CHAPTER VIII

Tuscany and Umbria

I. PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA

IF now we cross back into Tuscany, we find that Florence, like another Paris, absorbed the talents of her dependencies, and left only here and there among them a figure that bids us pause in our pilgrimage. Lucca bought a charter of autonomy from the Emperor Charles IV (1369), and managed to remain a free city till Napoleon. The Lucchesi were properly proud of their eleventh-century cathedral; they kept it in form with repeated restorations, and made it a veritable museum of art. There eye and soul may still feast on the lovely stalls (1452) and stained glass (1485) of the choir; on a noble tomb by Iacopo della Quercia (1406); on one of Fra Bartolommeo’s profoundest pictures—Madonna with St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist (1509); and on one handsome work after another by Lucca’s own son, Matteo Civitali.

Pistoia preferred Florence to freedom. The conflict of “Whites” and “Blacks” so disordered the city that the government appealed to the Florentine Signory to take over its management (1306). Thereafter Pistoia received its art as well as its laws from Florence. For the Ospedale del Ceppo—named from the hollow stump into which one might drop contributions for the hospital—Giovanni della Robbia and some aides designed (1514–25) a frieze of gleaming terra-cotta reliefs of the Seven Works of Mercy: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, nursing the sick, visiting prisons, receiving strangers, burying the dead, and comforting the bereaved. Here religion was at its best.

Pisa, once so rich that it could transform mountains of marble into a cathedral, baptistery, and Leaning Tower, had owed its wealth to its strategic position at the mouth of the Arno. For that reason Florence beat it into subjection (1405). Pisa never reconciled itself to this servitude; it rebelled again and again. In 1431 the Florentine Signory expelled from Pisa all males capable of bearing arms, and kept their women and children as hostages for their good behavior.1 Pisa took advantage of the French invasion (1495) to reassert its independence; for fourteen years it fought off the Florentine mercenaries; finally, after a fanatically heroic resistance, it succumbed. Many leading families, choosing exile rather than vassalage, migrated to France or Switzerland—among them the Sismondi ancestors of the historian who in 1838 wrote an eloquent account of these events in his History of the Italian Republics. Florence tried to atone for her despotism by financing the University of Pisa, and sending her artists to adorn the cathedral and the Campo Santo; but not even the famous frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli in that Holy Field of the dead could comfort a city geologically doomed to decay. For the detritus of the Arno gradually and mercilessly advanced the shore line, creating a new port at Livorno—Leghorn—six miles away; and Pisa lost the commercial situation that had made its fortune and its tragedy.

San Gimignano took its name from St. Geminian, who saved the incipient village from the hordes of Attila about 450. It rose to some prosperity in the fourteenth century; but its rich families divided into murderous factions, and built the fifty-six fortress towers (now reduced to thirteen) that gave the town its fame as San Gimignano delle Belle Torri. In 1353 the strife grew so violent that the city accepted with resigned relief its absorption into the Florentine dominion. Thereafter life seems to have gone out of it. Domenico Ghirlandaio made the Santa Fina Chapel of the Collegiata famous with his finest frescoes, and Benozzo Gozzoli rivaled his Medici Chapel cavalcades with scenes from the life of St. Augustine in the church of Sant’ Agostino, and Benedetto da Maiano carved superb altars for those shrines. But commerce took other routes, industry starved, stimulus died; San Gimignano remained becalmed in her narrow streets and disintegrating towers; and in 1928 Italy made the city a national monument, preserved as a half-living picture of medieval life.

Forty miles up the Arno from Florence, Arezzo was a vital spot in the web of Florentine defense and trade. The Signory itched and angled to control it; in 1384 Florence bought the city from the duke of Anjou; Arezzo never forgot the indignity. It gave birth to Petrarch, Aretino, and Vasari, but failed to hold them, for its soul still belonged to the Middle Ages. Luca Spinello, also called Aretino, went from Arezzo to paint in the Campo Santo at Pisa lively frescoes stirring with the shock of battle (1390–2), but also portraying Christ and Mary and the saints with an intense and moving piety. If we wish to believe Vasari, Luca portrayed Satan so repulsively that the Devil appeared to him in a dream and reprimanded him with such violence that Luca died of fright—at ninety-two.2

Northeast of Arezzo, on the upper Tiber, the town of Borgo San Sepolcro seemed too small to have and to hold an artist of high rank. Piero di Benedetto was called della Francesca after his mother; for she, left pregnant with him after his father’s death, reared him lovingly, and guided and aided him to an education in mathematics and art. Though we know that he was born in the Town of the Holy Sepulcher, the earliest notice of him places him in Florence in 1439. That was the year in which Cosimo brought the Council of Ferrara to Florence; presumably Piero saw the gorgeous costumes of the Byzantine prelates and princes who had come to negotiate the reunion of the Greek with the Roman Church. We may more confidently presume that he studied the frescoes of Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel; this was routine for any art student in Florence. The dignity, power, and resolute perspective of Masaccio mingled in Piero’s art with the picturesque grandeur and majestic beards of the Eastern potentates.

When he returned to Borgo (1442) Piero was elected, aged thirty-six, to the town council. Three years later he received his first recorded commission: to paint a Madonna della Misericordia for the church of San Francesco. It is still preserved in the Palazzo Comunale: a strange assemblage of somber saints, a semi-Chinese Virgin enfolding eight praying figures in the robe of her mercy, a stiff Archangel Gabriel making a very formal announcement of her motherhood to Mary, an almost peasant Christ in a grimly realistic Crucifixion, and vivid forms of the Mater Dolorosa and the Apostle John. This is half-primitive painting, but powerful: no pretty sentiment, no delicate decoration, no idealized refinement of the tragic tale; but bodies soiled and consumed with the struggle of life, and yet rising to nobility in the silence of their suffering, their prayers, and their forgiveness.

His fame now spread through Italy, and Piero was in demand. At Ferrara (1449?) he painted murals in the Ducal Palace. Rogier van der Weyden was then court painter there; probably Piero learned from him something of the new technique of painting with pigments mixed in oil. At Rimini (1451) he pictured Sigismondo Malatesta—tyrant, murderer, and patron of art—in an attitude of pious prayer, redeemed by the presence of two magnificent dogs. In Arezzo, at intervals between 1452 and 1464, Piero painted for the church of San Francesco a series of frescoes that mark the zenith of his art. They told mainly the story of the True Cross, culminating in its capture by Khosru II, and its recovery and restoration to Jerusalem by the Emperor Heraclius; but they found place also for such episodes as the death of Adam, the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, and the victory of Constantine over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. The emaciated figure of the dying Adam, the worn face and drooping breasts of Eve, the powerful bodies of their sons and their almost equally virile daughters, the flowing majesty of the Queen of Sheba’s retinue, the profound and disillusioned face of Solomon, the startling incidence of light in The Dream of Constantine, the fascinating turmoil of men and horses inThe Victory of Heraclius— these are among the most impressive frescoes of the Renaissance.

Probably in the interludes of this major effort Piero painted an altarpiece at Perugia, and some murals in the Vatican—later whitewashed to make more space for Raphael’s conquering brush. At Urbino in 1469 he produced his most famous picture—the arresting profile of Duke Federigo da Montefeltro. Federigo’s nose had been broken, and his right cheek scarred, in a tournament. Piero showed the left side, intact but hilly with moles, and portrayed the crooked nose with dauntless realism; he made the firm lips and half-closed eyes and sober face reveal the administrator, the stoic, the man who has plumbed the shallowness of wealth and power; we miss, however, in these features, the refinement of taste that guided Federigo in organizing music at his court and collecting his celebrated library of classical and illuminated manuscripts. Paired with this portrait in the Uffizi diptych is a profile of Federigo’s wife, Battista Sforza—a face almost Dutch, and pale to sallowness—against a background of fields, hills, sky, and battlemented walls. On the obverse of the portraits Piero painted two “triumphs”—one chariot drawing Federigo, the other Battista, in solemn state; both elegantly absurd.

About 1480 Piero, now sixty-four, began to suffer from eye trouble. Vasari thought he became blind, but apparently he could still draw well. In those declining years he wrote a manual of perspective, and a treatise De quinque corporibus regolaribus, in which he analyzed the geometrical relations and proportions involved in painting. His pupil Luca Pacioli adopted Piero’s ideas in his own book De divina proportione; and perhaps through this mediation Piero’s mathematical ideas influenced Leonardo’s studies in the geometry of art.

The world has forgotten Piero’s books and has rediscovered his paintings. When we place him in time, and note that his work was completed when Leonardo’s had just begun, we must assign him a rank with the leading Italian painters of the fifteenth century. His figures seem crude, their faces coarse; many seem cast in a Flemish mold. What ennobles them is their quiet dignity, their grave mien and stately carriage, the restrained and yet dramatic force of their action. What transfigures them is the harmonious flow of the design, and, above all, the uncompromising faithfulness with which Piero’s hand, disdaining idealization and sentimentality, has represented what his eye has seen and his mind has conceived.

He lived too far from the intense centers of the Renaissance to attain the potential perfection, or to exert the full influence, of his art. Nevertheless he numbered Signorelli among his pupils, and shared in forming Luca’s style. It was Raphael’s father who invited Piero to Urbino; and though this was fourteen years before Raphael’s birth, that blessed youth must have seen and studied the paintings left by Piero there and in Perugia. Melozzo da Forlì learned from Piero something of strength and grace in design; and Melozzo’s angel musicians in the Vatican recall those which Piero painted in one of his final works—the Nativity of the London National Gallery—even as Piero’s angel choristers recall Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria. So men hand down to their successors their heritage—their lore and codes and skills; and transmission becomes half the technique of civilization.

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