Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

Painter, b. at Borgo San-Sepolcro, about 1420; d. there, 1492. The most usual form of his name is the traditional one, PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA, which is better authenticated in contemporary documents than what in late research had been supposed to be the more correct form, PIERO DEI FRANCESCHI (Gronau, "Repertorium fur Kunstwissenschaft", xxiii, 392-4). He was the son of a notary, Ser Benedetto, a member of an influential family long identified with the government of the town—the Franceschi. His earliest artistic training is unknown, but he was active at Perugia in 1438, probably as an assistant to Domenico Veneziano, and he was certainly employed in the same capacity in the Church of Sant' Egidio, Florence, in 1439-40. To Domenico and probably also to Paolo Uccello, Florentine Realists who did much for the technical side of painting, we may ascribe the formative influence in his art. Piero first appears as an independent master in 1445, when he painted a still surviving altar-piece of many panels for the Brotherhood of the Misericordia in his native town. He is said to have laboured with Domenico at Loreto, and he was certainly at Rimini in 1451, when he painted a remarkable fresco in the chapel of San Francesco, representing Sigismondo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, venerating his patron saint, Sigismund. After this he was active at Ferrara and Bologna, and, according to Vasari, he also decorated a room of the Vatican for Pope Nicholas V. In 1454 he was again at Borgo San-Sepolcro, where in 1460 he painted a fresco of St. Louis of Toulouse, now preserved in the town hall. It was probably between this date and 1466 that he painted his masterpiece, the frescoes in the choir of San Francesco at Arezzo, which may, however, have been begun earlier. The subject is the "Story of the True Cross ", involving incidents beginning with Adam and including the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Constantine and St. Helena, Heraclius and Chosroes. These frescoes rank with those by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel as epoch-making in the decorative art of the fifteenth century.

In the spring of 1469 Piero was at Urbino, lodging in the house of Giovanni Santi, the father of Raphael, in which city a large part of his later activity occurred. From this period probably dates the remarkable diptych of the Uffizi, containing the portraits of the Duke (then Count) of Urbino, the ideal prince of the Renaissance, and the mild and refined image of his wife, Battista Sforza, with allegorical triumphs of these rulers on the reverse sides.

About this time he also painted the well-known "Madonna" with saints and angels, venerated by the Duke of Urbino, now in the Brera, Milan ; and the "Flagellation of Christ", a beautiful architectural composition in the cathedral of Urbino. According to a well-established tradition recorded by Vasari, Piero became blind in later life. At this time he wrote his celebrated treatises: "De quinque corporibus regularibus", which show him as a great geometrician, and his "Prospettiva Pingendi" (Treatise on Perspective), a manual for painters. This work reveals him as the greatest master of the theory of perspective in his day, and gave him a reputation beyond Italy. His testament is recorded 5 July, 1478, and he was interred in the present cathedral of his native town in 1492.

His principal frescoes, besides those mentioned, include: the "Resurrection," in the town hall of Borgo San-Sepolcro, a marvelous piece of foreshortening and perspective; a "Hercules", now in the possession of Mrs. J. L. Gardner of Boston ; and an imposing "Magdalen" in the cathedral of Arezzo. Among his panel pieces are the "Triumph of Chivalry" (New York Historical Society ); the "Baptism of Christ" and the "Nativity", both in the National Gallery, London, the latter the first moonlight scene in modern painting ; an "Annunciation" in the Gallery at Perugia ; "St. Michael" in London ; and " St. Thomas Aquinas " in the Poldo-Pezzoli Museum at Milan. The charming "Portrait of a Young Girl" attributed to him in this gallery, as well as similar portraits in other European galleries, is now generally ascribed to another artist. Piero's position in the development of Italian art is a unique and important one. He is the greatest of that group of pathfinders, the Realists, whose scientific experiments created the grammar of modern painting. In mural painting he towers above his contemporaries as the worthy successor of Masaccio, and the connecting link between his art and that of Raphael. In the Central Italian painting of the Renaissance his position was a dominant one; he may be called the founder of the school. The chief masters of the following generation— Perugino and the rest—either studied under or were influenced by him. Of his more intimate pupils, Melozzo da Forli carried perspective to the highest perfection, while Luca Signorelli developed figure-painting to the greatest excellence attained before Michelangelo. To Florentine excellence of draughtmanship Piero united the superior colour sense of the Umbrians. Most remarkable was his rendition of light and air, in which he easily surpassed his contemporaries. His types are seldom beautiful, but they are strong and primeval, admirably modelled, and as impassive as the sculptures at the Parthenon. Perhaps the most striking feature of his art is this wonderful objectivity, in which regard he stands rivalled by Holbein and Velazquez alone in modern painting.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 4:7-16
7 On each one of us God's favour has been bestowed in whatever way Christ ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5
1 [Song of Ascents Of David] I rejoiced that they said to me, 'Let us go ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 13:1-9
1 It was just about this time that some people arrived and told him about ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 22nd, 2016 Image

St. Pope John Paul II
October 22: Karol J. Wojtyla, known as John Paul II since his ... Read More