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The Culture of San Sepolcro during the Youth of Piero della Francesca

The Culture of San Sepolcro during the Youth of Piero della Francesca

by James R. Banker

The paintings of Piero della Francesca have remained intriguing because of their distinctive three-dimensional space and unemotional figures, but the artist himself remains a mystery. Curiously, his activities were not confined to painting. He wrote treatises on perspective, commercial arithmetic, and geometry, all without ever settling in any of the centers of


The paintings of Piero della Francesca have remained intriguing because of their distinctive three-dimensional space and unemotional figures, but the artist himself remains a mystery. Curiously, his activities were not confined to painting. He wrote treatises on perspective, commercial arithmetic, and geometry, all without ever settling in any of the centers of great intellectual achievement. James R.Banker has unearthed previously undiscovered documents that make it possible for him to write a social biography of the artist that accounts for his early formation. The Culture of San Sepolcro during the Youth of Piero della Francesca examines the culture of the southeastern Tuscan town of Piero's youth. Analyses of San Sepolcro's political and social organization and its specific religious culture serve to enhance our understanding of Piero's early career prior to his experiences in Florence.

Piero della Francesca has remained an enigma because of the contradictions observed in his life and art. Banker's archival research has enabled him to clear away some of the obscurities. This book situates Piero in the earliest social and intellectual worlds within which he moved. Heretofore, writers on Piero have begun his putative formation in Florence in 1439. Banker demonstrates that the young painter's formation began prior to 1439, when he was surrounded by his family and the local artisans' community.

The Culture of San Sepolcro during the Youth of Piero della Francesca integrates social and art history in order to better understand the formation of a Renaissance artist. It will be vital to scholars and historians of the Italian Renaissance city states, as well as to art historians and those interested in the relationship of art and society.

James R. Banker is Professor of History, North Carolina State University.

Product Details

University of Michigan Press
Publication date:
Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Civilization Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Culture of San Sepolcro During the Youth of Piero Della Francesca

By James R. Banker

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2003 James R. Banker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472113011

1- The Political, Religious, and Economic Character of San Sepolcro, 1400-1440

San Sepolcro is in the southeast corner of Tuscany, and it borders both Umbria and the Marches. Located on the lower portion of the Alpe della Luna of the eastern Apennines, the town commands the upper Tiber River, where the river has opened a five-mile-wide valley (fig. 1). It is separated from much of Tuscany by the western Apennines; hence, San Sepolcro's natural trade routes follow the north-to-south trajectory of the Tiber River with convenient access to Perugia and Umbria. Pliny the Younger, who owned a villa in the upper Tiber Valley, described it as a beautiful "vast amphitheater" in which "a great spreading plain is ringed round by mountains."

According to Dante, such a specific town as San Sepolcro constituted the individual; as he had the tragic Sienese Pia dei Tolomei express this late medieval commonplace, "Siena made me." Likewise San Sepolcro made Piero della Francesca. Through Piero's childhood until his departure in early manhood, San Sepolcro provided the context for his perception of political and social relationships, his understanding of Christian ritual behaviors as specifically practiced in the town, and his labor in a flourishing local market. But Piero is not at the center of this chapter; rather, the essential elements of political, religious, and economic life of the town are brought into focus for the purpose of delineating the general ambiance within which Piero came to adulthood. In the practice of politics, religion, and economy two modes of behavior are reoccurringly exhibited: participation in corporate lay institutions and the acceptance of tradition. For symbols and images of San Sepolcro, Christa Gardner von Teuffel has similarly discovered the fundamental role of the town's tradition in religion and in the practice of painting. She states: "Exceptional links of continuity, religious and visual traditions, played a vital role in the development of Quattrocento Sansepolcro."

Politics of San Sepolcro to the 1440s

Despite the subordination of San Sepolcro to foreign powers, the honor gained from holding local political offices was sufficient to meet the definitions of political participation of the civic humanists in Florence. Hans Baron in his influential Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance linked civic humanism to republics and cast cities like Milan, ruled by Visconti lords, as unable to generate the transformative power of republics. Only republics could provide the experiences of officeholding that linked love of patria and freedom of the city with Roman and Greek ideas of human fulfillment through social and political interaction. In enormously influential books the fifteenth-century Florentine chancellor and civic humanist Leonardo Bruni established the active life of the citizen as the norm for males of the Renaissance republics.

In the political culture of the town of San Sepolcro, rule by a foreign superior political force did not destroy the citizens' love of patria or the intense interest in holding political office. The men of San Sepolcro did not view the rule of the Malatesta, the papacy, or the Florentine republic as inimical to their aspirations to hold public office and to derive honor from such participation. San Sepolcro constructed a vigorous public cul ture marked by regular rounds of selection to political office and decision making. Although foreigners made decisions on defense, external relations, fiscal policy, and the parameters of politics, the men of San Sepolcro nevertheless regularly made profound political decisions.

Malatesta dominion began in 1371, when the lord of Rimini, Galeotto Malatesta, purchased rule over the town from the nephew of Pope Urban V for eighteen thousand florins. For six decades the town was governed by a representative of the Malatesta of Rimini. For example, on 14 July 1394 Carlo Malatesta sent as his vicar, the doctor of law Messer Gozandino dei Gozandini. Carlo ordered that the chancellor of San Sepolcro, Ser Benvenuto dei Ripoli, assign all charters and formal papers to Gozandino. A month later Carlo Malatesta informed the "councilors, corporation, and commune of San Sepolcro" that in accordance with his father's last will, authority over the town would shift from Carlo to his brother Galeotto Belfiore, who had come of age. Carlo commanded obedience to Galeotto from the people of San Sepolcro and announced that Gozandino would be reappointed as the vicar of Galeotto Belfiore and that all earlier exiles were permitted to return. In this change of political overlord the people of San Sepolcro played no role; they accepted the change in their ruler without any apparent concern.

At the base of political power within the town was a New Council of the Commune (later named Council of the People) composed of three hundred men organized into fifteen groups (cedule) of twenty men; a cedula was made up of ten men from the eastern half of the town and ten from the western half. The fifteen most influential men of the town headed these groups and were called capoliste because their names appear at the head of the lists of councilors.

The earliest identification of the political class of the town is from 1 January 1391, when the chancellor listed the three hundred names of the New Council. The fifteen capoliste were regarded as the political leaders of the town. The higher a name was listed in the group, the greater the political status. Men from noble and wealthy families appear as capoliste or just below them, and artisans were placed toward the bottom of the lists. The capoliste were drawn from the elite families of the town with the Graziani (four), Boccagnani (two), Bofolci (two), Dotti (one), Bercordati (one), and Carsidoni (one) being the most prominent. Ten families sent at least three members to the New Council, led by the Pichi family with eight positions, followed by the Graziani (seven), Dotti (four), Mafei (four), Boccagnani (four), Carsidoni (four), Anastagi (three), Cattani (three), Ugucci (three), and Acati (three). Nine of these families remained among the political elite of the town throughout the fifteenth century.

Membership in the New Council was a prerequisite for membership in all other offices and in particular the most important council, named the Council of Twenty. This political administrative body supervised, together with the Malatesta vicar, the day-to-day operations of the commune. The group of officials who accompanied and aided the vicar of the Malatesta was called the vicar's family. It included a judge, notary, and three knights. The vicar also supervised the notaio del danno dato (a notary for assessing fines for damages). A depositario served as the treasurer, taking income from tax farmers and then paying the commune's expenses, which included payments to the Malatesta lord. Finally, the defense of the town walls and castles required five castellans, who oversaw guard duty. Though not among the vicar's group, yet regarded as his subordinate, the chancellor recorded the operations of the government.

The executive authority of the town focused on the vicar, a Malatesta family member or an appointee of the family. Both the vicar and local leaders sought the approval of the Malatesta lord in Rimini on important laws. For example, in 1395 Galeotto Belfiore permitted the artisans and merchants of the town to wash woolen cloth in the streams of the town. And when the Malatesta decided to bring Jewish moneylenders to San Sepolcro, the vicar and townspeople were constrained to accept the decision.

Close governance by the Malatesta of the Jewish bankers demonstrates their authority and suggests an interventionist policy in their dependent town. In the 1390s the Malatesta sought to encourage loans by granting Jewish bankers exemption from legislation that forbade usurious loans. Despite vigorous local debate and communal opposition to this violation of town laws, the Malatesta permitted Jews from nearby Citta di Castello to give usurious loans secured by pawns. The Malatesta in Rimini received a yearly payment from the Jews. In introducing usurious loans, the Malatesta masters sought the opinions of their subjects in San Sepolcro, but then rejected them. Nevertheless, when the men of the town threatened to emigrate, the Malatesta responded by reducing the rate of interest. Thus, within the framework of the executive and judicial authority exercised by the representatives of the Malatesta, the men of San Sepolcro engaged in political discourse and sought to ameliorate Malatesta power by cooperation with his vicar on daily problems of governance. Moreover, the men of the town were able to derive honor from their membership in communal offices and in their communications with their lords in Rimini. Finally, the men of the town succeeded in passing their own political institutions essentially unchanged through the fifteenth century.

Lack of records makes it impossible to draw a continuous narrative of the Malatesta seignorial authority after the 1390s, but occasional documents indicate the costs of their rule. When Carlo Malatesta resided in San Sepolcro as lord from 1408 to 1410, he was assisted by his "family," composed of a judge, a notary, six dependents or soldiers, and three horses. The yearly amount paid directly to the Malatesta for their lordship over San Sepolcro was six hundred florins, not including the salary of wall guards. Like other contemporary lords and mercenaries, the Malatesta compelled the townspeople to raise additional taxes for their lord's specific initiatives, though these were of only marginal or debatable benefits to the town. The demands by the Malatesta were for extraordinary costs of their general lordship in the Marches, and they were exacted almost yearly.

In the period from 1417 to 1427 the citizens of San Sepolcro were asked to tax themselves on several occasions for the extramural needs of the Malatesta. In 1417 the confraternities of San Bartolomeo and Santa Maria della Notte were compelled to pay part of the sixty-thousand-florin ransom of their then lord Pandolfo III Malatesta, who had been captured by the Perugians in 1416. To pay their portion, the town government enlarged its sales taxes (gabelle) by 300 and 400 percent, according to the chronicler Bercordati. In 1423, Pandolfo's brother Carlo Malatesta required San Sepolcro to send thirty soldiers to aid him in defending Forli from the soldiers of the Duke of Milan. To pay these soldiers, the communal officials were obligated to apply a tax on property (dazio), but initially had to demand a forced tax from several of San Sepolcro's citizens and to secure a loan at usurious rates from the Jewish bankers Abram and Giacobbe, sons of Musetto d'Elya. The payments for the soldiers totaled approximately one hundred florins. Another four hundred florins came from a second application of the property tax in September 1423 to pay Pandolfo Malatesta when he came to San Sepolcro. When Pandolfo married in 1427, a property assessment was applied so that the people of San Sepolcro could send one hundred ducats to Rimini to honor their lord at his marriage. When he died later that same year, the commune spent fifty-two florins to send six ambassadors to Rimini as representatives of San Sepolcro at his funeral.


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