Jerry Brotton

The Painter’s Painter

Piero della Francesca: Artist & Man

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In his classic study Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, the great English art historian Michael Baxandall quipped famously that Quattrocento Italian painting was far too important to be left to the painters. It was only charismatic artists – Leo-nardo, Raphael and Michelangelo, say, with their fascinating lives played out publicly in such centres of culture and power as Rome and Florence – who developed a degree of personal fame and autonomy from the applied art commissioned and prescribed by the 15th-century Church and minor nobility. One artist who tends to get lost in this story is Piero della Francesca (c 1412–92), as James Banker reminds us in what is, surprisingly, the first full-length biography in English. Unlike more famous artists of his generation, Piero spent most of his time moving between provincial courts, working for petty tyrants, but always returning to his birthplace, the Tuscan town of Sansepolcro. While he did work briefly in Florence and Rome, his works were lost or simply painted over by more fashionable artists. He did not lead a very interesting life – he never married and remained close to the mundane existence of his siblings in Sansepolcro – and nor did he leave a cache of exciting letters, diaries or poems. However, he did produce some of the most innovative, enigmatic and defining images of the Italian Renaissance, including The Baptism of Christ (newly dated to 1436–9 by Banker), The Legend of the True Cross (1452–60), Madonna del Parto (1460–62) and The Flagellation of Christ (either 1467–8 or 1470–71). With his sombre, monumental figures and innovative use of perspective and proportion based on a lifetime’s study of Euclid and Archimedes, Piero is a painter’s painter. What the austere Braque is to playful Picasso, Piero is to Leonardo: less popular but more serious, and driven by the practice of his craft rather than the pursuit of celebrity.

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