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PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA I. TVTUMEROUS contemporaneous historians, chroniclers, and biog- -L^l raphers describe the historic events of the fifteenth century, the personalities of the leading rulers, churchmen, military chiefs, and other prominent figures as well as the public and private life of the people. Rich archives contain abundant evidence. Contemporary literature and art, which frequently describe daily life, help our imagination to reconstruct it. Thus, we know much more about the fifteenth century than about any preceding period. Nevertheless, and in spite of the shining light spread over it by the arts, it remains an enigmatic century. Its light and dark features are difficult to reconcile. In a higher degree than the preceding fourteenth century, the fifteenth was a period of disintegration of the old order and simultaneously full of promising beginnings. In the eyes of its later critics and historians it was either the first really "modern" century, or the century of the "Waning of the Middle Ages". In Italy, modern features dominate. In the North, medieval conditions continued although modern ideas increasingly intruded and decomposed the old relatively homogeneous world. Piero della Francesca's activity began in the first half of the fifteenth century. When he was young, the last insignificant followers of the Giotteque tradition, men like Lorenzio di Bicci, Pietro di Miniato, and similar artists of minor rank were at work together with Fra Angélico and Ghiberti, in whose works Gothic grace and refinement had reached their highest expression; with the poetic Gentile da Fabriano and the naturalists Pisanello and Jan van Eyck; with Masolino and the great innovators Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio; with Jacopo della Quercia, Luca della Robbia, and Fra Filippo Lippi. When Piero died, Bramante was at the height of his fame, Lionardo da Vinci and even Michelangelo had entered their artistic career, and Raphael had been already born. Like Donatello's art, that of Piero reflects the whole development of the century. Donatello began in the Gothic manner, went through naturalism, anticipated classicality, and developed, finally, 42 HARRY B. GUTMAN43 some sort of manneristic expressionism. Like Donatello, Piero della Francesca was a great innovator. Yet he remained more conservative , since he never completely forgot his Gothicism. In his first works as well as in his last, tradition and modern endeavors are combined in such a manner that his art seems, in some respects, to trail behind the art of many contemporaries, and in others, to be far ahead of them. In his earliest known works Piero already tackles the modern problems of his period such as correct proportions and perspective; from the beginning, he beats all his contemporaries in the use of light and color to achieve these modern aims. Yet he clings to the general ideality of medieval art and does not shun, here and there, medieval language of forms. In his later works, he proceeds to a manner seeming thoroughly modern by the mastery of the problems mentioned above and by his increasing naturalism; but although Piero's figures and compositions are obviously the result of painstaking and accurate studies after nature, his naturalism is not empiric. He strives for knowledge about the structure of things and supresses vigorously everything that is merely accidental or insignificant; thus he maintains the intrinsically ideal character of his style. In his late works, such as the Brera altar-piece, rational construction dominates. Space and bodies are shaped only with the help of the rules of perspective and proportion. This last, already manneristic phase of Piero's development coincides with the rise of the manneristic "Neo-Gothicism" in Florence. In contrast to this romantic mannerism, however, Piero's mannerism is rather academic . While Florentine artists such as Botticelli looked back to the gracefulness of the Gothic line and adopted a linear style, thus recovering incidentally the abstract ideality of medieval art, Piero, who had never totally abandoned this ideality, remained forwardlooking ; he stuck to the great achievements of his century and made even further progress in his luminarism, never yielding to reactionary fashions of those days. In this respect, the torch handed over to him by the great Florentines of the beginning of the fifteenth century was taken over from him by...


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