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A mathematician as well as an artist, Piero brought to his paintings an austere beauty of form that recalls Greek sculpture. But he was also a great colourist and unrivalled in his handling of light.
Piero's style is highly individual, and its distinctive qualities are very different from those so often admired in the work of 15th-century Italian painters. In place of decorative detail and graceful fancy, he offers geometric harmony and a classical severity that recalls Greek sculpture. It is these features, together with his power to capture the fall of light, and his richly harmonious colouring, that make his work so appealing to modern eyes.
And although he was well immersed in the sophisticated humanist culture of Florence, Urbino and Arezzo, many of his pictures retain an almost primitive power. The Virgin of the Madonna del Par to, the figures of the aged Adam and Eve depicted in The Death of Adam, and the angelic musicians of The Nativity seem to reflect an ideal of humanity that is at once simple and sublime.
Since Piero's own writings are concerned exclusively with the technical and mathematical aspects of paintings, we must turn to the pictures themselves for evidence of his artistic ideals. In many respects his work is fairly conventional. Almost all of it is on religious themes, often depicted within the traditional framework of the altarpiece. He painted both in fresco and on wooden panels, and seems to have come only gradually to the use of oils, which he often employed mixed with the more familiar tempera medium.
His outstanding claim to purely technical originality lies in his mastery of perspective. We can admire this in the architectural detail of such paintings as The Flagellation and the Brera Altarpiece of Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels. The receding floor and ceiling of the loggia in the former, and the marble apse which frames the Madonna in the latter, are painted with formidable precision, heightened by the exact rendering of light and shadow. We know from Piero's theoretical treatises that this was the fruit of rigorous mathematical research.
However, Piero rarely pursued virtuosity for its own sake. In The Resurrection he employs a double perspective, the soldiers before the tomb being seen from below in foreshortening, while the upper part of the picture implies a viewpoint level with Christ's head. But this is more than a display of technical skill. It is a part of the painting's emotional and symbolic meaning, which contrasts the slumbering human world with the miraculous awakening of the risen Christ.
The face and figure of this Christ are a fine example of Piero's rendering of the human body. Although his men and women may sometimes seem inexpressive at first glancy and their bearing almost always seems to be contemplative rather than active, their vitality and nobility are never in doubt. Moreover, besides a magisterial ability to create ideal, heroic figures, Piero showed in his work as a portraitist that he could capture the unique character of an individual sitter. His portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino are among the most unforgettable images of the Renaissance. It is likely that his work in fact contains several portraits which we do not recognize as such. For instance, Vasari tells us that the Bacci family along with other citizens of Arezzo, are shown around the defeated King in The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes. The riddle of The Flagellation, too, depends for its solution on the identity of the three men in the foreground on the right-hand side of the painting, though we are unlikely ever to know for sure who they were or what they were talking about.
In his work as a whole, however, Piero's gifts as a portraitist are less central than his power to suggest something more archetypal and timeless in the human form. The fair-haired young man of The Flagellation and the angels of The Baptism of Christ and The Nativity all share a serenity reminiscent of Greek sculpture. We know that Piero, like other Renaissance artists, used models hung with soft cloth to study how drapery fell and how the light caught it. And we might point to some particular feature the feet, for instance, whose firm grip on the ground is so convincing in all these cases as the secret of Piero's craft. But such details of technique or style cannot in themselves explain the underlying vision that the painter has so memorably realized.
Another aspect of that vision, and the one which perhaps gives us the most immediate and intense pleasure, is the harmony of Piero's colours. Despite the damage they have suffered, the Arezzo frescoes never fail to strike visitors with their luminous freshness. This quality is seen at its best in Constantine's Victory over Maxentius where Piero's restricted palette achieves a richly symphonic effect. The same harmony unites the colours of the garments in Flagellation, and brings together the two angels in the Madonna del Parto, whose attitudes and clothing echo one another in a heraldic mirror-image.
Still more characteristic of Piero is the sense of airy space created by the light that fills his skies and falls upon his landscapes. Here, he largely dispenses with perspective, using pure colour in a way that anticipates the Impressionists. In The Nativity, his angelic and human figures are boldly grouped against a countryside receding far into the distance. The same effect is even more daringly successful in the Uffizi diptych, where no middle ground intervenes between the profiles of Federigo and Battista and the idealized landscape of their dominions. This land appears far below and behind them and is bathed in the clear, bright light of the Italian sky.
The formal unity of this enigmatic masterpiece is achieved by consummate skill in perspective, reinforced by the harmonious grouping of the figures. But its two scenes are entirely separate. Piero has emphasized this by illuminating Christ from a light-source behind the right-hand flagellator's arm, while the foreground is lit from the left. The painting challenges the viewer to find some significant connection between the scenes. Christ's suffering must have some allegorical or symbolic meaning, but how is this related to the conversation in the foreground? Many scholars now reject the local tradition identifying the foreground group as Urbino courtiers. Instead, they see the picture as a commentary on the tribulations of the Eastern Christians at Turkish hands, an interpretation borne out by the Oriental turban worn by the man with his back to us. The three men conversing might then be ecclesiastical and political dignitaries, the bearded man perhaps representing the Greek Church. But in the absence of any documentary evidence, we can only speculate on the picture's meaning, while continuing to marvel at the intricate detail and overall harmony of its composition.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish