Articol Special - Piero della Francesca


The Baptism of Christ is a painting by the Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca. Painted in egg tempera on two panels of poplar wood, the dating is controversial – some give it a very early date, perhaps 1439; others much later, around 1460. It is held by the National Gallery, London.

The panel was commissioned presumably some time about 1440 by the Camaldolese Monastery of Sansepolcro in Tuscany, now Sansepolcro Cathedral. Sansepolcro was the town the birthplace of Piero della Francesca. The town depicted in the middle distance in the painting, to Christ's left, may be Sansepolcro. Its dating to Piero della Francesca's early career is evidenced by the strong relationship with the "light painting" of his master, Domenico Veneziano. It was originally part of a triptych, with side panels of St Peter and St Paul and a predella by Matteo di Giovanni dated to the early 1460s, now in the civic art gallery in Sansepolcro.

The composition is centered on the figure of Christ being baptized in the River Jordan by the figure of John the Baptist on the right. Behind John, a man in white briefs, his feet already in the water, is struggling to get out of his undershirt. Above Christ is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, with the shape of its foreshortened wings resembling the clouds in the sky. The original triptych frame may have included a roundel above the dove showing God the Father, which with Christ and the dove representing the Holy Spirit would complete the Holy Trinity. The figure of Christ, John's hand and the bowl, and the bird form an axis that divides the painting into two symmetrical parts.

A second division is created by the walnut tree on the left, with white bark that echoes the white skin of Christ, which divides the painting according to the golden ratio.

Balancing the figure of John to the right, but separated from Jesus by the tree's trunk, are three angels on the left who are wearing different clothing. In a break from traditional iconography, the angels are not supporting Christ's garments, but are holding each other's hands. This could be an allusion to the contemporary Council of Florence (1431–45), whose goal was the unification of the Western and Eastern Churches. The Camaldolese monk and theologian, Saint Ambrose Traversari (+1439), who had been the Prior General of the Camaladolese congregation, had been a strong supporter of the union. Such symbolism is also suggested by the presence, behind the neophyte on the right, of figures dressed in an oriental fashion, usually interpreted as Byzantine dignitaries. Alternatively, the three angels could also represent the three aspects of the Holy Trinity.

Piero della Francesca was renowned in his times as an authority on perspective and geometry: his attention to the theme is shown by John's arm and leg, which form two angles of the same size.

The monastery in Sansepolcro was dissolved in the 1860s, and the painting was bought by the National Gallery in London in 1861.

Piero della Francesca (c. 1415 – October 12, 1492) is certainly one of the most important Italian painters of the XV century. His art was ample, monumental and rational, and represents one of the highest artistic ideals of the early Renaissance. The absolute mathematical rigour of his creations emphasises the abstract and iconic traits of his paintings and adds a powerful religious feeling to his masterpieces. To contemporaries, he was known as a mathematician and geometer as well as an artist, though now he is chiefly appreciated for his art. By 1439 Piero della Francesca was working with Domenico Veneziano on frescoes for the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. His experience and contacts in Florence, where he would have seen the works of such sculptors, artists, and architects as Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Fra Angelico, had a profound influence on Piero's style. His painting was characterized by its serene humanism and its use of geometric forms, particularly in relation to perspective and foreshortening. In this work Piero enriches his knowledge of Florentine painting with a meditation on Flemish art. The court of Ferrara, where he stayed around 1448-50, offered a number of examples, notably a triptych by Roger Van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464). Piero della Francesca was born in the town of Sansepolcro (former Borgo Santo Sepolcro), where he also died. After his death, Piero was remembered mainly as a mathematician rather than as a painter. Even Vasari, who as a native of Arezzo must have known the frescoes in San Francesco well, is lukewarm in his enthusiasm for his work. However, he had considerable influence, notably on Signorelli (in the weighty solemnity of his figures) and Perugino (in the spatial clarity of his compositions). Both are said to have been Piero's pupils.

He may have learned his trade from one of several Sienese artists working in San Sepolcro during his youth. We hear of him also at various times in Ferrara, Rimini, Arezzo, Rome, and Urbino. But he found the origins of his style in Florence, and he probably lived there as a young man for some time during the 1430s, although he is documented there only once, in 1439 (the first known reference to him), when he was assisting Domenico Veneziano on frescoes (now lost) in S. Egidio.
Although Piero della Francesca began traveling at an early age and spent great part of his life working at the most important Courts in Central and Adriatic Italy, he never definitely bound himself to any Lord and always remained closely attached to his native town, so much so that he signed his works as "Pietro from Borgo", as if to proudly underline his origins. In 1442 Piero della Francesca returned to San Sepolcro where, three years later, he received the commission for the altarpiece of the Madonna della Misericordia, which he was to complete only in the early 1460s. In 1449 he executed several frescoes in the Castello Estense and the church of Sant'Andrea of Ferrara, also lost.

The polyptych of the Madonna della Misericordia was his first documented work and shows that he had studied and absorbed the artistic discoveries of his great Florentine predecessors and contemporaries — Masaccio, Donatello, Domenico Veneziano, Filippo Lippi, Uccello, and even Masolino, who anticipated something of Piero's use of broad masses of color.
Two years later he was in Rimini, working for Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. In this sojourn he executed the famous fresco of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta Praying in Front of St. Sigismund as well as the portrait of the condottiero. There he also met another famous Renaissance mathematician and architect, Leon Battista Alberti. Later he moved to Ancona, Pesaro and Bologna. In 1452, Piero della Francesca was called to Arezzo to replace Bicci di Lorenzo in painting the frescoes of the basilica of San Francesco. The work was finished before 1466, probably between 1452-1456.
His cycle of frescoes depicting the Legend of the True Cross is generally considered among his masterworks and those of Renaissance painting in general.

In 1453, he returned to San Sepolcro where, the following year, he signed a contract for the polyptych in the church of Sant'Agostino. A few years later, summoned by Pope Nicholas V, he moved to Rome: here he executed frescoes in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, of which only fragments remain. Two years later he was again in the Papal capital, for frescoes in Vatican Palace which have also been destroyed.
Much of Piero's later career was spent working at the humanist court of Federico da Montefeltro at Urbino. There he painted the famous double portrait of Federico and his wife Battista Sforza, now in the Uffizi, the Madonna of Senigallia and the Nativity, and the celebrated Flagellation (still at Urbino, in the Ducal Palace), one of the most famous and controversial pictures of the early Renaissance.
Other notable works of Piero della Francesca's maturity include the Baptism of Fire, The Resurrection and the Madonna del parto.

Piero is last mentioned as a painter in 1478 (in connection with a lost work) and his two final works are probably The Madonna and Child with Federigo da Montefeltro (Brera, Milan, c. 1475) and the unfinished Nativity (National Gallery, London). Thereafter he seems to have devoted himself to mathematics and perspective, writing treatises on both subjects.His deep interest in the theoretical study of perspective and his contemplative approach to his paintings are apparent in all his work, including the panels of the S. Agostino altarpiece. Three treatises written by Piero are known to modern mathematicians: Trattato d'Abaco; Libellus de quinque corporibus regularibus; De prospectiva pingendi. The subjects covered in these writings include arithmetic, algebra, geometry and innovative work in both solid geometry and perspective.

In his later years, painters such as Perugino and Luca Signorelli frequently visited his workshop. According to Vasari, he went blind in old age. Failing eyesight may have been his reason for giving up painting, but his will of 1487 declares him to be 'sound in mind, in intellect and in body' and is written in his own clear hand.
Piero della Francesca was buried in the Badia of Borgo San Sepolcro on 12 October 1492, the day when Columbus discovered America.