Life of Piero della Francesca – Biography and works

piero della Francesca, born Piero di Benedetto dei Franceschi on 12 September 1416/17, in Borgo San Sepolcro, now Sansepolcro, near Arezzo, Republic of Florence, died on 12 October 1492 in the same place. He was an innovative artist, misunderstood by his contemporaries, who was credited in the 20th century for having contributed his works and his “modernity” to the Renaissance. The fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross (1452-66) and the diptych portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and his wife (1465) are his best-known works.

The documented facts of Piero della Francesca’s life, of which there are few, permit a reasonably accurate reconstruction of his career and interests but not an exact chronology of the surviving paintings. His father, Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was a tanner and shoemaker, prosperous enough for his son to become educated and literate in Latin. His mother was Romana di Pierino da Monterchi. Nothing is known of Piero’s initial training as a painter, although it is assumed that he was instructed by local masters who were influenced by Sienese art.

The youthful years of Piero’s training in his native town are linked to the figure of a certain Antonio Anghiari, who in 1430 received the commission to paint the Altarpiece of San Francesco, entrusted seven years later to the Cortona painter Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, better known as Sassetta.

It is probable that beyond a supposed influence of the Gothic culture suffered in nearby Siena, the formation of the young Piero fits into the alterations in Florence at that time. Indeed, in 1439 Piero worked as a collaborator of Domenico Veneziano in Florence, where the Early Renaissance style began to flourish.

Florence is crossed by a vibrant cultural and artistic climate. Piero della Francesca can admire the great construction sites of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella and confront his contemporaries, a concentrate of geniuses such as Masaccio, Donatello, Masolino, Domenico Veneziano, Brunelleschi, and Alberti. However, the most reliable news regarding Piero’s collaboration comes from a document of 1439 relating to the payment of Domenico Venenziano for the frescoes painted in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova together with “Pietro di Benedetto dal Borgo a San Sepolcro.”

In Florence, he probably studied the statues of Donatello and Luca della Robbia, the buildings of Filippo Brunelleschi, and the paintings of Masaccio and Fra Angelico. He could have read a theoretical treatise on a painting by the humanist and architect Leon Battista Alberti which probably led to the study of these artists by Domenico Veneziano, whose works demonstrate a Renaissance emphasis on color and light elements of pictorial construction. It was precisely this contact with the art of the early Florentine Renaissance that laid the foundations of Piero’s style.


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