Piero della Francesca Trail
Italy is so dense with history, art, and—most importantly—incredible food that it’s a gratifying country to simply wander guided by serendipity (and an expert travel planner) rather than an overly precise game plan. That said, themed itineraries organized around a specific artist, food, or historical period are an excellent way to both give a bit of structure and context to your meanders and discover memorable hidden spots that probably wouldn’t have made the A-list classic tour.
(Resurrection detail: Self portrait via Wikimedia Commons)
The Piero della Francesca trail, organized around this Renaissance artist’s work, is an excellent way to give structure to your meanders. Click to tweet.
One favorite is the Piero della Francesca trail, winding through some of the prettiest towns on the Tuscany-Le Marche border where this Renaissance painter and mathematician lived and worked during the second half of the 1400s. Born in the Tuscan town of San Sepolcro, Piero della Francesca is considered one of the period’s most accomplished humanist painters, and his skill with both rational geometric perspective and emotive plasticity and dramatic use of light and shade made him a master still admired more than 500 years after his death.
(Legend of the True Cross detail: The Dream of Constantine via Wikimedia Commons)
The trail begins at the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo, which is home to the Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle. This series of scenes, painted probably between 1447 and 1466, tells the story of the origins of the wood which was used to build the cross on which Christ was crucified and is considered Piero della Francesca’s finest (and largest) work and a masterpiece of the early Renaissance. The frescoes demonstrate the painter’s signature use of geometric symmetry and perspective, but also the influence of Flemish painters; he had returned to San Sepolcro after a year in Rome, where he had admired these artists’ skill with color and light and begun to incorporate those elements in his own works.
(Maria Maddalena via Wikimedia Commons)
The trail continues with a short walk to Arezzo’s Duomo (Cattedrale di Santi Pietro e Donato), where, immediately after completing the Legend of the True Cross, della Francesca was commissioned to paint the Maddalena. This portrait of Mary Magdalene demonstrates the artist’s complete mastery of light and shade, particularly in the saint’s drapery and the bright glass ampoule (containing unguents for Christ’s body).
The Piero della Francesca trail begins in Arezzo, where two of his masterpieces are displayed. Click to tweet
From here, the trail leads to the tiny town of Monterchi, home to Piero della Francesca’s most popular work, La Madonna del Parto. Though it is now housed in a rather charmless museum, this fresco was originally located in a tiny country church, Santa Maria di Momentana. Why della Francesca would choose this obscure site to paint such a masterpiece remains a mystery, though it has been suggested that the artist was visiting the town for his mother’s funeral in 1459. An earthquake in 1785 damaged the original church, and the fresco was detached and moved to the newly restored building, now a small cemetery chapel, where it was rediscovered and identified by a visiting art historian in 1889.
(Museum of the Madonna del Parto by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons)
In 1992, the fresco was “temporarily” moved to its present museum, and a dispute began between the town and the diocese over the painting’s ownership, which continues to this day. Despite the convoluted history of this mysterious painting, the work has been one of the artists’ most beloved for centuries, as aspiring mothers-to-be have been making pilgrimages to visit and pray before the moving portrait of the pregnant Mary flanked by two exquisite angels long before the fresco was known to be a work of the Renaissance master. Still today, visitors often see women quietly supplicating the Virgin for divine assistance on their quest to have children.
(Polyptych of the Misericordia detail: Madonna della Misericordia via Wikimedia Commons)
The next stop along the Piero della Francesca trail is his hometown, San Sepolcro. Here the trail leads back in time, to the Polyptych of the Misericordia. This large alterpiece was one of the artist’s first important commissions and took seventeen years (roughtly 1445 to 1462) to complete; the 23 separate panels depict a number of saints and scenes from Christ’s life and show a fascinating evolution of della Francesca’s skill from the earliest to the final panels. Perhaps the most striking and masterful is the largest, the central Madonna della Misericordia, in which a larger-than-life Madonna stretches her mantle over her followers (coincidentally members of the confraternity which commissioned the work) in a gesture both protective and perfectly symmetrical.
(Resurrection via Wikimedia Commons)
The same Pinacoteca Comunale which houses the Polyptych is also home to della Francesca’s exquisite Resurrezione fresco, dating from the early 1460s. This work is rich with religious and civic symbolism (the subject is an allusion to the name of the city of San Sepolcro) and intricate geometry in its composition and has been a favorite of English culture critics from Austen Henry Layard to Aldous Huxley. It was the latter’s essay describing the work as the greatest picture in the world which inspired British artillery officer Tony Clarke to refrain from shelling San Sepolcro during the Second World War, thus saving the precious fresco and becoming in the process a local hero.
Follow the Piero della Francesca trail through his hometown of San Sepolcro, where his first important commission can be seen in the city’s Pinacoteca. Click to tweet.
(The Flagellation of Christ via Wikimedia Commons)
From Tuscany, the Piero della Francesca trail passes into the region of Le Marche, specifically to the stoic hilltop town of Urbino where the imposing Palazzo Ducale is home to the unimposing yet greatly admired Flagellation of Christ. If this painting looks familiar, it’s probably because it is mentioned in most art history classes as one of the best examples of linear perspective—in particular, the use of a single vanishing point—and geometric composition in the history of painting.
(Madonna di Senigallia via Wikimedia Commons)
The trail ends in front of della Francesca’s Madonna, also part of Galleria Nazionale’s permanent collection (it is currently on loan to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts but is scheduled to return by the end of this month). This late work, like the Flagellation of Christ, is a masterpiece of perspective and composition, tempered with a delicate intimacy of facial expression and Flemish-inspired use of light and shade. Probably commissioned for a private chapel, the painting was moved during the First World War from Senigallia to Urbino’s Palazzo Ducale to save it from bombardments. Stolen in 1975, it was recovered (along with the Flagellation) the following year in Switzerland and has been one of the Galleria Nazionale’s crown jewels since.
If you’ve been inspired and don’t want your journey to end, other important Piero della Francesca works can be found in Perugia (Polyptych of Sant’Antonio), Florence (Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino), and Milan (Montefeltro Altarpiece). Happy trails to you!
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The Flagellation of Christ (probably 1455–1460) is a painting by Piero della Francesca in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, Italy. Called by one writer an "enigmatic little painting," the composition is complex and unusual, and its iconography has been the subject of widely differing theories. Kenneth Clark placed The Flagellation in his personal list of the best ten paintings, calling it "the greatest small painting in the world".
The theme of the picture is the Flagellation of Christ by the Romans during his Passion. The biblical event takes place in an open gallery in the middle distance, while three figures in the foreground on the right-hand side apparently pay no attention to the event unfolding behind them. The panel is much admired for its use of linear perspective and the air of stillness that pervades the work, and it has been given the epithet "the Greatest Small Painting in the World" by the art historian Kenneth Clark.
The painting is signed under the seated emperor OPVS PETRI DE BVRGO S[AN]C[T]I SEPVLCRI – "the work of Piero of Borgo Santo Sepolcro" (his native town).
The Flagellation is particularly admired for the realistic rendering of the hall in which the flagellation scene is situated in relation to the size of the figures and for the geometrical order of the composition. The portrait of the bearded man at the front is considered unusually intense for Piero's time.
Much of the scholarly debate surrounding the work concerns the identities or significance of the three men at the front. Depending on the interpretation of the subject of the painting, they may represent contemporary figures or people related to the passion of Christ, or they may even have multiple identities. The latter is also suggested with respect to the sitting man on the left, who is in one sense certainly Pontius Pilate, a traditional element in the subject. The notion of two time frames in the composition is derived from the fact that the flagellation scene is illuminated from the right while the supposedly "modern" outdoor scene is illuminated from the left. Originally the painting had a frame on which the Latin phrase "Convenerunt in Unum" ("They came together"), taken from Psalm 2, ii in the Old Testament, was inscribed. This text is cited in Book of Acts 4:26 and related to Pilate, Herod and the Jews.
According to a conventional interpretation still upheld in Urbino, the three men would be Oddantonio da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino between his advisors, Manfredo dei Pio and Tommaso di Guido dell'Agnello, who were murdered together on July 22, 1444. Both advisers were held responsible for Oddantonio's death due to their unpopular government, which led to the fatal conspiracy. Oddantonio's death would be compared, in its innocence, to that of Christ. The painting would then have been commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro, who succeeded his half brother Oddantonio as Lord of Urbino. According to another interpretation, the two men to the left and right of the youth would represent Serafini and Ricciarelli, both citizens of Urbino, who allegedly murdered Oddantonio together with his two bad advisors. Against these interpretations speaks the written contract signed by Federico and the citizens of Urbino, ´that he would not bear in remembrance the offenses inflicted on Oddantonio, that no one would be punished for it and that Federico would protect all who may be compromised in these crimes´. Moreover, Oddantonio's corpse was buried in an unnamed grave. A painting dedicated to the memory of Duke Oddantonio and to his rehabilitation would thus have been a case of betrayal to the citizens of Urbino.
Another traditional view considers the picture a dynastic celebration commissioned by Duke Federico da Montefeltro, Oddantonio's successor and half-brother. The three men would simply be his predecessors. This interpretation is backed by an 18th-century inventory in the Urbino Cathedral, where the painting once was housed, and in which the work is described as "The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, with the Figures and the Portraits of Duke Guidubaldo and Oddo Antonio". However, since Duke Guidobaldo was a son of Federico born in 1472, this information has to be erroneous. Instead, the rightmost figure may represent Oddantonio's and Federico's father Guidantonio.
According to this other old-fashioned view, the figure in the middle would represent an angel, flanked by the Latin (Catholic) and the Greek (Orthodox) Churches, whose division created strife in the whole of Christendom.
The seated man on the far left watching the flagellation would be the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos, as identified by his clothing, particularly the unusual red hat with upturned brims which is present in a medal by Pisanello. In the variant of this interpretation, proposed by Carlo Ginzburg, the painting would be in fact an invitation by Cardinal Bessarion and the humanist Giovanni Bacci to Federico da Montefeltro to take part in the crusade. The young man would be Bonconte II da Montefeltro, who died of plague in 1458. In this way, the sufferings of Christ are paired both to those of the Byzantines and of Bonconte.
Silvia Ronchey and other art historians agree on the panel being a political message by Cardinal Bessarion, in which the flagellated Christ would represent the suffering of Constantinople, then besieged by the Ottomans, as well as the whole of Christianity. The figure on the left watching would be sultan Murad II, with John VIII on his left. The three men on the right are identified as, from left: Cardinal Bessarion, Thomas Palaiologos (John VIII's brother, portrayed barefoot as, being not an emperor, he could not wear the purple shoes with which John is instead shown) and Niccolò III d'Este, host of the council of Mantua after its move to his lordship of Ferrara.
Piero della Francesca painted the Flagellation some 20 years after the fall of Constantinople. But, at the time, allegories of that event and of the presence of Byzantine figures in Italian politics were not uncommon, as shown by Benozzo Gozzoli's contemporary Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence.
In 1951, the art historian Kenneth Clark identified the bearded figure as a Greek scholar, and the painting as an allegory of the suffering of the Church after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and of the proposed crusade supported by Pope Pius II and discussed at the Council of Mantua. Again, the man in the far left would be the Byzantine Emperor.
Marilyn Aronberg Lavin
Another explanation of the painting is offered by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin in Piero della Francesca: The Flagellation.
The interior scene represents Pontius Pilate showing Herod with his back turned, because the scene closely resembles numerous other depictions of the flagellation that Piero would have known.
Lavin identifies the figure on the right as Ludovico III Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and the figure on the left as his close friend, the astrologer Ottavio Ubaldini della Carda, who lived in the Ducal Palace. Ottavio is dressed in the traditional garb of an astrologer, even down to his forked beard. At the time the painting is thought to have been made, both Ottavio and Ludovico had recently lost beloved sons, represented by the youthful figure between them. Note that the youth's head is framed by a laurel tree, representing glory. Lavin suggests that the painting is intended to compare the suffering of Christ with the grief of the two fathers. She suggests that the painting was commissioned by Ottavio for his private chapel, the Cappella del Perdono, which is in the Ducal Palace at Urbino and which has an altar whose facade is the exact size of the painting. If the painting was on the altar, the perspective in the painting would have appeared correct only to someone kneeling before it.
David A. King
An interpretation developed by David King, director (1985–2007) of the Institute for the History of Science in Frankfurt, Germany, establishes a connection between the painting and the Latin inscription on an astrolabe presented in Rome in 1462 by Regiomontanus to his patron Cardinal Bessarion. The discovery that the epigram was an acrostic was made by Berthold Holzschuh, a member of King's medieval instrument seminar, in 2005. The hidden meanings in the vertical axes include references to Bessarion, Regiomontanus, and the 1462 gift that was intended to replace a 1062 Byzantine astrolabe in Bessarion's possession (now in Brescia). In the same year Holzschuh discovered that the main axes of the epigram corresponded to the main vertical axes of the painting, which pass through the eyes of the Christ figure and those of the bearded man. It was clear that the letters BA IOANNIS on the left of the epigram and the letters SEDES on the right might refer to Basileus (Emperor) Ioannis VIII on his throne. This inspired King to search for monograms of names across the epigram (for example, INRI for Christ and RGO for Regiomontanus), and he found some 70 possibly relevant names corresponding to the 8+1 figures. King thus established dual or multiple identities for each of the eight persons and one classical figure who would eventually feature in the painting. Both Regiomontanus and Bessarion were known to Piero (their common interest was Archimedes), and both Regiomontanus' and Piero's copies of Archimedes' works have been preserved. King hypothesises that donor and donee of the 1462 astrolabe might have conceived the make-up of the painting together with Piero. The young man in cardinal red can now be identified as the eager young German astronomer Regiomontanus, the new protégé of the Cardinal Bessarion. However, his image embodies, amongst others, three brilliant young men close to Bessarion who had recently died: Buonconte da Montefeltro, Bernardino Ubaldini dalla Carda and Vangelista Gonzaga. Each of the images of persons in the painting, as well as of the classical figure atop the column behind Christ, is polysemous. The painting itself is polysemous. One of the several purposes of the painting was to signify hope for the future in the arrival of the young astronomer into Bessarion's circle as well as to pay homage to the three dead young men. Another was to express Bessarion's sorrow that his native Trebizond had fallen to the Turks in 1461, for which he held the Byzantine ruler responsible.
Sir John Pope-Hennessy, the art historian, argued in his book The Piero della Francesca Trail that the actual subject of the painting is "The Dream of St. Jerome." According to Pope-Hennessy,
As a young man St Jerome dreamt that he was flayed on divine order for reading pagan texts, and he himself later recounted this dream, in a celebrated letter to Eustochium, in terms that exactly correspond with the left-hand side of the Urbino panel.
Pope-Hennessy also cites and reproduces an earlier picture by Sienese painter Matteo di Giovanni that deals with the subject recorded in Jerome's letter, helping to validate his identification of Piero's theme.
The painting's restraint and formal purity strongly appealed when Piero was first "discovered," especially to admirers of cubist and abstract art. It has been held in especially high regard by art historians, with Frederick Hartt describing it as Piero's "most nearly perfect achievement and the ultimate realisation of the ideals of the second Renaissance period".
The painting is referred to in Len Deighton's 1978 novel, SS-GB.
- ^Wilkin, Karen (2008-10-04). "A Piero Without Peer". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 4 Oct 2008.
- ^Owen, Richard (2008-01-23). "Piero della Francesca masterpiece 'holds clue to 15th-century murder'". The Times. London. Retrieved 2010-09-17.
- ^Dennistoun, James (1851). Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino, vol. 1 of 3, p. 80 & app. IV.
- ^Ginzburg, Carlo (1985). The Enigma of Piero. London. ISBN 0-86091-904-8. (revised edition, 2000).
- ^See http://www.silviaronchey.it/
- ^Aronberg Lavin, Marilyn (1972). Piero della Francesca: the Flagellation. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-46958-1.
- ^King, David A. (2007). Astrolabes and Angels, Epigrams and Enigmas - From Regiomontanus’ Acrostic for Cardinal Bessarion to Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ - An essay by DAK inspired by two remarkable discoveries by Berthold Holzschuh. Stuttgart. ISBN 978-3-515-09061-2. . Additional material is on King’s website http://www.davidaking.org/.
- ^Pope-Hennessy, John (2002). The Piero della Francesca Trail. New York: New York Review of Books. pp. 16–17. ISBN 1-892145-13-8.