Renaissance and Reformation Piero della Francesca
James R. Banker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0431


The reputation of the Italian Renaissance painter and mathematician Piero della Francesca (hereafter Piero) has risen dramatically from near oblivion in the Early Modern period to the present when he is judged as nearly equal to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, especially in regard to technical excellence and writing. In his paintings and his treatises Piero achieved the fullest expression of Quattrocento perspective, which he had derived from his capacious understanding of Greek geometry. Born into a family of artisans-shopkeepers of leather in the Tuscan town of Borgo San Sepolcro (today Sansepolcro) c. 1412, Piero began with several small projects in his native town in the 1430s. He served in Florence as an assistant to Domenico Veneziano in 1439 where he came in contact with the achievements of Masaccio, Donatello, Brunelleschi, and other artists in Florence, though he never became strictly a Florentine painter. He sojourned throughout central Italy in the 1440s and 1450s, receiving commissions in Ferrara, Ancona, Rimini, Arezzo, Rome, and Sansepolcro. After his two sojourns in Rome in the 1450s, Piero became increasingly interested in the representation of classical values and especially Roman architecture and in learning Greek geometry. In the decade of the 1470s he was often in the court of Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino, accepting commissions from the ruler and consulting manuscripts in his library. In the history of mathematics, he is now recognized as an indispensable participant in the revival of Greek geometry and as one of the few individuals in 15th-century Europe with extensive knowledge of both Euclid and Archimedes. In the last three decades of his life (d. 1492) Piero wrote treatises on commercial mathematics and geometry (Trattato d’abaco), perspective in painting (De prospectiva pingendi), and a reflection on several classical procedures and problems in Greek geometry (Libellus de quinque corporibus regularibus), as well as copying the Opera of Archimedes.

General Overviews

Piero was introduced to Italian and Anglo-American audiences with the first editions of Longhi 1975 (first published in 1927), Clark 1981 (first published in 1951), and Berenson 1954 (first published in 1950), each of which presents theses on the role of Piero in the visual culture of the Western world. The three emphasize formal elements in Piero’s style and parallels in his painting with late-19th-century and early-20th-century painters. Gilbert 1968 and Ginzburg 2001 concentrate on specific problems and approaches. Gilbert contests the idea that over his lifetime Piero’s style changed little, which interpretation, he believed, had resulted from the emphasis on form. Ginzburg addresses questions on methods of constructing persuasive arguments in the history of art and on the chronology and patrons of Piero’s paintings of the 1450s and 1460s. Battisti 1992, a two-volume work, probes deeply into nearly every possible problem in Piero’s life and painting, though the author and his sources were not fully knowledgeable about Piero’s mathematical achievements. Bertelli 1992 and Lavin 2002 present full accountings of Piero in traditional art-historical monographs as does Angelini 2014 more recently. Banker 2014 presents a complete survey of Piero’s art and life, concentrating on context and the priority of documents and presenting a base for knowing when he was present in Sansepolcro or elsewhere.

  • Angelini, Alessandro. Piero della Francesca. Milan: 24 ORE Cultura, 2014.

    An excellent account of the life and works of Piero accentuating the importance of Florence’s influence on Piero, perhaps with an unnecessary emphasis on the role of the Medici in Piero’s life and commissions. The book brings together recent research and interpretations into a synthetic whole.

  • Banker, James. Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    First full-scale biography of Piero based on his paintings, comments of contemporaries, treatises, and nearly one hundred previously unknown documents. An emphasis is placed on the social and political context and the participation of Piero’s co-citizens in the formation and commissions of Piero but with an appreciation of the painter’s role in the revival and representation of Greek geometry. Valuable chronology of the painter’s life.

  • Battisti, Eugenio. Piero della Francesca: L’opera completa, 2 vols. New ed. Edited by Marisa Dalai Emiliani. Milan: Electa, 1992.

    A classic and invaluable work that addresses in detail almost every aspect of Piero’s life and work. Students and seasoned scholars will profit from consulting the author’s discussions, reconstructions, illustrations, edition of contemporary sources, documents, and the catalogue raisonné. The first edition (Venice: Electa, 1970) is nearly identical.

  • Berenson, Bernard. Piero della Francesca: Or, the Ineloquent in Art. London: Chapman & Hall, 1954.

    The first edition of this work was published in Italian in 1950: Piero della Francesca o dell’arte non eloquente, translated by Luisa Vertova (Florence: Electa). A classic but now dated book that describes Piero’s monumental personages as isolated and non-communicative. The author, however, did not intend to designate Piero’s figures as unemotional and undramatic; rather, he praised the figures for transmitting a sense of character and timelessness.

  • Bertelli, Carlo. Piero della Francesca. Translated by Edward Farrelly. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    A reflective account of the life and art of Piero with one of the earliest attempts of an art historian to assess fully the significance of Piero’s treatise on perspective. The author is an Italian historian who integrates Anglo-American scholarship into his works.

  • Clark, Kenneth. Piero della Francesca. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.

    The first edition of this book (Phaidon: London, 1951) introduced Piero to a wide-ranging Anglo-American audience. The author presents Piero as a contadino, or peasant, while yet showing appreciation for his art and accomplishments because, he argues, Piero possessed a culture in tune with that of the ancient Mediterranean world.

  • Gilbert, Creighton E. Change in Piero della Francesca. Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin, 1968.

    Countering those who had said that Piero had an unchanging style, the author demonstrates fundamental changes in Piero’s style with special attention to questions of chronology. The author presents fundamental arguments on the dating of the Uffizi Diptych.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Indagini su Piero: Il Battesimo; Il ciclo di Arezzo; La flagellazione di Urbino; Con l’aggiunta di quattro appendici. Turin, Italy: Biblioteca Einaudi, 2001.

    Several editions in Italian (first edition 1981) and English with the English edition translated by Martin Ryle and Kate Soper as The Enigma of Piero (London: Verso, 2002). Dated but brilliant work of historical reconstruction. The author argues that several paintings derived from a papal campaign to recover Constantinople, though in the most recent editions, the author acknowledges that several of his hypotheses have not been accepted and need rethinking.

  • Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg. Piero della Francesca (Art & Ideas). London: Phaidon, 2002.

    One of the several contributions by a leading American scholar on Piero. The book synthesizes many of these earlier studies on specific paintings. The author has sophisticated and, at times, rarified interpretations of Piero’s iconographic sources as they presume a humanistic or university education. Excellent on traditions within which Piero worked and in demonstrating Piero’s ability to transform these traditions to create innovative and distinctive paintings.

  • Longhi, Roberto. Piero della Francesca. New ed. Florence: Sansoni, 1975.

    The first edition of this classic study (Rome: Valori Plastici, 1927) by Italy’s leading 20th-century art historian introduced Piero to Italian and French readers (best English translation, David Tabbatt [Riverdale on Hudson: Sheep Meadow Press, 2009]). Longhi’s Italian text is highly literary and poetic but even with its baroque excesses it remains a necessary read, especially in his discussions of Piero’s “synthesis of form and color.” As well, Longhi offers his evaluations of numerous books and articles on Piero in a bibliographical study that covers publications over decades.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.