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Piero della Francesca revisited, from timeless painter to manager and businessman

by Marco Carminati

Renaissance painting and sculpture scholar Alessandro Angelini, who now holds the post of Art History lecturer at the University of Siena, wrote a book on Piero della Francesca (1415-1492). The artist doesn't enjoy a “star” status like Leonardo da Vinci or Caravaggio, and the new findings about him almost never gained the spotlight and created media buzz.

But Angelini’s book, called “Piero della Francesca,” contained findings that were nevertheless momentous, especially from a documental point of view, and were so crucial as to change the conception of Piero that had taken shape in the first half of the 20th century.

New documents that emerged from the archives, especially thanks to research conducted by James Baker and Frank Dabell, forced scholars to radically redraw Piero's image, ridding him of any metaphysical glow as a timeless painter and plunging him into the bourgeois, productive and mercantile society of which Piero was - the evidence says it clearly - a full-fledged member and star of that society in his own right, with all of its virtues but also all of its flaws.

Among his virtues, we should mention, for example, the cautious administration of his properties and his personal commitment in the management of public affairs in his hometown of Borgo del Santo Sepolcro in Tuscany. Among his shortcomings, we learn with astonishment that Piero used to try to dodge taxes and avoided military patrol service whenever he could.

Oh well. Piero's small human weaknesses dissolve before his great artistic production, such as the panels and the sublime polyptychs he painted for Sansepolcro, Perugia and Urbino, and the spectacular frescoes for Arezzo, Monterchi, Rimini and Sansepolcro. These works stem from a solid mathematical and geometric educational background. Alessandro Angelini's book gives an account of this “new” Piero della Francesca, going through all the riddles, problems and mysteries that still leave their mark on Piero's image as a man and artist.

Piero was born in Sansepolcro and always viewed his city as a strong reference point. But he traveled a lot, too, and worked in Florence, Urbino, Arezzo, Rome, Rimini and Ferrara. Retracing the exact progression of his travels from one Italian town to the other, and thus establishing the exact chronological sequence of his works, is the true riddle of Piero della Francesca.

Angelini, however, was not discouraged. He went through all his predecessors' assumptions and opinions and put them in connection with the most recent findings, and finally, expressed his own opinion and his own interpretation of the events.

What's most striking is that such a vast and complex topic was effectively summarized and put into writing in a plain in and approachable style. So plain and approachable, in fact, as to make a book of high scholarly standing suitable to a wider audience of readers.