Friday, August 2, 2013


Florentine Influences on Piero della Francesca

Sculpture:  Luca Della Robbia's Resurrection, a large blue and white bas-relief lunette made for the Florentine Duomo sacristy door, must have been in the works when Piero was in Florence between 1439 and 1441.The commission is officially documented in 1442, right after Luca proves his artistic merit in completing the sculpted Cantoria for the same Duomo in 1438. The glazed terracotta Resurrection is put together in pieces for a scene of Christ rising out of his tomb while five Roman soldiers sleep below him and four angels (two on each side) fly next to him: 

Piero's Resurrection of 1455, a fresco painted for the town hall of Borgo San Sepolcro, has so many similarities to Luca's image that he must have been aware of it, even though Luca's bas-relief is installed in the Florentine Duomo by 1446, five years after Piero leaves Florence to return to Borgo.The upright figure of Christ holds his right arm aloft in both while the left hand gathers the death-wrappings near the center of the torso. They both hold flags, though Luca's is kept in place by the left hand and Piero has it in the right.The left knee protrudes in both, though Piero's Christ is lifting his to step onto the sarcophagus while Luca's remains standing straight.
Both artists try to convey landscape in their works, but Piero has thought more carefully about the change in Christ from death to life by echoing that change in the dead trees on the left and the trees full of leaf on the right, while Luca maintains all his trees in full leaf to emphasize the excitement of new life. Luca's intent is to keep the focus on the rising - even the lid of his sarcophagus points upward, as do the elbow and knee of the lying soldier and the knee of another. He prefers to show the change from death to life by sculpting one soldier completely horizontal, in a near-death position, right below the horizontal sarcophagus, and directly under the strong vertical of Christ. In both Luca's and Piero's image the contrast between the horizontal and the vertical expresses the miraculous and sharp conversion from death to life.
     Both depict plain sarcophagi, although Piero makes his larger in proportion to Christ because his fresco is for the citizens of Borgo San Sepolcro (the town of the Holy Sepulchre).  Piero paints only 4 Roman soldiers rather than 5, but their sitting positions and modes of sleeping resemble the soldiers nestled around the coffin in Luca's bas-relief. The plate-armor of the soldiers is given texture in both. Luca has the far left soldier lean on his armor while one soldier stretches the length of the sarcophagus as he slumbers. Piero combines those two figures into his far right soldier who leans on armor and is nearly prone.  The two soldiers in the background of Luca's scene rest their heads on their hands; Piero's far left figure buries his head in his.
     And do they both include a self-portrait?   Could Luca be the middle-aged soldier on the far right whose body is most prominent? (The artist would have been in his late forties when completing the scene.) Most scholars agree that Piero has painted himself into the soldier with brown cuirass second from left. If so, he is also in his forties, fully frontal with closed eyes, a portrait very like and older than that of the Hercules hanging in his home originally.

Both artists are relying on certain conventions commonly found in images of the Resurrection in the 15th century; witness Ghiberti's bronze Resurrection scene created between 1403 and 1425:
Both Piero and Ghiberti eliminate the angels who fill up the space in Della Robbia's version, and probably all three artists eliminate soldiers' legs when it best serves the composition. Piero imitates Ghiberti's soldier on the far left in his far right figure while Della Robbia repeats on the left side of his relief Ghiberti's far right soldier with the shield. Piero would have seen both Ghiberti's version and the Della Robbia while in Florence. Since Piero's is the later work, 1455 or later, but closer to Luca's creation in time (1446 or earlier), it seems likely that Piero regarded Luca's Resurrection as more up-to-date. Once he leaves the city in 1441 to return to Borgo, one wonders if he came back to see Luca's version after it was in place in the Cathedral? Borgo San Sepolcro is beyond Arezzo an hour by car and Arezzo is an hour by train from Florence today. So a day's journey is not impossible to imagine for the 15th century but the only documentation of such a journey might be the images themselves. 
           The last thing we should notice is the shadow produced by Piero for Piero/soldier on the sarcophagus. The painted shadow sends the head immediately into sculptural relief. The sleeping figure suddenly seems alive, and we feel the presence of the painter in the scene, in the painting, in the room still. He could not be a sculptor like Ghiberti or Luca, but he knew that his skills as a painter lay in resurrecting life in paint.                                                                                                                                                     

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