FRANCESCHI, PIERO (or Pietro) DE' (c.1416-1492), Italian painter of the Umbrian school. This master is generally named Piero della Francesca (Peter, son of Frances), the tradition being that his father, a woollen-draper named Benedetto, had died before his birth. This is not correct, for the mother's name was Romana, and the father continued living during many years of Piero's career. The painter is also named Piero Borghese, from his birthplace, Borgo San Sepolcro, in Umbria. The true family name was, as above stated, Franceschi, and the family still exists under the name of Martini-Franceschi.
Piero first received a scientific education, and became an adept in mathematics and geometry. This early bent of mind and course of study influenced to a large extent his development as a painter. He had more science than either Paolo Uccello or Mantegna, both of them his contemporaries, the former older and the latter younger. Skilful in linear perspective, he fixed rectangular planes in perfect order and measured them, and thus got his figures in true proportional height. He preceded and excelled Domenico Ghirlandajo in projecting shadows, and rendered with considerable truth atmosphere, the harmony of colours, and the relief of objects. He was naturally therefore excellent in architectural painting, and, in point of technique, he advanced the practice of oil-colouring in Italy.
The earliest trace that we find of Piero as a painter is in 1439, when he was an apprentice of Domenico Veneziano, and assisted him in painting the chapel of S. Egidio, in S. Maria Novella of Florence. Towards 1450 he is said to have been with the same artist in Loreto; nothing of his, however, can now be identified in that locality. In 1451 he was by himself, painting in Rimini, where a fresco still remains. Prior to this he had executed some extensive frescoes in the Vatican; but these were destroyed when Raphael undertook on the same walls the "Liberation of St Peter" and other paintings. His most extensive extant series of frescoes is in the choir of S. Francesco in Arezzo, - the "History of the Cross," beginning with legendary subjects of the death and burial of Adam, and going on to the entry of Heraclius into Jerusalem after the overthrow of Chosroes. This series is, in relation to its period, remarkable for effect, movement, and mastery of the nude. The subject of the "Vision of Constantine" is particularly vigorous in chiaroscuro; and a preparatory design of the same composition was so highly effective that it used to be ascribed to Giorgione, and might even (according to one authority) have passed for the handiwork of Correggio or of Rembrandt. A noted fresco in Borgo San Sepolcro, the "Resurrection," may be later than this series; it is preserved in the Palazzo de' Conservatori. An important painting of the "Flagellation of Christ," in the cathedral of Urbino, is later still, probably towards 1470. Piero appears to have been much in his native town of Borgo San Sepolcro from about 1445, and more especially after 1454, when he finished the series in Arezzo. He grew rich there, and there he died, and in October 1492 was buried.
Two statements made by Vasari regarding "Piero della Francesca" are open to much controversy. He says that Piero became blind at the age of sixty, which cannot be true, as he continued painting some years later; but scepticism need perhaps hardly go to the extent of inferring that he was never blind at all. Vasari also says that Fra Luca Pacioli, a disciple of Piero in scientific matters, defrauded his memory by appropriating his researches without acknowledgment. This is hard upon the friar, who constantly shows a great reverence for his master in the sciences. One of Pacioli's books was published in 1509, and speaks of Piero as still living. Hence it has been propounded that Piero lived to the patriarchal age of ninety-four or upwards; but, as it is now stated that he was buried in 1492, we must infer that there is some mistake in relation to Pacioli's remark - perhaps the date of writing was several years earlier than that of publication. Piero was known to have left a manuscript of his own on perspective; this remained undiscovered for a long time, but eventually was found by E. Harzen in the Ambrosian library of Milan, ascribed to some supposititious "Pietro, Pittore di Bruges." The treatise shows a knowledge of perspective as dependent on the point of distance.
In the National Gallery, London, are three paintings attributed to Piero de' Franceschi. Another work, a profile of Isotta da Rimini, may safely be rejected. The "Baptism of Christ," which used to be the altar-piece of the Priory of the Baptist in Borgo San Sepolcro, is an important example; and still more so the "Nativity," with the Virgin kneeling, and five angels singing to musical instruments. This is a very interesting and characteristic specimen, and has indeed been praised somewhat beyond its deservings on aesthetic grounds.
Piero's earlier style was energetic but unrefined, and to the last he lacked selectness of form and feature. The types of his visages are peculiar, and the costumes (as especially in the Arezzo series) singular. He used to work assiduously from clay models swathed in real drapery. Luca Signorelli was his pupil, and probably to some extent Perugino; and his own influence, furthered by that of Signorelli, was potent over all Italy. Belonging as he does to the Umbrian school, he united with that style something of the Sienese and more of the Florentine mode.
Besides Vasari and Crowe & Cavalcaselle, the work by W.G. Waters, Piero della Francesca (1899) should be consulted.
(W. M. R.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)