Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca was a painter of the Early Renaissance, also known as a mathematician and geometer. Nowadays Piero della Francesca is chiefly appreciated for his art. His painting was characterized by its serene humanism, its use of geometric forms and perspective. His most famous work is the cycle of frescoes "The Legend of the True Cross" in the church of San Francesco in the Tuscan town of Arezzo.

Piero was born in the town of Borgo Santo Sepolcro, modern-day Tuscany (where he also died), to Benedetto de' Franceschi, a tradesman, and Romana di Perino da Monterchi, part of the Florentine and Tuscan Franceschi noble family. He was most probably apprenticed to the local painter Antonio di Giovanni d'Anghiari. Besides he certainly took notice of the work of some of the Sienese artists active in San Sepolcro during his youth. In 1439 Piero received, together with Domenico Veneziano, payments for his work on frescoes for the church of Sant'Egidio in Florence, now lost. In Florence he must have met leading masters like Fra Angelico, Luca della Robbia, Donatello and Brunelleschi. The classicism of Masaccio's frescoes and his majestic figures in the Santa Maria del Carmine were for him an important source of inspiration. Dating of Piero's undocumented work is difficult because his style does not seem to have developed over the years.

In 1442 he was listed as eligible for the City Council of San Sepolcro. Three years later, he received the commission for the altarpiece of the church of the Misericordia in San Sepolcro, which he was to complete only in the early 1460s. In 1449 he executed several frescoes in the Castello Estense and the church of Sant'Andrea of Ferrara, also lost. His influence was particularly strong in the later Ferrarese allegorical works of Cosimo Tura. Two years later he was in Rimini, working for the condottiero Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. In this sojourn he executed in 1451 the famous fresco of St. Sigismund and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in the Tempio Malatestiano, as well as Sigismondo's portrait. In Rimini Piero may have met the famous Renaissance mathematician and architect Leon Battista Alberti, who had redesigned the Tempio Malatestiano; although it is known that Alberti directed the execution of his designs for the church by correspondence with his building supervisor. Thereafter Piero was active in Ancona, Pesaro and Bologna.

In 1454 he signed a contract for the polyptych in the church of Sant'Agostino in San Sepolcro. The central panel of this polyptic is lost and the four panels of the wings, with representations of Saints, are scattered around the world. A few years later, summoned by Pope Nicholas V, he moved to Rome: here he executed frescoes in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, of which only fragments remain. Two years later he was again in the Papal capital, for frescoes in Vatican Palace which have also been destroyed. The Baptism of Christ, in The National Gallery in London, was executed around 1460 for the high altar of the church of the Priory of S. Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro. Other notable works of Piero della Francesca's maturity are the frescoes of the Resurrection in Sansepolcro and the Madonna del parto in Monterchi near Sansepolcro.

In 1452, Piero della Francesca was called to Arezzo to replace Bicci di Lorenzo in painting the frescoes of the basilica of San Francesco. The work was finished before 1466, probably between 1452 and 1456. The cycle of frescoes, depicting the Legend of the True Cross, is generally considered among his masterworks and those of Renaissance painting in general. The story in these frescoes derives from legendary medieval sources as to how timber relics of the True Cross came to be found.

Between 1469 and 1486 Piero della Francesca worked repeatedly in the service of Count Federico III da Montefeltro (Duke in 1474). The Flagellation is generally considered Piero's oldest work in Urbino (dating c. 1455–1470). It is one of the most famous and controversial pictures of the early Renaissance. As discussed in its own entry, it is marked by an air of geometric sobriety, in addition to presenting a perplexing enigma as to the nature of the three men standing at the foreground.

Another famous work painted in Urbino is the Double Portrait of Federico and his wife Battista Sforza, in the Uffizi. The portraits in profile take their inspiration from large bronze medals and stucco roundels with the official portraits of Fedederico and his wife. Other paintings made in Urbino are the monumental Montefeltro Altarpiece in the Brera Gallery in Milan and probably also the Madonna of Senigallia.

In his later years, painters such as Perugino and Luca Signorelli frequently visited his workshop. It is documented that Piero rented a house in Rimini in 1482. Although he may have given up painting in his later years, Vasari's remarks that he went blind at old age and at the age of sixty. Piero made his will in 1487 and he died five years later, on 12 October 1492, in his own house in San Sepolcro.