Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Piero da San Sepolcro

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 13
Piero da San Sepolcro

by George Kriehn


Painter, b. at Borgo San-Sepolcro, about 1420; d. there, 1492. The most usual form of his name is the traditional one, PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA, which is better authenticated in contemporary documents than what in late research had been supposed to be the more correct form, PIERO DEI FRANCESCHI (Gronau, "Repertorium fur Kunstwissenschaft", xxiii, 392-4). He was the son of a notary, Ser Benedetto, a member of an influential family long identified with the government of the town-the Franceschi. His earliest artistic training is unknown, but he was active at Perugia in 1438, probably as an assistant to Domenico Veneziano, and he was certainly employed in the same capacity in the Church of Sant' Egidio, Florence, in 1439-40. To Domenico and probably also to Paolo Uccello, Florentine Realists who did much for the technical side of painting, we may ascribe the formative influence in his art. Piero first appears as an independent master in 1445, when he painted a still surviving altar-piece of many panels for the Brotherhood of the Misericordia in his native town. He is said to have laboured with Domenico at Loreto, and he was certainly at Rimini in 1451, when he painted a remarkable fresco in the chapel of San Francesco, representing Sigismondo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, venerating his patron saint, Sigismund. After this he was active at Ferrara and Bologna, and, according to Vasari, he also decorated a room of the Vatican for Pope Nicholas V. In 1454 he was again at Borgo San-Sepolcro, where in 1460 he painted a fresco of St. Louis of Toulouse, now preserved in the town hall. It was probably between this date and 1466 that he painted his masterpiece, the frescoes in the choir of San Francesco at Arezzo, which may, however, have been begun earlier. The subject is the "Story of the True Cross", involving incidents beginning with Adam and including the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Constantine and St. Helena, Heraclius and Chosroes. These frescoes rank with those by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel as epoch-making in the decorative art of the fifteenth century.

In the spring of 1469 Piero was at Urbino, lodging in the house of Giovanni Santi, the father of Raphael, in which city a large part of his later activity occurred. From this period probably dates the remarkable diptych of the Uffizi, containing the portraits of the Duke (then Count) of Urbino, the ideal prince of the Renaissance, and the mild and refined image of his wife, Battista Sforza, with allegorical triumphs of these rulers on the reverse sides.

About this time he also painted the well-known "Madonna" with saints and angels, venerated by the Duke of Urbino, now in the Brera, Milan; and the "Flagellation of Christ", a beautiful architectural composition in the cathedral of Urbino. According to a well-established tradition recorded by Vasari, Piero became blind in later life. At this time he wrote his celebrated treatises: "De quinque corporibus regularibus", which show him as a great geometrician, and his "Prospettiva Pingendi" (Treatise on Perspective), a manual for painters. This work reveals him as the greatest master of the theory of perspective in his day, and gave him a reputation beyond Italy. His testament is recorded 5 July, 1478, and he was interred in the present cathedral of his native town in 1492.

His principal frescoes, besides those mentioned, include: the "Resurrection," in the town hall of Borgo San-Sepolcro, a marvelous piece of foreshortening and perspective; a "Hercules", now in the possession of Mrs. J. L. Gardner of Boston; and an imposing "Magdalen" in the cathedral of Arezzo. Among his panel pieces are the "Triumph of Chivalry" (New York Historical Society); the "Baptism of Christ" and the "Nativity", both in the National Gallery, London, the latter the first moonlight scene in modern painting; an "Annunciation" in the Gallery at Perugia; "St. Michael" in London; and "St. Thomas Aquinas" in the Poldo-Pezzoli Museum at Milan. The charming "Portrait of a Young Girl" attributed to him in this gallery, as well as similar portraits in other European galleries, is now generally ascribed to another artist. Piero's position in the development of Italian art is a unique and important one. He is the greatest of that group of pathfinders, the Realists, whose scientific experiments created the grammar of modern painting. In mural painting he towers above his contemporaries as the worthy successor of Masaccio, and the connecting link between his art and that of Raphael. In the Central Italian painting of the Renaissance his position was a dominant one; he may be called the founder of the school. The chief masters of the following generation-Perugino and the rest-either studied under or were influenced by him. Of his more intimate pupils, Melozzo da Forli carried perspective to the highest perfection, while Luca Signorelli developed figure-painting to the greatest excellence attained before Michelangelo. To Florentine excellence of draughtmanship Piero united the superior colour sense of the Umbrians. Most remarkable was his rendition of light and air, in which he easily surpassed his contemporaries. His types are seldom beautiful, but they are strong and primeval, admirably modelled, and as impassive as the sculptures at the Parthenon. Perhaps the most striking feature of his art is this wonderful objectivity, in which regard he stands rivalled by Holbein and Velazquez alone in modern painting.

VASARI, Vite, ed. MILANESI (1878); tr. BLASHFIELD AND HOPKINS (1897). Of the biographies of Piero that by PICHI (Borgo San-Sepolcro, 1893) is rather a panegyric; that of WITTING (Strasburg, 1898) is the most scholarly; another is by WATERS (London, 1901); RICCI, Piero della Francesca (Rome, 1910), is best for illustrations.

George Kriehn.