BRERA, Piero Della Francesca - Montefeltro Altarpiece

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English / USA Language: English / USA

In a deliberately sober room that doesn't lack solemnity either, you're standing before one of the Art Gallery's masterpieces: the work of the esteemed fifteenth-century artist Piero della Francesca. A "pala" is an alterpiece, and in fact this picture was originally placed over the altar of a church in Urbino. It's called the "Montefeltro Alterpiece" because it was commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino.

The composition is organized with a stunning symmetry, and while you admire the painting it's worthwhile to point out that Piero della Francesca was also a distinguished mathematician. The Madonna is seated in the center, with the Child asleep on her lap. She is surrounded by six saints, and behind Mary stand two pairs of beautiful angels, recognizable by their wings. The Urbino Duke Federico da Montefeltro is kneeling at the right, dressed in battle armor with a wonderful metallic sheen. The Duke is in a traditional prayer position, and is portrayed in profile to disguise the fact that he lost an eye when he had been wounded by a spear at a tournament.

The eyes of the Virgin and those of the six saints at her sides are almost perfectly aligned; the four angels behind Mary are also perfectly symmetrical with each other. Thus the artist has created an absolute equilibrium: the still figures, their fixed stares and the architectural purity carries us to a mystical and intellectual sphere, as if the characters are communicating with each other through their thoughts. The apse ends with a sort of large, inverted shell with an ostrich egg hanging from a chain: this is a famous detail which symbolically recalls the birth of Jesus and the Madonna's virginity, but also the animal of the Montefeltro family's coat of arms.


FUN FACT: when this painting underwent x-rays, an interesting detail was revealed: there was once a jewel on the Virgin's head. Perhaps someone at that time found it outrageous, and the jewel was removed. To compensate, as you can see, other jewels still remain on the angels' heads.

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