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The Triumph of Piero

Piero della Francesca: Virgin of Mercy, the center panel of the Misericordia Polyptych, 1445–1462
Museo Civico, Sansepolcro/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Piero della Francesca: Virgin of Mercy, the center panel of the Misericordia Polyptych, 1445–1462

Giorgio Vasari, the father of art history, begins his biography of the painter Piero della Francesca with a sigh of reproach:

A truly unfortunate life is the lot of those who pursue their studies in order to be of use to others and promulgate their own fame, but because they fall ill and die, fail to complete the works they began. If they leave them in a state in which only little remains to be done, the incomplete works are snatched up by the impudence of those who attempt to conceal their jackass’s hide beneath the glorious pelt of a lion.

Vasari borrows a fable from Aesop to denounce the plagiarism to which Piero della Francesca fell victim.

Piero was one of those pioneering masters from the circle of Italian humanists who not only practiced their craft as architects and painters, but also wrote theoretical treatises reflecting on their work. We do not know exactly how many essays Piero wrote on mathematics and geometry—Vasari speaks of “many”—but only three have survived. The presumably early Trattato dell’abaco treats arithmetic and algebra. The late De prospectiva pingendi takes up the practical problems of perspective still being debated at the time. Its first sentence is frequently quoted: “Painting contains three main principles, which we call drawing [disegno], measurement [commensuratio], and working with color [colorare].”

Piero’s pictures, invested with so much emotion by modern viewers, are based on a computational foundation of mathematics and solid geometry. The famous Renaissance mathematician Luca Pacioli incorporated Piero’s explanation of solid geometry word-for-word into his Summa de Arithmetica without attribution. It was certainly plagiarism, as Vasari charged, but it was also a compliment. The painter Piero was not just the conceiver but also the constructor of his works.

Although we do not know the exact date of his birth, 2016 is being celebrated as its six hundredth anniversary. He was born in Sansepolcro, a small town in the upper Tiber Valley not far from Arezzo, sometime between 1415 and 1420. His father was a shoemaker. He would have learned the fundamentals of mathematics in the local school, and when he was fifteen he took up painting. We can only speculate on his artistic training in Sansepolcro, and in fact his entire life and career are only sparsely documented, which has led to much wrangling in the scholarly literature.

In 1439 he is mentioned as a colleague of Domenico Veneziano in Florence, and in 1445 he signed a contract to paint an altarpiece for the Brotherhood of the Misericordia in Sansepolcro’s town hall. Thus this first documented commission came not from a prince or a monastery but from his fellow citizens. He would later work for the pope in Rome, for the noble house of d’Este in Ferrara, for the Malatesta family in Rimini, and for the famous Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino, making his major contribution to the splendor of the early Renaissance in Italy. But he never settled in one of its great centers, instead returning again and again to his hometown of Sansepolcro.

Yet there is nothing provincial about his works. Quite the contrary: he brought Italian—and especially Florentine—modernism into wider use and thereby lent it a unique and powerful face. His polyptych for the Brotherhood of the Misericordia assembles figures of saints around the central image of the Virgin of Mercy. All of them stand against a gilt background that is still quite medieval. But despite the traditional sacred setting, the figures are powerfully physical presences dressed in robes whose dramatic folds, reminiscent of mountain gorges, were obviously inspired by contemporary Florentine painting, especially that of his fellow artists Masaccio and Donatello.

And while the theme of the Virgin Mary spreading her protective cloak around the members of a brotherhood is also from the late Middle Ages (it can be found, for instance, in late Gothic art in Germany), Piero treats it from a new perspective. Dressed in a luminous red robe, Mary towers like a column over the other figures, her open cloak reminiscent of an apse. Within it kneel the praying members of the brotherhood, the men on one side and the women on the other, gazing up at their patroness. Their costly garments boast resplendent colors while a heavenly light illumines their faces, which are probably portraits of actual members. There is hardly another altarpiece where the old is so dramatically confronted by the new. Nothing about this image of the Virgin is soft and sweet. Instead, it is quietly austere.

There is another, similarly cryptic image of Mary by Piero, the Madonna del Parto for a chapel in Monterchi, the hometown of Piero’s mother. In a solemn act of unveiling, two angels open an enclosure made of precious fabric and lined with ermine. Within—and again standing upright and tall—is the clearly pregnant Mary, this time dressed in blue. Her right hand points to the blessed burden in her womb. It is hard to think of another image of the Virgin that includes a gesture of comparable symbolic weight, and it has attracted much speculation.

Piero’s use of perspective to dramatize a sacred theme reaches its climax in a fresco of the Resurrection in Sansepolcro. According to legend, the town was founded when a relic was brought back from the Holy Land. The Easter message of death and resurrection has seldom been depicted with such overwhelming power. At the bottom, we see dead-tired guards asleep beside the grave. They wear colorful Roman armor and one leans his head, with its coarse peasant features, against the projecting edge of the sarcophagus lid. Our gaze is drawn down to them, but then there is a dramatic shift of perspective: we raise our eyes and before us appears the figure of the resurrected Christ, clothed in a light pink garment, the wound in his side visible, and carrying the Easter banner. To borrow the title of a famous essay by Erwin Panofsky, perspective here becomes “symbolic form.”

But let us turn to the most important work that has survived from Piero’s oeuvre, the frescos of the Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. They were the donation of a rich family, the Bacci, and took a long time to be completed. Piero joined the project in 1452 at the latest and created one of the most imposing fresco cycles of the early Renaissance. In fourteen scenes he depicts—probably following the text of the Legenda Aurea—the Legend of the True Cross from the death of Adam to the Cross’s entrance into Jerusalem. Again it is perspective in its interplay with light that gives the scenes their vivid presence. He places his powerful figures near the front edge of the pictures, so that in their statuesque physicality and colorful garments they move as if on a stage. Piero is a gripping narrator who never diverts our attention from the main figures and the predominant events.

In the depiction of emotional agitation, emphatically recommended by aesthetic theories of the time, Piero is restrained. For him, it is gesture and especially gaze that are most important. We encounter only one figure who is emotional in the expressive sense defined by the art historian Aby Warburg: the mourning woman at the burial of Adam who raises her arms and opens her mouth in a wail. The gracefulness Vasari praises in Piero is evident in the female figures surrounding the Queen of Sheba and the Empress Helen. Piero’s sensitive feeling for light culminates in the scene of the slumbering Constantine, where the dark of night is wonderfully illuminated by the heavenly messenger bringing the dream in which he is shown the True Cross by an angel.

Individual portraits like those being painted in the Low Countries at that time were not among the primary tasks of a painter of monumental public images such as Piero. Nevertheless, he did make striking portraits of the ruling princes he served in Rimini and Urbino. In the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini he painted Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta kneeling before his patron, Saint Sigismund. The prince is dressed with courtly elegance and presented in pure profile. Behind him lie two greyhounds; a fortification erected by Sigismondo is visible through a round window, and above him shines his coat of arms—it is a genuine official portrait. The architectural frame—fluted pilasters and a frieze—is clearly inspired by the great architect and theoretician Leon Battista Alberti, who designed the Tempio and whom Piero must have met in Rimini.

The masterpiece among Piero’s portraits of princes comes from Urbino: the double portrait of the condottiere Federico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza. It is a diptych that, when closed, shows the princely couple riding separate triumphal carts and accompanied by secular and theological virtues, depicted as women. In the distance, we can see a landscape probably meant to indicate the pair’s territories. When the panels are opened, the same panorama appears, but now as a background to the towering busts of Federico and Battista in profile. She is adorned with pearls and precious stones, but Federico is the dominant figure. He wears a garment of purplish-red devoid of any additional decoration. The famous injury to the bridge of his nose sharpens rather than detracts from his remarkable profile. This portrait conveys a strong image of a ruler in an environment both harsh and nobly humanistic.

Federico appears in another painting by Piero, but now in the pious solemnity invoked by the subject of last things. In the apse of a church whose interior again seems to be inspired by Alberti, Mary sits enthroned with her sleeping son in her lap. She is attended by four angels, and a semicircle of saints is assembled around her. It is probably the earliest example of the sacra conversazione altarpieces that became especially popular in Venetian painting. Above the Virgin’s head, an ostrich egg hangs from the apex of the apse. It is a symbol of the Immaculate Conception and was also to be found on Federico’s coat of arms. In his shining armor he kneels in prayer before the Virgin, who for her part prays in intercession for his eternal soul. This pious altarpiece was associated with Federico’s grave. Here, Piero is no longer the trail-blazing inventor of his earlier images of the Madonna or the powerful narrator of the Legend of the True Cross. This epitaph for his last and most important patron is in the muted style of his more mature work.

How will Piero della Francesca and his powerful but unemotional paintings stand in the contemporary art scene? Let’s give the final word to the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who wrote brilliantly about works of art. According to legend, the aged, blind Piero was led around by the boy Marco di Longaro. Herbert commented, “Little Marco could not know that he was leading light by the hand.”

—Translated from the German by David Dollenmayer