Two greyhounds, one white and the other black, lie on the right. Sigismondo’s castle is seen through a round window. The fresco is framed along the top and the sides by simulated relief carvings, while an inscription on the lower border, decorated with Malatesta roses and cornucopia, gives the names of the subject and the artist and the date 1451 (now partly effaced). It is the only work of Piero that can be dated with absolute certainty. Sigismondo’s profile portrait and the view of his castle may have been based on a bronze medal by the sculptor Matteo de’ Pasti (which bears the date 1446 but may have been cast a few years later). Only the head and hands of the two figures and the figures of the two greyhounds appear to have been painted in true fresco and are well preserved. The colour has disappeared from most of the rest of the picture (the background was originally painted as a wall panelled in dark marble). The fresco was removed from the wall for safekeeping during the Second World War, remounted on canvas, and freed of early nineteenth-century repaint.
Rome. Santa Maria Maggiore. Cappella San Michele.
Four Evangelists. Ceiling frescoes.
The chapel (in the right aisle, next to the baptistery) was once whitewashed. Part of the figure of St Luke came to light in the 1920s, and was attributed to Piero by Roberto Longhi. The whitewash was fully removed in the 1970s and the other three Evangelists were revealed. The frescoes are very poorly preserved, and they may have been painted largely by an assistant (Giovanni da Piamonte?) from Piero’s cartoons. They probably date from 1458-59, when Piero is documented as working in the Vatican. According to Vasari, Piero left Rome suddenly when he heard news of his mother’s death (which occurred on 6 November 1459). Vasari says that the chapel was painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, who may have completed the decoration.
‘Madonna delle Misericordia’. Wood, 273 x 323.
The large polyptych comprises five large panels, eleven smaller panels and a predella, arranged in three-tiers. The central panel (134 x 91) shows the Virgin of Mercy. She solemnly opens her mantle to shelter small kneeling figures of worshippers, which appear to be portraits (the man with his head thrown back is traditionally said to be Piero himself). At the sides are four panels of saints (each 109 x 45): Sebastian (protector against the plague), John the Baptist (patron saint of Florence), John the Evangelist (patron saint of Sansepolcro) and Bernardino of Siena (the Franciscan preacher canonised in 1450). Above the centre panel is a dramatic Crucifixion (81 x 53), with the Crucified Christ shown between the Virgin, who raises her hands in despair, and John the Evangelist, who throws back his head and flings out his arms. Comparisons have often been drawn with Masaccio’s Crucifixion (now at Naples) from the Carmine altarpiece of 1426. Above the two inner side panels are pinnacles with the Angel and Virgin of the Annunciation, and above the two outer panels are pinnacles with full-length figures of St Benedict and St Francis. On the pilasters are six slender panels of saints (Jerome, Anthony of Padua and Arcanus of Sansepolcro on the left, and Augustine, Dominic and Egidius/Giles on the right). Some of the minor panels of saints and the five Passion scenes in the predella (Agony in the Garden, Flagellation, Deposition, Noli me Tangere and Mary at the Sepulchre) have been ascribed to an assistant (often identified as Fra Giuliano Amadei, a Camaldolese monk and miniaturist).
The polyptych was painted for the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Misericordia (whose insignia is painted on the bases of the pilasters) for the chapel of their hospital. Piero’s own family had belonged to the confraternity, which was a charitable lay brotherhood of flagellants. The altarpiece is usually described as Piero’s earliest surviving work, but its commission and execution were very long drawn out. As early as September 1422, a wealthy citizen of Sansepolcro, Urbano di Meo dei Bichi, had bequeathed sixty florins towards its cost. A carpenter (following a design by the painter Ottaviano Nelli) was paid for the frame and wooden panels in 1430. The contract between Piero and the confraternity was drawn up on 11 June 1445. Piero was to be paid 150 florins and the work was to be completed within three years. However, much of the execution was probaby delayed until 1459-62, when most of the payments were made. By the seventeenth century, the Gothic frame had been replaced by a baroque structure. In 1807, the Brotherhood was dissolved, its church converted into a hospital, and the altarpiece moved to the church of San Rocco, whence it was transferred to the gallery in 1901. Some panels are in poor condition – particularly those on the right, which appear to have suffered fire damage. The Crucifixion and parts of the centre panel (including the heads of the worshippers) are better preserved.
Resurrection. Fresco, 225 x 200.
Christ, holding the banner of the Resurrection, rises from the sepulchre, in the front of which four soldiers are asleep. The foreshortened head of the soldier beneath the banner is traditionally a self-portrait. The trees are barren on the left and in full leaf on the right – probably symbolising the world before and after the Resurrection. The scene is framed by Corinthian columns (restored). Painted for the Palazzo dei Conservatori, now the Pinacoteca, though not for its present position. The fresco is not documented, but the room (Sala Grande) in which it was painted was completed by May 1458. It is possible that the fresco was commissioned to commemorate the return of self-government to Sansepolcro in 1459 after a period of subjugation to Florence. The Risen Christ has been interpreted as protector of the town (which is named after the Holy Sepulchre and incorporates the Sepulchre in its coat-of-arms). The fresco seems to have been moved very early, possibly in 1474 or 1480, when the room was altered. A section of the brick wall on which it was painted was cut out and inserted in a stone wall. Vasari praises the fresco as Piero’s ‘best work in Borgo or anywhere else’. The basic design appears to have been taken from the central panel of a mid-fourteenth century Sienese altarpiece from the Duomo at Sansepolcro, which Piero may have been asked to use as his model. The fresco was famously described as the ‘greatest picture in the world’ by Aldous Huxley in his 1925 essay The Best Picture. It is said that during the Allies’ advance through Italy in summer 1944, a gunnery officer, Anthony Clarke, decided not to bombard the town because he remembered Huxley’s essay. (The anecdote is told in H. V. Morton’s A Traveller in Italy.) A major new restoration of the fresco was underway in late 2014 and completed in March 2018.
Saint Julian the Hospitaler. Fresco, 130 x 105.
A fragment, discovered by accident in December 1954 beneath a coat of whitewash on the right wall of the choir of the deconsecrated church of Santa Chiara (formerly Sant’Agostino), for which Piero painted the high altarpiece (now dismembered). It was detached and moved to the museum in 1957. The saint, shown against a background of verde antico marble, was probably originally full-length, holding a sword in his right hand.
Saint Louis of Toulouse. Fresco, 123 x 90.
The saint, over life-size, wears a mitre and holds a crosier and book. From a tabernacle on the wall of the Palazzo del Capitano (Palazzo Pretorio) of Sansepolcro. An inscription (now lost) recorded that the fresco was painted at the expense of the Borgo to honour Lodovico Acciauolo (who was Capitano of Borgo from 3 June 1460 to 3 January 1461). Badly damaged when it was transferred in 1846, and the lower part is lost. Restored in 1998.
Urbino. Galleria Nazionale.
Flagellation. Wood, 59 x 82.
While a huge amount has been written about this small panel, no agreement has been reached on its meaning, purpose or date. Pilate is seated in a magnificent marble portico. Before him, Christ, bound to a pillar topped by a golden idol, is flogged. In the right foreground are three apparently indifferent spectators. By a local tradition, dating back to the eighteenth century, these are Oddantonio di Montefeltro, a Count of Urbino who was assassinated in 1444 and his evil minions Tommaso dell’Agnello and Manfredo de’ Carpi. Sir Kenneth Clark connected the picture with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, identifying the bearded, exotically dressed figure as Emperor John Paleologus. Yet another theory identified the bearded man as Ottaviano Ulbaldini, Federico da Montefeltro’s humanist prime minister, and the gentleman in profile on the left as Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. A more straightforward interpretation identifies the three men as members of the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) that condemned Christ and ‘went not into the judgement hall lest they be defiled’. The picture is a masterpiece of perspective: the foreshortening of the black and white marble pavement is especially remarkable. It is first recorded in the late eighteenth century in the sacristy of the Duomo at Urbino. It seems too large for a predella, and may have served as a portable altarpiece. It has been dated as early as the late 1440s and as late as about 1470. The panel is heavily warped and an unfortunate horizontal crack runs through Christ's face.
Virgin and Child between Two Angels (‘Madonna di Senigallia’). Wood, 61 x 54.
The Child raises his right hand in blessing. His swaddling cloth is arranged as if it were a toga, draped over his left shoulder and folded over his left arm. Coral necklaces were worn as amulets, but the allusion here is probably to Christ's Passion. The white rose symbolises Mary's purity. On the left is a view into a background room, with sunlight slanting through the shutters. The niche on the right contains a linen basket and pyx-like jar. The picture came from the Franciscan convent church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, outside Senigallia (a small town on the Adriatic coast). It was first noticed only in 1822, and was transferred to the Ducal Palace at Urbino for safekeeping after Senigallia was bombarded during the First World War. It is probably one of Piero’s latest surviving pictures. It has been suggested that it could have been painted around the time of the betrothal in 1474 or marriage in 1478 of Senigallia's young ruler, Giovanni della Rovere, to Federico da Montefeltro's daughter, Giovanna Feltria. Alternatively, Giovanna could have inherited a work commissioned earlier by Federico or his wife Battista Sforza. A restoration, the first for almost sixty years, was completed in 2011.
The Flagellation and Madonna di Senigallia were stolen, along with Raphael's La Muta, from the gallery in February 1975 but discovered undamaged a year later in a hotel at Locarno.
St Jerome and a Donor. Wood, 49 x 42.
Badly damaged, perhaps by exposure to the sun; the green pigments have oxidised to brown. The donor kneels in prayer before St Jerome, seated under a tree, who is engaged in translating the Bible. Piero’s signature is carved into the trunk of the tree. The inscription (probably added in the early sixteenth century) states that the donor is Girolamo di Agostino Amadi. The Amadi family, originally from Lucca, settled in Venice, where they founded the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli. However, it has been argued recently (by James Banker in his 2014 biography of Piero della Francesca) that the donor was not the Venetian Amadi but a lawyer from Sansepolcro called Jacopo Anastagi. Anastagi, a contemporary of Piero, rose to prominence in the service of the Malatesta at Rimini. An early work (early 1450s?), perhaps about contemporary with the London Baptism, which has a similar landscape background. First recorded in 1812 in the collection of Conte Bernardino Renier of Venice; bequeathed to the Accademia by his widow, Felicita Renier, in 1850.
Washington. National Gallery.
Saint Apollonia. Wood, 41 x 28.
The saint, holding pincers with one of her teeth, was a protector against toothache. Along with two other small three-quarter length panels of saints in the Frick Collection (New York), this was probably a minor panel of the Sant’Agostino Altarpiece (1454-69). In the mid-nineteenth century it was in the possession of Giuseppe Marini-Franceschi of Sansepolcro, who also owned the two Frick panels and the Nativity in London. It was acquired in Tuscany by Robert Lehman in 1925. It is usually judged inferior to the Frick panels and the execution ascribed to Piero’s workshop.
Williamstown (Mass.). Clark Art Institute.
Virgin and Child with Four Angels. Wood (transferred to fabric), 108 x 78.
The Christ Child reaches for a pink carnation, which might symbolise love or Christ’s Crucifixion or Resurrection. This small altarpiece is probably the picture by Piero della Francesca recorded in 1583 in the possession of Giacomo di Bernardino Gherardi of Sansepolcro, the great-great nephew of Cristoforo Gherardi, who was Gonfaloniere in 1500. Bought in 1834 by Sir Walter Trevelyan from a Florentine dealer. Sold at Christie’s in 1869, and acquired by Clark in 1914 from Colnaghi’s. It was first published as a work of Piero only in 1930 (by Gnoli), but is now usually accepted as an entirely autograph late work (early 1470s?). However, a few critics (including Berenson, Carlo Bertelli in his 1991 monograph and J. V. Field in her 2005 book on Piero’s mathematics) have regarded it as the work of an assistant or very close follower. Though somewhat abraded, it appears to be quite well preserved for a transferred picture.