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  7. Between Arezzo, Perugia and Urbino

Between Arezzo, Perugia and Urbino

In addition to his hometown Sansepolcro, Piero della Francesca works mainly in Arezzo, where he creates his greatest work, The Legend of the True Cross and La Maddalena inside the city’s Cathedral and later in Urbino at the Montefeltro court, where the artist will be able to complete some of his most important works. Among the most famous are the portraits of the Dukes of Urbino, that is Federico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza, which today are preserved in Florence, at the Uffizi and perhaps the most important work is the Montefeltro Altarpiece preserved instead at the Brera Art Gallery in Milan. In Urbino at the National Gallery of the Marche two paintings are exhibited: the Madonna di Sinigallia and the Flagellation of Christ. The first has numerous formal and stylistic affinities with the Pala di Brera (dating back to about 1472), so it is often assumed that the two panels were painted a short distance from each other and perhaps both commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro.

The Flagellation is one of the best examples, in Piero’s art, of the synthesis between naturalness and mathematical rigor. The painting is set three-dimensionally according to accurate geometric-mathematical laws, which testify Piero’s interest in the subject and his willingness to pervade the work of mathematical symbolism. The most obvious correspondence is the use of the golden ratio in proportioning the two halves of the painting, the one in the foreground and that of the praetorium (the place where Christ was scourged), or in the elaborate design of the marble floor, perfectly shortened in perspective. In nearby Perugia is the Polyptych of St. Anthony. The work, destined to the convent of St. Anthony of Perugia was begun shortly after returning from Rome, around 1460. Like the Polyptych of the Misericordia, it is a work of archaic setting, certainly on request of the commissioners, with the main figures painted on a precious gold background and with a motif that imitates the precious fabrics, perhaps inspired by Iberian models that the artist could have seen during the Roman stay.

Discovering Piero

Maddalena, Cathedral of Arezzo

The fresco is recalled by Giorgio Vasari in the Piero nelle Vite biography: “He made in the Bishopric of that city a fresco of Santa Maria Maddalena, next to the sacristy door”. Maddalena stands in natural size, with her gaze lowered towards the viewer and against the background of a balustrade and a blue sky. The frame gives it the monumental consistency of a statue in a niche. The light is clear and sharp, which gives the colours a delicate and harmonious tone, on large surfaces. This characteristic of Piero comes from the lesson of Domenico Veneziano, but it is also possible that he had had the opportunity to see some works by Antonello da Messina in Rome.

Polyptych of St. Anthony, National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia

The cymatium is occupied by the extraordinary Annunciation, set in a magnificent perspectival box. On the left is the Angel and on the right the Virgin below a loggia, while between the two open the arches of another arm of the loggia, which flee in a central perspective, creating a distant perspective breakthrough that magnifies the viewer’s eye. The Virgin is caught up in the moment of humiliatio, when she accepts the divine task, while the rays are reaching her from the dove of the Holy Spirit, placed in a square of heaven at the top left. Its location in space is very complicated: looking at her head it seems in front of the arch that frames it, looking at the feet instead you discover how it is actually under the loggia; moreover, a reconstruction of the architectural environment of the scene has shown how on the line of sight between the Angel and the Virgin there is a column (just note the floor grid and its correspondence with the columns).

Madonna di Senigaglia, National Gallery of Marche, Urbino

The scene shows Our Lady standing with the Child between two angels, inside a house. The cut of the painting is unusual and shows the protagonists as half-figures, cut from the lower margin of the painting. The Child, in the act of blessing, holds in his hand a white rose, symbol of the purity of the Virgin, while on his neck he has a necklace of red pearls with a coral, an archaic symbol of protection of children, which in the case of sacred scenes also acquired a premonition value of the Passion because of the red-blood colour. The angels, with their grey and salmon pink soft robes, are faithfully taken from the Pala di Brera. The lack of support points between the figures and the space prevents determining the mutual distance, making the protagonists appear very close to the viewer.

Flagellazione, National Gallery of Marche, Urbino

In Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation the two rectangular areas are in a golden ratio. Of the three figures on the right, the central one is a young man dressed in red, with bare feet; the one on the left is a bearded mature man, with a Byzantine hat (as can also be seen in the frescoes of Arezzo, derived from the vision of the participants in the Council of Ferrara-Florence), travel shoes and a brown cloak old-fashioned wrapped, portrayed while seeming to hint at a request for silence to start talking; the third, on the right, is a man of more advanced age, with shaved hair and with a sumptuous dress of blue and gold brocade. Their position is clearly identifiable by comparing the boxes drawn in perspective on the floor, so much so that it is also possible to draw the space of the Flagellation in plan and in elevation.