Piero della Francesca was born Piero di Benedetto de’ Franceschi in June 1420, the third son of Benedetto de’ Franceschi and Romana di Perino da Monterchi. His parents were both of noble lineage; his father was a well-to-do trader in wool and leather, who owned a house, vineyards and agricultural land. His mother was the daughter of wool merchant Renzo di Carlo da Monterchi. After their dowry was negotiated, Benedetto and Romana married in 1416.
Piero would most likely have attended school in Borgo San Sepolcro, but possibly not for any length of time. The school would have included both vernacular and abbaco curricula. The first four years of school, from the age of about six, would have been vernacular; instructional of Christian virtues and the consequences of indulging in vices, and the academic subjects of reading, writing and how to correspond in business. The following four years would have been spent attending secondary school with an abbaco curriculum, concentrating on algebra, geometry and book-keeping – commercial mathematics important to a potential merchant.
The mathematics books that Piero authored as an adult were written in elementary Italian, rather than Latin. His writings never developed the Latin structure that would most certainly have evolved had he been tutored in the language. However, as there is proof that he read the works of the Greek mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes, he would have had to learn enough Latin to do so, as there were no versions of their works available in Italian at that time.
His early learning of mathematics would stand him in good stead for his art, notable for his use of geometry and accurate perspective.
At the precocious age of twelve, Piero worked as a painting assistant – not an apprentice – to Antonio d’Anghiari; he was awarded a commission on 27 May 1430 for “painting the poles of the candles”. Piero’s father received this first payment, followed by others from 1435-1437, on his son’s behalf. A document dated 29 December 1432, unearthed by American historian James Banker, states “Master Antonio di Giovanni painter from Anghiari, inhabitant of the land of Borgo, was confessed and content to be the true debtor of Benedetto di Piero di Benedetto from aforesaid Borgo in the amount of fifty-six florins … for the salary and debt of Pietro, painter, son of said Benedetto and the wages of the said Pietro for the labour lent to the said Master Antonio from the first of the month of the most recent June and also from the loan to him by the said Benedetto made freely on successive occasions and down to today for the exigencies of said master Antonio for the furnishings of the pictures of the altar-piece of the major altar of the church of St. Francesco.”
Piero’s employment with d’Anghiari ended on 8 January 1438, with a signed document by Benedetto that Piero’s work on three churches and chapels in and near Borgo San Sepolcro, had been compensated.
In 1439, Piero moved to Florence, where he was assistant to Domenico Veneziano, patron of the de’ Medici family. Veneziano had been commissioned to decorate the Portinari chapel on the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital and employed both Piero and Bicci di Lorenzo as assistants. The hospital books reflect that significant quantities of linseed oil were debited to the artist’s account, probably reflecting the use of the medium in his work. Piero was paid on 12 September 1439 for his work on the first mural. A second fresco begun in June 1441 may have included Piero’s participation, but in 1442, he was listed as a member of the Borgo San Sepolcro town council. He may not have lived there and may have assisted Veneziano, but he is recorded as painting the Baptism in Borgo San Sepolcro in the St. John the Evangelist Cathedral the same year.
Veneziano could have directed Piero to study the works of then-contemporary sculptors Donatello and Luca del Robbia, as well as the architecture of Filippo Brunelleschi, as a foundation to his art. He would probably also have studied the works of Fra Angelico and Masaccio; the latter was one of the first early Italian Renaissance artists to make use of perspective and the vanishing point and is regarded as a first master of the Quattrocentro period of Italian art. Quattrocentro is defined in Encyclopaedia Britannica as “a period of increasing prosperity and steady progression in the arts toward the harmonious balance achieved in the High Renaissance”.
In 1445, Piero was given a commission by the Compagnia della Misericordia, a charitable organisation founded in 1244 and still in existence today. The work entailed painting the polyptych altarpiece Madonna della Misericordia in their church in Borgo San Sepolcro and was to be completed within three years. However, the work was only finished 17 years later, in 1462, as Piero also accepted numerous other more lucrative commissions during the same period.
The polyptych, oil and tempera on panel and measuring 272cm x 330 cm, is now housed in the Museo Civico di Sansepolcro. It comprises the central figure of the Madonna of the Annunciation, with St Sebastian and St John the Baptist flanking her on the left, and St. Benedict of Norcia and St. Francis of Assisi on the right. The Crucifixion is top centre, with St. Andrew, St. Bernadino, St. Benedict and the Angel of Annunciation also featured. The Brothers had requested that the work be painted with a solid gold background, and not the landscapes preferred by Piero.
The predella and six figures on the side pilasters were completed by Giuliano Amadei, a monk from the Camaldoli Holy Hermitage and Monastery, who began working with Piero in either 1446 or 1456.
In 1449, Piero painted frescoes for the Castello Estense, aka Castello di San Michele, and the church and monastery of Sant’Andrea in Via Camposabbionario built in approximately 1000AD, both located in Ferrara. Sant’Andrea was closed in 1886 and the works have since been lost.
From approximately 1448-1450, Borso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara (1413-1471) commissioned Piero to paint a number of rooms, but his half-brother Duke Ercole d’Este had the works destroyed when he inherited and renovated the palace.
In about 1440, Piero was commissioned by the Camaldolese Monastery of Sansepolcro to paint the Baptism of Christ. Originally part of a triptych, this portion (168cm x 116cm or 66in x 46in) was completed between 1448-1450. It is now housed in the National Gallery in London.
In 1451, nobleman Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta commissioned Piero to create an heraldic fresco in his name – Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta Praying in Front of St. Sigismund in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. Piero probably met architect and mathematician Leon Battista Alberti here, who he had been commissioned to re-design the cathedral. However, the work was never completed following Malatesta’s ex-communication in 1460 and his subsequent loss of funds. Malatesta’s arch-enemy, Pope Pius II declared the church to be “full of pagan gods and profane things”. Alberti was also interested in perspective and wrote a book between 1443-1452 called De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building) which was the first printed book on architecture.
During the same period, Piero painted the Portrait of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, tempera and oil on panel 44.5 x 34.5 cm, now housed in the Louvre in Paris.
Piero never married nor had children, and was, therefore, free to travel, which he did to Ancona, Pesaro and Bologna.
Prior to that, in 1452, Piero was asked to continue and complete frescoes in the Basilica of San Franceso in Arezzo, begun by Bicci di Lorenzo in 1447, who died before he could complete the work. Completed in 1466, with a break from 1458-1459, The Legend of the True Cross is considered by many to be Piero’s greatest achievement.
The work is based on the Golden Legend by Jacobus da Varagine, a collection of hagiographies of the lives of the greater saints of medieval times. It is thought to have been compiled in about 1260, but has been added to over time. Although Piero is recognised as completing most of the work, his assistant Giovanni di Piamonte, has also been identified as having worked on some sections.
Piero completed a separate painting of St. Mary Magdalene at the door of the sacristy, but the main segments, not in any chronological order, are as follows:
- Death of Adam (390 x 747cm) – Adam on his deathbed sends his son Seth to meet the Archangel Michael, who gives Seth seeds from the Tree of Knowledge to feed to Adam as he dies.
- The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood and the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (336 x 747 cm) – two hundred years later, King Solomon of Jerusalem had the tree cut down, but the wood cannot be used for building material and is used as a bridge across a stream. The Queen, while visiting Solomon, has a vision as she is about to cross the stream, that the wood will be used for the cross on which Jesus will be crucified.
- The Burial of the Sacred Wood (356 x 190cm) – The Queen of Sheba tells Solomon of her premonition and he has the wood buried. However, it is found by the Romans and is indeed used for the Passion of the Christ.
- The Annunciation to Mary (329 x 193 cm) – The Annunciation is not included in the Golden Legend, but was probably included for its universal significance.
- Constantine’s Dream (329 x 190 cm) – a further three hundred years later, Emperor Constantine has a dream that he must fight the impending battle of Ponte Milvio against Maxentius, who had ambitions of ruling Rome. Constantine uses a shield with the mark of the cross and is successful in the battle, after which he converts to Christianity.
- Torture of the Jew (356 x 193 cm) – Constantine’s mother Helena has Judas tortured in a well, to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the holy cross.
- Discovery and Proof of the True Cross (356 x 747 cm) – Judas confesses that he knows where the three crosses of Calvary are hidden. The temple is destroyed and the crosses are discovered. The True Cross is revealed when a dead youth is resurrected as his head is placed on the cross, and Helena kneels in front of the cross in adoration.
- Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau (329 x 747 cm) – After the Persian King Khosrau had stolen the wood in 615AD, Emperor Heraclius won a war against him and returned to Jerusalem with the prize.
- Exaltation of the Cross (390 x 747 cm) – When divine intervention prevents Heraclius from entering the city with pomp, he carries the cross barefoot in humility and discarding all ceremony, is able to enter the gates. A group of men worships the cross.
- The Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekial who forecast the birth of Christianity.
- The walls of the chancel arch also depict an angel, Cupid. St Louis and St Peter.
In 1453, Piero returned to Borgo Sansepolcro to undertake the Polyptych of Saint Augustine for the high altar of the town’s church of Sant’Agostino, under commission by Angelo di Giovanni di Simone d’Angelo. Only completed in 1469, the work has been broken up into sections. The central panel has been lost, but the remaining four panels are in collections around the world; St. Augustine (132 x 56.5cm) is in the Museo de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, St. Michael the Archangel (133 x 59.5cm) in the National Gallery, London, St. John the Evangelist (131.5 x 57.8 cm) in the Frick Collection, New York and St. Nicholas of Tolentino (136 x 59cm) is in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan.
Some years later, Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455) summonsed Piero to Rome where he was commissioned to paint frescoes in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Only fragments remain of the work in the Cross Chapel and the St. Michael’s and St. Peter in Chains Chapels. Two years later, in 1459, Piero painted frescoes for Pope Pius II in the Vatican, which were destroyed in favour of work by Rapahel.
In 1463, he was commissioned to paint the fresco, the Resurrection (225 x 200 cm), for the Museo Civica in Sansepolcro. Housed in the Palazzo della Residenzia, a communal meeting hall where the chief magistrates and governors would meet and pray before beginning their discussions.
English author Aldous Huxley once described the work: “We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty. It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.” It is only thanks to this observation being remembered by Tony Clarke, a subaltern in the Chestnut Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery in WWII, that the work was not lost forever.
In 1936, The Allies were advancing on the Germans in Sansepolcro when Clarke recalled Huxley’s words and remembered that the work had been made in the town. Clarke suspended the order to fire, the town was liberated from the Germans the following day, doubtless saving the priceless artwork from destruction.
Another of Piero’s most important works is his Flagellation of Christ, probably executed between 1468-1470. Oil and tempera on panel (58.4 x 81.5 cm), it is held in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino. It was commissioned by Federico III da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Piero also painted the Duke and his bride Battista Sforza as a diptych portrait, to commemorate their marriage in 1465. It is housed in the Uffizi Gallery.
Piero della Francesca’s early interest in mathematics allowed him to write three major works on the subject. His first, Abaco trattato (Treatise of Abaco) was probably written between 1460-1470 and comprises exercises in algebra and geometry for merchants. His second treatise, De prospectiva pingendi (On Perspective in Painting) was written between 1474-1482 and dedicated to the Duke of Urbino. Piero handwrote the manuscript and illustrated it with diagrams on geometry, proportion and perspective. His final work Libellus de Quinque Corporibus Regularibus (Short Book on the Five Regular Solids) discusses perfect proportions, after Plato and Pythagoras. All three expositions have survived to the present day.
Piero’s student Luca Pacioli is said to have plagiarised Libellus but went on to publish the Summa de arithmetica, geometrica, proportioni et proportionalita (Summary of arithmetic, geometry, proportions and proportionality) in 1494. In 1497, Leonardo da Vinci requested that Pacioli tutor him in mathematics, geometry and proportion – the two were together for the next ten years, and Leonardo mentions Pacioli frequently in his notebooks of the time.
Piero’s sight deteriorated by 1480 and he is said to have gone blind in his final years, leaving him unable to paint, but he had frequent visitors including Pietro Perugino and Luca Signorelli.
He died on 12 October 1492 in his home in Sansepolcro, the same day that Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Americas.