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Piero Della Francesca

Conservation of Works - Main Page Piero

Piero Della Francesca (c. 1420-1492), Italian painter whose style was one of the most individual of the early Renaissance.

Piero was born in Borgo San Sepolcro, a small city in southern Tuscany, around 1420. He appears to have studied art in Florence, but his career was spent in other cities, among them Rome, Urbino, Ferrara, Rimini, and Arezzo. He was strongly influenced by Masaccio and Domenico Veneziano. His solid, rounded figures are derived from Masaccio, while from Domenico he absorbed a predilection for delicate colours and scenes bathed in cool, clear daylight. To these influences he added an innate sense of order and clarity. He wrote treatises on solid geometry and on perspective, and his works reflect these interests. He conceived of the human figure as a volume in space, and the outlines of his subjects have the grace, abstraction, and

precision of geometric drawings.

Almost all of Piero's works are religious in nature-primarily altarpieces and church frescoes-although his serene and noble double portrait Federigo da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (1465, Uffizi, Florence) is one of his most famous works. The undisputed high point of his career was the series of large frescoes Legend of the True Cross, (c. 1452-c. 1465), for the church of San Francesco in Arezzo, in which he presents scenes of astonishing beauty, with silent, stately figures fixed in clear, crystalline space. These frescoes are characterized by broad contrasts-both in subject matter and in treatment-that create a powerful effect of grandeur. Thus, for example, the nudes in Death of Adam are contrasted to the sumptuously attired figures in Solomon and Sheba, the bright daylight of Victory of Constantine with the gloom of Dream of Constantine (one of the first night scenes in Western art). In addition, each fresco is organized in two sections-a square paired with a longer rectangle-which he exploited to create a marked sense of rhythm.

Piero's later works show the probable influence of Flemish art, which he assimilated without betraying his own monumental style. In works such as the Sinigallia Madonna (c. 1470, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino), he adapted to his own purposes an attention to detail and a meticulous treatment of still life that were characteristic of Flemish art.

Certain aspects of Piero's work were significant for the northern Italian painters Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, as well as for the later Raphael, but his art was in general too individual and self-contained to influence strongly the mainstream of Florentine art. He died in Borgo San Sepolcro on July 5, 1492.

The Legend of the True Cross
In 1447 the Bacci family of
Arezzo commissioned the Florentine painter Bicci di Lorenzo to decorate the choir of the Basilica of San Francesco By 1452, when Bicci died, he had finished painting only the four "Evangelists" in the great cross-vaulted ceiling of the choir, the "Last Judgment" on the front wall of the arch, and two "Doctors of the Church" on the intrados or inside curve of the arch. It is presumed that Piero della Francesca immediately took up with the work where Bicci had left off. The theme of the cycle is taken from the "Golden Legend" by Jacopo da Varagine, the iconographic source relied on by many Tuscan and Italian painters starting in the 1300s. It has been determined from a notary's document that the work was interrupted in 1458/59 and brought to completion by 1466. The story narrated pictorially in the 12 main episodes represented in the various scenes composing the cycle, begins with the "Death of Adam" in the lunette of the right wall and concludes with "The Exultation of the True Cross" in the lunette on the left wall and "The Annunciation" at the bottom left of the center wall. The chronological execution of the frescoes follows a different order, however, from top to bottom and from left to right, painted from seven different scaffolds over a period of 250 "working days".

Madonna del Parto
In just seven "working days" (presumably before 1465) Piero della Francesca painted the extraordinary and touching image of the Madonna del Parto, distant as a heavenly vision and yet alive and real in her post-adolescent freshness. The fresco was planned to complete the back wall of the main altar in the 13th century church of Santa Maria di Momentana (formerly Santa Maria in Silvis) in an isolated country village on the slopes of Monterchi. The church was completely destroyed in 1785 after a disastrous earthquake which miraculously left standing only the wall with the fresco. The panting was later detached from the wall and moved to a niche in the main altar of a new church. This chapel was constructed to serve a cemetery that had been established as part of the reforms instituted by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo. In 1889, after more than a century of neglect, the fresco was "rediscovered" as one of Piero's masterpieces. In order to conserve the fresco it was again detached from the wall in 1910 by the restorer Domenico Fiscali and then was again saved from destruction in the earthquake of 1917 that seriously damaged the 18th century cemetery chapel. From 1956 until its restoration in 1992/93 the Madonna del Parto was conserved inside a new chapel built from the remains of the earlier structure.

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