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Piero della Francesca was a significant member of the 15th century Italian art scene, starring in the highly influential Early Renaissance which was to impact art all across Europe
During his own lifetime, Francesca was also regarded as a skilled mathematician and geometer but after his passing these strings to his bow were played down. Leonardo da Vinci is probably the best known artist with a talent for mathematics, but others from the Renaissance were also involved in at various points. Others would take in architecture, literature, sculpture and engraving, with no real limit to the Renaissance movement as a whole.
It is only in recent centuries that Francesca has been regarded, first and foremost, for his paintings. His work with theories on geometry and also perspective had previously dominated his legacy. Science is still evident in his art, however, from the way in which he meticulously put together his compositions. A downside with his work with installation frescos is that to a certain degree it has limited his publicity in major galleries and art museums, with much of his work hard to locate unless making a specific visit.
The key works from this painter can be found spread between his hometown of Sansepolcro, Arezzo, Rimini, Monterchi and Urbino. Many more have sadly been damaged or destroyed completely, particularly his significantly more fragile drawings. Indeed, a specific trail is now offered that takes in each of these locations as part of a tour. That is a problem which impacts most artists from the Renaissance, but those whose work could not be transported easily would always be more succeptable to damage from air raids or natural climatic effects.
Piero della Francesca would spend time in Florence, the biggest influence on the Italian Renaissance, and at this point would have come into contact with Fra Angelico, Donatello and possibly Paolo Uccello too. Additionally, this city played host to the likes of Luca della Robbia and Brunelleschi too.
The earlier work of Masaccio is known to have directly inspired Francesca and his style which was similarly classicist. It was Masaccio's work in the Santa Maria del Carmine that specifically had the most impact and helped to single out this Florentine as the first true master of the Italian Renaissance. Two other significant artists in the Papal States around this time were Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini.
Piero della Francesca was most likely apprenticed to Antonio di Giovanni d'Anghiari, who was a local painter. In documents showing payments, it's noted that Francesca was working with d'Anghiari in 1432 and 1438. Francesca took notice of the works of the artists in Sienese who were active in San Sepolcro in his early age; for instance, Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo). In 1439, Francesca was given, together with Domenico Veneziano (also a painter of the early Renaissance), payments for the work he did on frescoes for the Florence-based Sant'Egidio church, which is now lost.
While in Florence, Francesca met leading masters such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, Luca della Robbia and Fra Angelico. The classicism of Masaccio's (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone) frescoes plus his majestic figures he did in the church of the Santa Maria del Carmine in the Oltrarno district were for him a great source of inspiration. It is difficult to date Francesca's undocumented work; over the years, his style doesn't look to have developed.
Style and Technique
Francesca harnessed mathematical theory plus geometry and combined them with Renaissance humanism, creating some of the most striking religious pictures of the early Renaissance. Francesca's use of linear perspective, as well as foreshortening, brought biblical legends and scenes to life, and the artist's emulation of classical figures plus compositions give his paintings gravitas and stability even if their subjects are usually mysterious.
Mathematics and Geometry Work
Francesca's keen interest in the perspective theoretical study plus his contemplative approach to his pictures are clear in all his work. Francesca was trained in mathematics during his youth, which probably was for mercantilism. A total of 3 treatises that Francesca wrote managed to survive to the present day. The subjects covered in those writings include geometry, algebra, arithmetic and innovative work in solid perspective and geometry.
Much of the work by Francesca was later absorbed into other people's writing, notably Luca Pacioli. His work on solid geometry was typically translated in Pacioli’s Divina proportione (De divina proportione or the divine proportion), a work that Leonardo da Vinci illustrated. Biographers of his patron and condottieri Federico III da Montefeltro, lord of Urbino recorded that he was inspired to start pursuing the interest in perspective shared by the Duke.
Later, in the late 1450s, Francesca copied as well as illustrated these works of Archimedes: The Sand Reckoner, The Quadrature of the Parabola, On the Equilibrium of Planes, On Conoids and Spheroids, Measurement of a Circle and On the Sphere and Cylinder. The manuscript has 82 folio leaves, and it's held in the Biblioteca Riccardiana collection. It's also a copy of the Archimedean corpus translation that Iacopo da San Cassiano, an Italian humanist made.
Francesca was listed as qualified for Sansepolcro city council in 1442. In 1445, the artist was commissioned to paint the classic Madonna della Misericordia altarpiece. The painting was for the Misericordia in Sansepolcro and was finished in the early 1460s. The artist executed some more frescoes in the Sant'Andrea church of Ferrara and the Castello di San Michele, now also lost. Francesca's influence was especially strong in the succeeding Ferrarese allegorical works of Il Cosmè.
The Baptism of Christ, which is now in the London-based National Gallery, was completed around 1450 for the Priory of San Giovanni Battista high altar at Sansepolcro town. Other notable works by Francesca are the Madonna del parto found in Monterchi, near Sansepolcro and The Resurrection in Sansepolcro. Two years later, Francesca was in Rimini city, working for Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, a condottiero and a nobleman. In 1451, during this sojourn, he painted the famous fresco of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and St. Sigismund in the Tempio Malatestiano, and also Sigismondo's portrait.
In Rimini, the artist may have met Leon Battista Alberti, the famous Renaissance architect and mathematician who had redesigned the unfinished cathedral church of Rimini, Tempio Malatestiano, although it's known that Leon directed his designs' execution for the church by corresponding with his building supervisor. After that time, Francesca was active in Bologna, Pesaro and Ancona.
In 1454, the artist signed a contract, which was for the Polyptych of St Augustine in Sant'Agostino church in Sansepolcro. However, the central panel of that panel polyptych is now lost, and the 4 panels of the wings, that have panels of the wings, are scattered all over the world. Francesca was summoned by Tommaso Parentucelli (Pope Nicholas V) a few years later and moved to Rome. Here, the artist executed frescoes in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major), of which only some parts remain. Two years later, Francesca was the Papal capital again, executing frescoes in the Palace of the Vatican, which were later destroyed.
Bohuslav Jan Martinů wrote a 3-movement work for orchestra called The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca. It was dedicated to Rafael Kubelik and was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic and Kubelik at Salzburg Festival held in 1956. Francesca's almost magical light atmosphere and geometrical perfection in work inspired modern painters such as Balthus, Felice Casorati, Massimo Campigli and Giorgio de Chirico.