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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Piero della Francesca.

One of the reasons we paint is the hope that we might in some way transcend our own mortality.  It's also why we have kids. But next to our own offspring, the literary, architectural, or artistic efforts we leave behind are  our best hope of outliving our mortal bodies--the equivalent of graffiti scrawled on the wall of history saying "I was here." Of course, given the fact that the offspring of most artists, architects, and writers have never amounted to much, the masterpieces we leave behind when we die may well be far more lasting, so long as they are treasured, preserved, and someone remembers who did them. Unfortunately, one of the hazards of depending upon artwork to compensate for our own mortality is the fact that we have little control over what succeeding generations will appreciate stylistically, and thus feel worthy of their preservation efforts. Sometimes, the subject matter alone will be enough to insure that great art work survives. That seems to have been the case with the work of the early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca.
Duke of Urbino, after 1474,
Piero della Francesca

The artist and his style of painting lost favor shortly after his death in 1492.  He was born around 1415 in the Umbrian region of Italy where his work still graces the walls of a number of churches. They have likely survived only because of their religious subject matter. Only in the last century or so has the art world rediscovered della Francesca's work and given it the acclaim it deserves. He painted a few portraits which have survived such as that of the Duke of Urbino, a profile portrait of a man in a red cap and cloak with one of the most distinctively "Roman" noses in the history of Roman noses (or else a considerable chunk of the bridge was excised by a sword in battle).  However, della Francesca's Baptism of Christ and his Resurrection of Christ, both painted in the 1450s, are indisputably his true masterpieces.

The Baptism of Christ, c. 1450,
Piero della Francesca

Ressurection of Christ, c. 1450,
Piero della Francesca

In addition to his interests in art, della Francesca also had an abiding interest in mathematics and the compositions of both of these paintings are highly structured geometrically. Art appreciation buffs delight in drawing radial diagrams using triangles, vertical and horizontal lines and other such diagramming figures to illustrate the underlying strengths that make these paintings such powerful visual presentations. Working at a time when one-point perspective was still something of a novelty and largely unfamiliar to many artists, Piero wrote at least two "how to" books on the subject. He also seems to have had a strong interest in painting landscapes as well, in that both backgrounds have a very natural quality. That of the baptism is identifiable today as it depicts, off in the distance, his home town of Borgo Sansepolcro. There is also a strong Flemish quality to his work which may account for why it lost favor in the years after his death when Italian Renaissance painting became more...well...Italian.

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