On 7 December 2018, Russian Orthodox St Catherine’s Day, the monographic exhibition Piero della Francesca opens in the State Hermitage, bringing together works by one of the most celebrated 14th-century masters from art collections in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Britain.
The exhibition provides a rare opportunity for people to acquaint themselves with this artist’s oeuvre, as there are no works by Piero della Francesca in Russian museum collections. The majority of the master’s important paintings are in Italy, in places less often visited by tourists: Urbino, Arezzo and Sansepolcro. The exhibition has been organized with the support of the public joint-stock petroleum refining company Rosneft.
The “discovery” of Piero della Francesca took place only in the middle of the 19th century. Prior to that, his works were often attributed to other artists or, scattered as they were in provincial towns of Italy, failed to attract especial attention. Nowadays there is great interest in Piero della Francesca and the artist himself is seen as a key figure in the Italian Quattrocento.
Piero della Francesca (1412(?)–1492) was born in the small settlement of Borgo Santo Sepolcro (now the town of Sansepolcro). He worked in various Italian artistic centres – Florence, Ferrara, Rimini, Rome, Urbina and Perugia – but always preferred to return to his native Borgo Santo Sepolcro or Arezzo, the chief town of the province. Piero played a prominent role in the life of Borgo, being repeatedly elected to various public positions. In the building of the local administration he painted a fresco of the Resurrection that became a symbol of the town.
Piero della Francesca worked at the courts of many Italian rulers, including the papal curia. Around the year 1450 Piero was in Ferrara, where he would have been able to acquaint himself with Netherlandish painting and in particular the works of Rogier van der Weyden, who had been invited to the city by the Marquis, Lionello d’Este. He may also have met with artists from the Low Countries at the court of the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro. From the northerners Piero adopted precision in the depiction of nature and the technique of painting in oils that was new to Italy.
The pinnacle of Piero’s work as a monumental artist, and indeed of the entire Quattrocento in general, is the cycle of frescoes on the Legend of the True Cross that he painted in the basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo between 1458 and 1466. Never before had such a cycle appeared in Renaissance art, marked by such clarity and correlation of all the forms to one another, an unusual colour scheme and precise perspective. The exhibition includes a film by Italian documentary-makers devoted to the Legend of the True Cross.
Piero della Francesca was also a portraitist. The names of the master’s clients are not always known, but the most important of them was undoubtedly Federico da Montefeltro. Piero produced a superb double portrait of the Duke and his wife with allegorical scenes of the couple’s triumphs on the other side of the panel (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Federico was not only the ruler of Urbino but also one of Italy’s most successful condottieri. Such mercenary military commanders were a typical phenomenon of the Renaissance era.
We can also get an idea of such people from the Portrait of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (Louvre, Paris). When Piero painted his likeness in the early 1450s, Sigismondo was at the height of his fame. The strict profile view of his models was suggested to Piero by medals. When they were mastering the new genre of the era, the portrait, the medallists’ art and works of Classical Antiquity became important for Renaissance artists. In the portrait in the Louvre, the ruler of Rimini is presented from just that angel of view, which made it possible to bring out the subject’s most typical characteristics: an attractive face with coarse features testifying to strength and an indomitable will. Sigismondo is wearing sumptuous clothing, but without adornments, because he is an embodiment of simplicity and restraint.
Piero employed the same compositional scheme when recording the appearance of Federico da Montefeltro’s son, Guidobaldo. His portrait is kept in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. It is hard to imagine this charming youngster with fine features and blonde hair streaked with gold where the light catches it growing up to become a tyrannical duke, a condottiere, and at the same time someone who commissioned art from Raphael.
In Borgo Santo Sepolcro, Piero della Francesca produced a large altarpiece for the Augustinian Convent. The central panel has not survived, while the four side panels became dispersed to different collections. The Hermitage has managed to reunite three of them at the exhibition: Saint Augustine (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), The Archangel Michael (National Gallery, London) and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan). All the figures are shown on the same scale. Each of them loons up unshakeable as a rock, irrespective of who they are – bishop, warrior or monk. In his depiction of Augustine, Piero displayed his talent as a miniaturist: the saints mitre and dalmatic, decorated with embroidered Gospel stories, are reproduced with such a sense of authenticity that Piero can rival the Netherlandish artist in their ability to convey the materiality of things. Nicholas of Tolentino has such an individual look that the artist may well have had a monk pose for him who caught his attention with an exceptionally stout figure and an expressive face. The Archangel Michael is not so much a warrior, the “Prince of the Heavenly Host, standard-bearer of the most Holy Trinity”, as a bejewelled courtly knight who embodies the artist’s own conception of perfect youthful good looks.
Piero’s art is devoid of heightened emotionality and dynamism. It exemplifies the main principle of the Renaissance: the human being, full of beauty and dignity, is the centre of the universe and the surrounding world is harmonious. Piero’s indisputable masterpiece – the Madonna di Senigallia (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino) – dates from the late period in the artist’s career. The name of the picture comes from the location of the church for which it was painted. The Madonna di Senigallia can be viewed as the quintessence of Piero’s oeuvre. The main principles of his art are reflected in it particularly distinctly: the mathematical perception of shapes, carefully judged proportionality in the relationship of the figures, objects and space, a high degree of generalization and a consistent treatment of questions of lighting. The refined colour scheme is also beautiful, with the master giving preference to light, joyful hues.
In his final years, blindness prevented Piero della Francesca from working as a painter and he engaged in theoretical researches: his treatises on mathematics and geometry should be ranked alongside the contributions made in that field by Leon Battista Alberti, Luca Pacioli and Leonardo da Vinci.
Piero della Francesca was one of the first to discover the laws of perspective. His works include a unique manuscript On Perspective in Painting that is in the collection of the Fondazione Palazzo Magnani and provides a basis for an understanding of the whole of perspective and the essence of the visual illusions of the Renaissance.
It is important to note that the bulk of the expenses for the preparation of the exhibition have been covered by the general sponsor – the petroleum refining company Rosneft. Rosneft’s activities are an example of socially responsible business. The company actively supports significant events in Russia’s cultural life. It provides funding for projects that determine the cultural look of the country, influence national identity and form an understanding of high culture in society. The State Hermitage expresses its gratitude to Rosneft for its collaboration, invaluable support for the museum and the opportunity to show visitors works by one of the most celebrated artists of the 15th century.
The exhibition curator is Tatiana Kirillovna Kustodieva, Candidate of Art Studies, leading researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Art.