Detail. Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes. Circa 1460. Fresco, San Francesco, Arezzo.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
TRULY UNHAPPY are those who, laboring at their studies in order to benefit others and to make their own name famous, are hindered by infirmity and sometimes by death from carrying to perfection the works that they have begun. And it happens very often that, leaving them all but finished or in a fair way to completion, they are falsely claimed by the presumption of those who seek to conceal their asses' skin under the honorable spoils of the lion. And although time, who is called the father of truth, sooner or later makes manifest the real state of things, it is none the less true that for a certain space of time the true craftsman is robbed of the honor that is due to his labors; as hap happened to Piero della Francesca of Borgo a San Sepolcro. He, having been held a rare master of the difficulties of drawing regular bodies, as well as of arithmetic and geometry, was yet not able,being overtaken in his old age by the infirmity of blindness, and finally by the close of his life,to bring to light his noble labors and the many books written by him, which are still preserved in the Borgo, his native place. The very man who should have striven with all his might to increase the glory and fame of Piero, from whom he had learnt all that he knew, was impious and malignant enough to seek to blot out the name of his teacher, and to usurp for himself the honor that was due to the other, publishing under his own name, Fra Luca dal Borgo, all the labors of that good old man, who, besides the sciences named above, was excellent in painting.
Piero was born in Borgo a San Sepolcro, which is now a city, although it was not one then; and he was called Della Francesca after the name of his mother, because she had been left pregnant with him at the death of her husband, his father, and because it was she who had brought him up and assisted him to attain to the rank that his good-fortune held, out to him. Piero applied himself in his youth to mathematics, and although it was settled when he was fifteen years of age that he was to be a painter, he never abandoned this study; nay, he made marvelous progress therein, as well as in painting. He was employed by Guidobaldo Feltro the elder, Duke of Urbino, for whom he made many very beautiful pictures with little figures, which have been for the most part ruined on the many occasions when that state has been harassed by wars. Nevertheless, there were preserved there some of his writings on geometry and perspective, in which sciences he was not inferior to any man of his own time, or perchance even to any man of any other time; as is demonstrated by all his works, which are full of perspectives, and particularly by a vase drawn in squares and sides, in such a manner that the base and the mouth can be seen from the front, from behind, and from the sides; which is certainly a marvelous thing, for he drew the smallest details therein with great subtlety, and foreshortened the curves of all the circles with much grace. Having thus acquired credit and fame at that Court, he resolved to make himself known in other places; wherefore he went to Pesaro and Ancona, whence, in the very thick of his work, he was summoned by Duke Borso to Ferrara, where he painted many apartments in his palace, which were afterwards destroyed by Duke Ercole the elder in the renovation of the palace, insomuch that there is nothing by the hand of Piero left in that city, save a chapel wrought In fresco in San Agostino; and even that has been injured by damp. Afterwards, being summoned to Rome, he painted two scenes for Pope Nicholas V in the upper rooms of his palace, in competition with Bramante da Milano; but these also were thrown to the ground by Pope Julius Il, to the end that Raffaello da Urbino might paint there the Imprisonment of St. Peter and the Miracle of the Corporale of Bolsena,together with certain others that had been painted by Bramantino, an excellent painter in his day.
Now, seeing that I cannot write the life of this man, nor particularize his works, because they have been ruined, I will not grudge the labor of making some record of him, for it seems an apt occasion. In the said works that were thrown to the ground, so I have heard tell, he had made some heads from nature, so beautiful and so well executed that speech alone was wanting to give them life. Of these heads not a few have come to light, because Raffaello da Urbino had them copied in order that he might have the likenesses of the subjects, who were all people of importance; for among them were Niccolo Fortebraccio, Charles VII, King of France, Antonio Colonna, Prince of Salerno, Francesco Carmignuola, Giovanni Vitellesco, Cardinal Bessarione, Francesco Spinola, and Battista da Canneto. All these portraits were given to Giovio by Giulio Romano, disciple and heir of Raffaello da Urbino, and they were placed by Giovio in his museum at Como. Over the door of San Sepolcro in Milan I have seen a Dead Christ wrought in foreshortening by the hand of the same man, in which, although the whole picture is not more than one braccio in height, there is an effect of infinite length, executed with facility and with judgment. By his hand, also, are some apartments and loggie in the house of the Marchesino Ostanesia in the same city, wherein there are many pictures wrought by him that show mastery and very great power in the foreshortening of the figures. And without the Porta Vercellina, near the Castle, in certain stables now ruined and destroyed, he painted some grooms currying horses, among which there was one so lifelike and so well wrought, that another horse thinking it a real one, lashed out at it repeatedly with its hooves.
But to return to Piero della Francesca; his work in Rome finished, he returned to the Borgo, where his mother had just died; and on the inner side of the central door of the Pieve he painted two saints in fresco, which are held to be very beautiful. In the Convent of the Friars of St. Augustine he painted the panel of the high altar, which was a thing much extolled; and he wrought in fresco a Madonna della Misericordia for a company, or rather, as they call it, a confraternity; with a Resurrection of Christ in the Palazzo de' Conservadori, which is held the best of all the works that are in the said city, and the best that he ever made. In company with Domenico da Vinezia, he painted the beginning of a work on the vaulting of the Sacristy of Santa Maria at Loreto; but they left it unfinished from fear of plague, and it was afterwards completed by Luca da Cortona, [Signorelli] a disciple of Piero, as will be told in the proper place.
Going from Loreto to Arezzo, Piero painted for Luigi Bacci, a citizen of Arezzo, the Chapel of the high altar of San Francesco, belonging to that family, the vaulting of which had been already begun by Lorenzo di Bicci. In this work there are Stories of the Cross, from that wherein the sons of Adam are burying him and placing under his tongue the seed of the tree from which there came the wood for the said Cross, down to the Exaltation of the Cross itself performed by the Emperor Heraclius, who, walking barefoot and carrying it on his shoulder, is entering with it into Jerusalem. Here there are many beautiful conceptions and attitudes worthy to be extolled; such as, for example, the garments of the women of the Queen of Sheba, executed in a sweet and novel manner; many most lifelike portraits from nature of ancient persons; a row of Corinthian columns, divinely well proportioned; and a peasant who, leaning with his hands on his spade, stands listening to the words of St. Helena,while the three Crosses are being disinterred,with so great attention, that it would not be possible to improve it. Very well wrought, also, is the dead body that is restored to life at the touch of the Cross, together with the joy of St. Helena and the marveling of the bystanders, who are kneeling in adoration. But above every other consideration, whether of imagination or of art, is his painting of Night, with an angel in foreshortening who is flying with his head downwards, bringing the sign of victory to Constantine, who is sleeping in a pavilion, guarded by a chamberlain and some men-at-arms who are seen dimly through the darkness of the night; and with his own light the angel illuminates the pavilion, the men-at-arms, and all the surroundings. This is done with very great thought, for Piero gives us to know in this darkness how important it is to copy things as they are and to ever take them from the true model; which he did so well that he enabled the moderns to attain, by following him, to that supreme perfection wherein art is seen in our own time. In this same story he represented most successfully in a battle fear , animosity, dexterity, vehemence, and all the other emotions that can be imagined in men who are fighting, and likewise all the incidents of battle, together with an almost incredible carnage, what with the wounded, the fallen, and the dead.
In these Piero counterfeited in fresco the glittering of their arms, for which he deserves no less praise than he does for the flight and submersion of Maxentius painted on the other wall, wherein he made a group of horses in foreshortening, so marvelously executed that they can be truly called too beautiful and too excellent for those times. In the same story he made a man, half nude and half-clothed in the dress of a Saracen, riding a lean horse, which reveals a very great mastery of anatomy, a science little known in his age. For this work, therefore, he well deserved to be richly rewarded by Luigi Bacci, whom he portrayed there in the scene of the beheading of a King, together with Carlo and others of his brothers and many Aretines who were then distinguished in letters; and to be loved and revered ever after wards, as he was, in that city, which he had made so illustrious with his works. In the Vescovado of the same city, also, he made a St. Mary Magdalene in fresco beside the door of the sacristy; and for the Company of the Nunziata he painted the banner that is carried in processions. At the head of a cloister at Santa Maria delle Grazie, without that district, he painted St. Donatus in his robes, seated in a chair drawn in perspective, together with certain boys; and in a niche high, up on a wall of St. Bernard, for the Monks of Monte Oliveto, he made a St. Vincent, which is much esteemed by craftsmen. In a chapel at Sargiano, a seat of the Frati Zoccolanti di S. Francesco, without Arezzo, he painted a very beautiful Christ praying by night in the Garden.
In Perugia, also, he wrought many works that are still to be seen in that city; as, for example, a panel in tempera in the Church of the Nuns of St. Anthony of Padua, containing a Madonna with the Child in her lap, St. Francis, St. Elizabeth, St. John the Baptist, and St. Anthony of Padua. Above these is a most beautiful Annunciation, with an Angel that seems truly to have come out of Heaven; and, what is more, a row of columns diminishing in perspective, which is indeed beautiful. In the predella there are scenes with little figures, representing St. Anthony restoring a boy to life; St. Elizabeth saving a child that has fallen into a well; and St. Francis receiving the Stigmata. In St. Ciriaco at Ancona, on the altar of St. Giuseppe, he painted a most beautiful scene of the Marriage of Our Lady. Piero, as it has been said, was a very zealous student of art, and gave no little attention to perspective; and he had a very good know ledge of Euclid, insomuch that he understood all the best curves drawn in regular bodies better than any other geometrician, and the clearest elucidations of these matters that we have are from his hand. Now Maestro Luca dal Borgo, a friar of St. Francis, who wrote about the regular geometrical bodies, was his pupil; and when Piero, after having written many books, grew old and finally died, the said Maestro Luca, claiming the authorship of these books, had them printed as his own, for they had fallen into his hands after the death of Piero.
Piero was much given to making models in clay, on which he spread wet draperies with an infinity of folds, in order to make use of them for drawing. A disciple of Piero was Lorentino d' Angelo of Arezzo, who made many pictures in Arezzo, imitating his manner, and completed those that Piero, overtaken by death, left unfinished. Near the St. Donatus that Piero wrought in the Madonna delle Grazie, Lorentino painted in fresco some stories of St. Donatus, with very many works in many other places both in that city and in the district, partly because he would never stay idle, and partly to assist his family, which was then very poor. In the said Church of the Grazie the same man painted a scene wherein Pope Sixtus IV, between the Cardinal of Mantua and Cardinal Piccolomini (who was afterwards Pope Pius III), is granting an indulgence to that place; in which scene Lorentino portrayed from the life, on their knees, Tommaso Marzi, Piero Traditi, Donato Rosselli, and Giuliano Nardi, all citizens of Arezzo and Wardens of Works for that building. In the hall of the Palazzo de' Priori, moreover, he portrayed from the life Cardinal Galeotto da Pietramala, Bishop Guglielmino degli Ubertini, and Messer Angelo Albergotti, Doctor of Laws; and he made many other works, which are scattered throughout that city.
It is said that once, when the Carnival was close at hand, the children of Lorentino kept beseeching him to kill a pig, as it is the custom to do in that district; and that, since he had not the means to buy one, they would say, "What will you do about buying a pig, father, if you have no money?" To which Lorentino would answer, "Some Saint will help us." But when he had said this many times and the season was passing by without any pig appearing, they had lost hope, when at length there arrived a peasant from the Pieve a Quarto, who wished to have a St. Martin painted in fulfillment of a vow, but had no means of paying for the picture save a pig, which was worth five lire. This man, coming to Lorentino, told him that he wished to have the St. Martin painted, but that he had no means of payment save the pig. Whereupon they came to an agreement, and Lorentino painted him the Saint, while the peasant brought him the pig; and so the Saint provided the pig for the poor children of this painter.
Another disciple of Piero was Pietro da Castel della Pieve [Pietro Perugino], who painted an arch above St. Agostino, and a St. Urban for the Nuns of Santa Caterina in Arezzo, which has been thrown to the ground in rebuilding the church. His pupil, likewise, was Luca Signorelli of Cortona, who did him more honor than all the others. Piero Borghese, whose pictures date about the year 1458, became blind through an attack of catarrh at the age of sixty, and lived thus up to the eighty-sixth year of his life. He left very great possessions in the Borgo, with some houses that he had built himself, which were burnt and destroyed in the strife of factions in the year 1536. He was honorably buried by his fellow-citizens in the principal church, which formerly belonged to the Order of Camaldoli, and is now the Vescovado. Piero's books are for the most part in the library of Frederick II, Duke of Urbino, and they are such that they have deservedly acquired for him the name of the best geometrician of his time.