Saturday, July 27, 2013


What Piero della Francesca saw in Florence in 1439-1441

Piero della Francesca begins his artistic career at age 17 in Borgo San Sepolcro, his birthplace. From 1432 to 1438 he is apprenticed to a painter there. At age 24 he takes a Junior Year Abroad, facetiously and futuristically speaking, and goes off to Florence to study the art of the Great Masters he has probably heard much about in Borgo. From age 24 to 26, 1439-1441, he has a job with Domenico Veneziano in Florence, painting frescoes for the now-lost church of Sant’Egidio. During that formative period in his artistic career he not only absorbs all the lessons about light

Domenico Veneziano, 1445, St. Lucy Altarpiece, orig. for Santa Lucia dei Magnoli, Florence. (Uffizi)
Piero, Sheba Kneeling, Legend of the True Cross,San Francesco Arezzo, 1452-66.

that Domenico has to teach him, but he also views and is influenced by most of the major artists either living in the city or recently passed out of it. I will devote several blogs to the discussion of Piero's Florentine training and inspiration. For this entry, 
A) Who are the artists he would have encountered in Florence?
For the subsequent entries,B,C,D, and E - Where does their influence show up in his painting?

A) LIVING ARTISTS in Florence in 1439-1441

Who, besides Veneziano, was in Florence and still working in 1439?

Leon Battista Alberti, the architect, was back in the city after having been in exile until 1428. He had written his treatise on Painting in 1435 in Latin, reprinted it in Italian in 1436, and was writing his treatises on Architecture and Sculpture. Of the men Alberti mentions in his dedication to Della Pittura, 4 of 5 were still alive and working in the city:

Brunelleschi (1377-1446)  had just finished the Dome of the Florence Cathedral three years before, in 1436, 
and was working on the lantern for the Dome. He had completed all but the facade of the church of San Lorenzo (1421-1440), and his church of Santo Spirito was in construction. 

Available for public viewing in 1439-1441 were also the arches and columns of Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degl’Innocenti begun in 1419.

Donatello (1386-1466)  was in the city from 1439-1441. His Sts. Mark and George, 1411 and 1417 respectively, were visible in outside niches on Orsanmichele,

and inside the Baptistery (open to baptized Christians) was his tomb (1419-1420) of Pope John the XXIII, the Antipope. His marble David of 1408 and his prophet figures for the Campanile could have been seen. His 1430 bronze David was probably in the private courtyard of the Medici Palace, but Piero must have known these.

The Cantoria he sculpts for the Cathedral would be finished in the year Piero arrives.

Luca della Robbia (1399/1400-1482) was alive and working in Florence.
His 7-year opus of the Cantoria for the Cathedral had just been completed in 1438, one year before Piero comes to the city.

The reliefs Luca produces for the sacristy doors of the Cathedral were not constructed until 1445-46, but it is possible that Piero saw preparatory drawings or early molds for these during the time he spent in Florence. The subject of one of those is the Resurrection, a subject treated later by Piero (1455-65).

Ghiberti (1378-1455), had installed his public bronze panels for the North Door of the Baptistery between 1403 and 1425 and had begun the second set for the East Door in 1425. By 1439 he would have been halfway through the project that was finished in 1452. Since the Solomon and Sheba panel was the last to be completed, it is unlikely that Piero saw it between 1439 and 1441.                                   

RECENTLY DECEASED ARTIST in Florence mentioned by Alberti

Masaccio leaves Florence in 1428 and dies in the same year in Rome, but his Brancacci Chapel frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine (1424-27) remain in Florence as his visual legacy, and certainly Piero would have seen them. Masaccio is the only artist Alberti mentions who is no longer working in the city in 1439.

ARTISTS in FLORENCE IN 1439-1441 not mentioned by ALBERTI:
Fra Angelico had begun his work for the monastery of San Marco
by 1438 and his Annunciation would have been visible at the top of the staircase entrance to the cells, but would Piero have visited a monk living there and been able to view that image? 

The altarpiece for the main church of San Marco, completed in 1445 by Angelico, might have been a work in progress, but would Piero have seen that? 
Fra Filippo Lippi was working on the Annunciation for the church of San Lorenzo in 1440; Piero could have viewed it before he left in 1441.
The Pollaiuolo Brothers were alive and well and working during that period; their most important project for the church of San Miniato al Monte, the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal, was not begun until 1460 and finished in 1466, so it is unlikely the drawings for that were available as early as 1441. Piero may have known of the Pollaiuolos’ Hercules in paint and bronze,

since Piero later chooses to produce a self-portrait as Hercules in his own home (now in the Gardner Museum in Boston), but his image is so different from those of the Pollaiuoli that one wonders if he heard about the subject but never saw their renditions. Piero had
his own reasons for painting himself as Hercules besides. His mother’s birthplace was Monterchi (Monte Ercole, the mount of Hercules). He may have made the painting in acknowledgement of this family connection; the link with the Pollaiuoli is harder to prove.

Uccello’s Cathedral fresco of 1436 was visible; the condottiero Giovanni Acuto’s image might have had an influence on Piero’s images of fighting men later. 

Uccello’s private commissions for the Salimbeni family on the subject  of the Battle of San Romano may have been seen by Piero but they were not begun until 1435 and not finished until 1460; certainly preparatory drawings might have been available from Uccello’s workshop.
       In the next entries (B,C, D, E) I will zero in on particular artists' works and show their reflection in Piero's paintings. These images would not have been the only influences on him, perhaps, and the influences may have walked a two-way street (Piero may have had an effect on the Florentine artists who saw his Sant' Egidio frescoes), but when we explore the Florentine oeuvre of the period, we can find definite visual links. I will set out a few examples by masters of sculpture, painting, and architecture from which Piero has chosen to imitate motifs.

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