Monday, May 7, 2012

The Duke's Artist

My blogging friend Jim of Road to Parnassus, familiar with my blog portrait, recently sent me this great magazine cover featuring Piero della Francesca's profile of the Duke of Urbino. I wrote earlier about Duke Federico II da Montefeltro, and the fun I had using his image to make my own portrait. You can read about that here.

When I received the cover art, I thought it was a good time to revisit this image and talk a little more about the artist, Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492).

Piero, the son of a cobbler and tanner, was apprenticed in Florence as early as 1432. He would have known the work of masters of the early Renaissance in an exciting atmosphere of discovery, inspiration, sharing, teaching and copying. One who inspired Piero greatly was the short-lived Masaccio, possibly the greatest painter of the early Renaissance, and one of the first masters of perspective. Below are frescoes by Masaccio, who died at age 26.

Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, by Masaccio |

Here would be a good place to mention that Piero della Francesca, while remembered chiefly as an artist, was also a mathematician who wrote treatises on arithmetic, geometry, algebra and perspective. It's amazing to realize that in the whole span of art history, it was only in the 1400s that the principles of perspective were understood and first used in painting. Piero della Francesca did much of the groundwork. As we look at his paintings, we can see that he approached them as mathematical studies.

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Possibly Piero's most important painting is The Flagellation of Christ (1455-60), above. Much has been written about this work, since it not only relates a Biblical event, but also possibly alludes to church politics of della Francesco's time. There is much speculation as to the identity of the three foreground figures. Notice that each is neatly framed within a rectangle.

The Madonna and Child of the Brera Altarpiece (1472-74) is another painting that shows Piero's mastery of perspective. I am drawn to the egg hanging within the shell, so reminiscent of the work of Salvador Dali. Don't you suppose Dali spent some time studying this image? The egg is said to represent the incarnation of the Christ.

In the lower right corner, Piero depicts Federico II, Duke of Urbino and Piero's chief patron. The duke was a man of great learning and cultivation, and I have no doubt that the two engaged in long intellectual conversations.

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Piero della Francesca might be best remembered for his c. 1474 double portrait of the duke and his duchess, Battista Sforza. Seen together, the portraits provide a vast panoramic landscape.

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The reverse of the frame is an identical structure that showcases these two panels, the "Triumphs" of Federico and Battista. Such an unusual framing job is explained by the fact that originally these painting were not framed at all, but hinged like a book.

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This unframed view is perhaps how the portraits would have been presented to Federico and Battista. Notice how the landscape is now smoothly unified?

Piero della Francesca died in his late 70s on October 12, 1492, the very day that Columbus first set foot in the Americas.

With the exception of the first two, all images in this posting are from
Piero della Francesca, one of the Rizzoli Art Classics series.

I have manipulated the images of the Duke and Duchess in the last picture
to reveal how the portraits would possibly have originally appeared.


  1. Hello Mark:
    As always, a most interesting post. How we love all of these paintings of the Renaissance period and the frescoes which you illustrate here of the work of Masaccio on Florence are, in our view, sublime.

    How very intriguing to make the connection as you do with Dali and the Brera Altarpiece - something which we had not previously considered.

    Like you, we thoroughly enjoy 'The Road to Parnassus'. Jim has always been most supportive of our own blog; we wish that he would post more.

    1. Hello Jane and Lance:

      As you may know, St. Petersburg, Florida has the largest collection of Salvador Dali's work outside of Spain. And just as Piero della Francesca was interested in geometry, Dali was interested in the sciences, and particularly physics. Yes, I think he would have loved the symbolism of della Francesca's egg, a symbol he did in fact incorporate into his own paintings often.

      I, too, am a great fan of Road to Parnassus, both the site and the commentator.

  2. Dear Mark - my favourite kind of post.
    You may have the red hat and gown, but what a relief you do not have that nose!
    H and I once did the Piero della Francesca trail which took us to Florence, Arezzo, then his birthplace of Sansepolcro, and finally Urbino.
    One of my favourite paintings is The Resurrection in the Museo Civico, Sansepolcro. It is very large and Christ seems to be striding over the wall towards you. One of the sleeping guards is said to be a portrait of Piero.

    1. Dear Rosemary - In profile, I do have a distinctive nose, but thank goodness it hasn't been formed by a lance!

      I really like the idea of a theme-based art trip, though I've never done that. You're giving me some great ideas for the future!

      Della Francesca's interpretation of The Resurrection is my own favorite because the image of Christ is so physically powerful, much more effective than an etherial rendition. I did not know that about the sleeping guard. I guess I still have some studying to do!

  3. I also notice in the "Flagellation of Christ" that the lines of perspective meet at Christ, perhaps a Renaissance op-ed that all paths lead to Christ.

    You might also enjoy this post by a local artist who uses that painting's atmosphere as inspriation:

    1. Hi, Steve -

      Your observation about the perspective is certainly in character with who della Francesca was and the creative atmosphere in which he lived. My biography of him relates that a subject like perspective would have been discussed less as a technical subject and more as an intellectual dialogue.

      I can't thank you enough for putting me onto the Aponovich blogspot. His work is gorgeous! I've just visited it and bookmarked it for a more thorough investigation!

  4. Thank you for giving us the background story behind this iconic image. The Masaccio-Piero link makes me want to start looking for their common themes in other paintings of the times. I never knew about the original display of the portraits--your recreation is vivid and telling. Are the "Triumphs" paintings on the backs of the portraits, or are they on separate panels?

    That Duke of Urbino portrait has been getting around lately. The blog Big Old Houses just used it to illustrate its fascinating article telling how some paneling from the Duke's library was re-installed in a New York house:

    --Road to Parnassus

    1. Thank you, Parnassus for inspiring this posting!

      The "Triumphs" are indeed on the reverse of the portraits, so that the whole affair was four spectacular paintings that could be held at one time. Receiving them must have been a thrill not unlike opening a Fabergé Easter egg.

      Thanks for the link to the Duke's library! It's great to get a taste of his millieu, and one can easily see how he might have been regarded as the most well-read man in Italy, perhaps Europe.

  5. Mark I love your blog. Always something thought provoking. Thank you so much.

    1. Thank you for visiting, and for the nice compliment!

  6. Enjoyed reading this, Mark. So THAT's where your catchy (not to mention artistically fetching) profile pix comes from. I wish I had the knowledge to put something like this together from one of my own pix. It is really very, VERY clever.

    So, what are you now, like - the Duke of Ruffernia? :)

    1. No, I'm sure I'm more like the duke's artist, but I did have fun working on that portrait!

  7. Hello Mark,
    I have to say that your profile is much more pleasing. Great post!