Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Masterwork of Piero Della Francesca

Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy. This is the first of two posts on Piero della Francesca.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Apse of the Basilica of San Francesco (Arezzo) showing
Legend of the True Cross frescoes by Piero della Francesca
and 13th century crucifix.

Arezzo seduces, especially on the first weekend of every month when the city hosts its annual antiques fair. Merchant booths are lined up chock-a-block along the streets that radiate downhill from the Duomo. One could spend many pleasant hours scanning tables piled with lace, jewelry, lamps, paintings, sculpture and house-hold goods.

Piero della Francesca, The Story of Adam (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Arezzo is also the epicenter of Piero della Francesca country. No antique dealer’s offering entices as alluringly as the Basilica of San Francesco, an otherwise unadorned 12th century church, which safeguards the Piero fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross. Ruined by centuries of moisture and crude repair, the frescoes were painstakingly restored and unveiled in 2000.

Piero della Francesca, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

While not as majestic a visual program as Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, Piero’s Legend attempts arguably a more ambitious feat; that is, the visual interpretation of a single, highly-complex narrative. What’s remarkable about the frescoes is the spiritual power of the subject matter, which Piero manages to convey without the use of excess theatricality. Each scene is rendered with appropriate solemn majesty and yet the figures are, as Vasari reported “so well executed that but for the gift of speech they seemed alive.”  Nothing in my opinion comes close to the simple and earthy elegance of the human figures in the San Francesco frescoes (unless of course it’s figures in another Piero fresco). And though these faces were executed some five and a half centuries ago, they resonate fully in our modern world. It’s confirmation to Piero’s long-lasting appeal that many 20th century artists, including Cezanne, Seurat, and Giorgio Morandi, were explicitly inspired by his color palette and style of modeling.

Piero della Francesca, The Vision of Constantine (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Invention of the True Cross (detail) ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

After decades of scholarship, the details of Piero’s life (1415-1492) remain sketchy. Although well known in his own time as a mathematician and a painter, Piero’s reputation was virtually obliterated in the decades after his death, through the destruction of many of his works. In 1508, for example, Pope Julius II ordered the demolition of his frescoes at the Vatican (along with those of other great painters of the previous century) to make way for Raphael’s Stanze. Similar fate befell Piero frescoes in Perugia, Florence and Ferrara, to Ancona, Loreto and Pesaro. Given the relative paucity of extant work, it wasn’t until Roberto Longhi’s monograph was published in 1927 that the artist’s reputation as one of the greatest Quattrocentro artists was secured. (VR readers will remember that it was Longhi who resurrected Caravaggio.)

Piero della Francesca, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero was born and died in Sansepolcro (where the grand Polyptych of Mercy is on view in the Municipal Picture Gallery), a stone’s throw from Arezzo. He trained Domenico Veneziano and associated with Fra Angelico, Masaccio and Brunelleschi. Though he worked in Florence and Rome for periods of time, he never strayed far from Tuscany. He remained at heart a country painter; witness his predilection for the earthy features of country folk around him.  Man or woman, royalty or commoner, holy or not, these figures have, as John Pope-Hennessey described it in The Piero Della Francesca Trail, “a natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur.”

Piero della Francesca, The Annunciation (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Exaltation of the Cross (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

As the only extant Piero fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross is a precious gem. But it is the faces that provide the true sparkle.

Piero della Francesca, The Invention of the True Cross (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
Fresco
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Wider Connections

Restoration of Legend of the True Cross
Piero della Francesca: The Frescoes of San Francesco in Arrezzo
Judith Veronica Field—Piero della Francesca: A Mathematician’s Art

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9 Responses to “Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Masterwork of Piero Della Francesca”

  1. My heart swells as I view your travels and photos…the expertise and sensitivity you share in your descriptions and history of these works reminds me how badly I would love to return to Italy again. Thank You for your generosity…Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

  2. thank you for sharing such beauty I very much appreciate your blog, so refined, so interesting, and your generosity at writing it

  3. I was just expecting such a post about one or another fresco cycle : Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, Giotto of course…
    There is something you noticed which I find very important: the spirituality, so present in all those artists master-works.
    I’ve been often wondering how this particular emotion could be given by those masters. Of course they were tremendously talented but there is also something that is given by the fresco process itself : An image trapped inside a stone, and the contrast between the elusiveness of an instant of life, such as an expression on a face, and the limestone that will be able to cross centuries ! A kind of dizziness we can feel every time we are faced to how fleeting our stay here is…
    Many thanks Liz for this post.

  4. Your image selections beautifully illuminate your writing. The frescoes are gorgeous.

  5. I am speechless with awe and wonder – another one of your amazing posts! You should think about collecting these for a book because your insights and scholarship are awesome. I remember when I was studying Renaissance art. It took me a while to “get into” Della Francesca because I was so smitten with the masters of the High Renaissance. But once I “got it,” I saw what a unique vision he had, one that laid the foundation for the artistic revolution to come. I also adore Massaccio and hope that you can get around to a post on him as well. Now that I think about it, I believe that my figures are inspired by his geometric treatment of forms (but he’s a genius; I but a follower).

  6. As I looked at the details of the Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes, I was reminded of Paolo Uccello’s masterwork, the Battle of San Romano. The two works were painted contemporaneously, I believe, and I wonder if there was some kind of cross-fertilization of imagery or concept.

    Beautiful post. Thank you.

    • Barry, I too could not help but think of Uccello. Paolo was nearly a generation older than Piero, and I could find nothing (yet) which links the two men directly, so did not make the connection in the post.

      Piero was known to be in Florence around 1432, where Paolo had been living for some time, so it’s reasonable to imagine that he saw the latter’s work there. Still the Battle of San Romano was painted 1450-56; Piero started his True Cross frescoes as early as 1432, and the dates of the Battle scene are undocumented.

      Overall, I think Piero’s battle scenes are more restrained—Uccello’s seem to me to be full-blown extravaganzas. Quite enthralling in their own right.

      Additionally, as you probably know, both artists were deeply absorbed in the study of perspective, and there battle scenes show that.

      • Thanks, Liz. I’d love to see you write about Uccello sometime. I’m particularly interested in the circular imagery that is present in some of his work – in the St. George (the dragon’s wings, the sky) and in the Battle triptych (on the horses gear and in other locations). This imagery isn’t so prominent in reproduction, perhaps, but jumps out when viewed directly (to my nutso eyes, anyway).

        And I am a nut about Uccello – I once justified a trip to England just so I could go to Oxford and see # The Hunt in the Forest at the Ashmolean. Yow!

  7. Thankyou for your insights into the earthiness of this magnificent artist. I am currently curating a religious art award “Mandorla Art Award 2012″, the theme of which is taken from Galatians (4:4) ‘born of a woman”. Piero della Francesco’s “Madonna del Parto” in Monterchi resonates a very human experience of this event.

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