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Sansepolcro 1415–1494

Piero della Francesca with his sunlit and volumetric style, has long enjoyed a legendary status as a precursor of modern art. Born in the small Tuscan town of Sansepolcro, early on he was in touch with leading Florentine artists, notably Domenico Veneziano (ca. 1410–1461) whose limpid light he adopted and surpassed. He was a master of linear perspective and wrote treatises on the subject, stimulated by contact with the architect and polymath Leon Battista Alberti in Rimini, where both worked for Sigismondo Malatesta tyrant of the city. One of his first masterpieces is a fresco of the Resurrection, still in Sansepolcro and saved from destruction in World War II by an artillery officer who disobeyed his orders to shell the town. A severe and implacable Christ looms up before one of Piero's arid and locally-inspired landscapes. In another fresco at Monterchi nearby, a pregnant Virgin is revealed by a pair of angels drawing aside a curtain. No painting so movingly expresses the joys and hopes of pregnancy and maternal tenderness towards an unborn child.

The Pieros in the National Gallery, London were bought out of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century by a shoe manufacturer Alexander Barker, a bold purchase of a then obscure artist by a man looked down on by the art establishment as nouveau riche. In the Baptism Christ is accompanied by a glowing group of angels, the middle one expressing astonishment at the event. Behind is a man struggling out of his shirt and another parched landscape, reflected in the river Jordan. The other Piero, the Nativity, has a grayer palette and is more informally composed, perhaps a nod to the many Flemish paintings circulating in Italy.

In his series of frescos in Arezzo of the Story of the True Cross, the most original is a night scene with the dream of Constantine. His most enigmatic painting, the Flagellation in Urbino, shows his mastery of architectural perspective. The group in the foreground has been accorded endless interpretations and possibly relates to the Montefeltro family, Dukes of Urbino. Two portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife are in the Uffizi, with the sitters in triumphal cars on the reverse. In strict profile, they give nothing away except the unassailable right to rule. The panoramic landscapes on both sides, with mountains scattered about like molehills, recall Van Eyck in their scrupulous clarity. The Sacra Conversazione in the Brera Gallery, Milan is a late work painted to celebrate the birth of a son to Federico who kneels bravely caparisoned in shining armour. The figures have become a little stiff, grouped formally and without surprises. The famous ostrich egg suspended from the vault is a Montefeltro symbol of love and creation.


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