The mystical work representing the Flagellation hides complex religious, philosophical, and mathematical meanings still largely unknown. In fact, not only does the message remain hidden, but we do not even know the client's identity, where the work was destinated and why it was created. The only thing we know is that the painting was in the sacristy of the cathedral of Urbino and that in 1915 it became part of the collections of the National Gallery of the Marche. However, one fact is certain, and it is not just any fact: on the left side, on the step where Pilate’s chair stands you can see the author’s signature: “Opus Petri de Burgo S [an] c [t] i Sepulcri” (Pietro di San Sepolcro), or Piero Della Francesca.
The composition is divided into two parts and built as if seen from below with a clever division of the floors: on the left, in the background, the Flagellation scene is set in a classical loggia with rose-formed coffering and Corinthian columns that frame the scene. Christ is tied to the column with a golden statue, and he is whipped by the soldiers in front of uninterested Pilate sitting on his chair. On the right, in the foreground, three men are engaged in conversation.
The idea of space is created through a solid geometric perspective, a result of Piero’s mathematical studies, with vanishing lines that converge on the floor, where the geometric decoration acts as a perspective grid.
The episode of the Passion takes place in a timeless atmosphere that has almost nothing realistic, except for the scene in the foreground in a city square in central Italy of the 15th century, perhaps Urbino, characterized by the principles of order, geometric proportion and harmony that were close to Leon Battista Alberti and figured in the famous painting by an unknown of the 15th century depicting the Ideal City (Urbino, National Gallery of the Marche).
Piero was familiar with Alberti’s work and for this reason, Silvia Ronchey proposed that the tower in the background may refer to the first bell tower project of the Ferrara cathedral which is attributed to Alberti.
Everything in the work is stagnant, abstract and solemn not only for the mathematical and geometric composition, for the use of the golden ratio for the two scenes, for the silent and monumental figures, but also an almost total lack of chiaroscuro. There is only a clear and diffused light that enhances the bright colours.
The enigmatic painting has generated various interpretations since the 18th century when father Ubaldo Tosi identified the three men in the foreground as Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, his half-brother Oddantonio and son and heir Guidobaldo.
Later, the identification of the blond figure at the center as Oddantonio was confirmed by the portrait of him now preserved in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum) while the other two figures were recognized as his advisers Manfredo Del Pio and Tommaso Dell’Agnello. In 1444 the three were killed in the Conspiracy of the Seraphim and it was assumed there was some link between this event and the painting of Flagellation.
However, there are also other interpretations, the currently most credited of a political and religious nature, proposed in the mid-twentieth century. The first one was made by Kenneth Clark, who links the work to the Council of Mantua in 1459 when Pope Pius II Piccolomini urged the rulers of the west to carry out a Crusade to free Constantinople, occupied by the Ottomans six years earlier. This interpretation suggests that Christ is tortured by the Turks – as one of the torturers is wearing a turban – and he symbolizes the suffering of the Church. Therefore, Clark dated the work to around 1459, or 1461 when the relic of Saint Andrew was brought to Rome by Tommaso Palaeologus, who could be identified as the man with the beard in the painting. Tommaso was the brother of the Byzantine emperor John VII, identified as Pilate by Thalia Gouma-Peterson, who is wearing the crimson stockings worn by the Byzantine emperors. Another hypothesis proposes the same themes but sees the three men in a dialogue between the Ruler, the elegantly dressed figure on the right, the Mediator in the centre with a beard, dressed in Greek style, and the Westerner, ready to defeat the Turks, the young blond figure on the left.
The painting may have been commissioned by Cardinal Giovanni Bessarione as a gift to Duke Federico da Montefeltro to invite him to participate in the Crusade. This would postpone the chronology a few years, between 1469 and 1472, when the expedition was being prepared but it never came to happen.
Another slightly more recent thesis was made by Carlo Ginzburg, who dates the work to around 1459 as well, and who interprets the painting as a tribute to Buonconte da Montefeltro, son of Federico, who died of plague at a young age, identified as the young blond in the painting. With him, there could be Giovanni Bacci, the leader of Gubbio (the man on the left in profile), a possible client who ordered the work and then sent it to the Duke of Urbino. The bearded man appears to be Cardinal Bessarione, the godfather of the young man. Also, Ginzburg suggests that Pilate is John III Palaeologus, an accomplice of the Turks and responsible for the sufferings of the Church, or the Flagellation.
Lastly, the hypothesis by Silvia Ronchey suggested that the Flagellation may refer to the Council of Ferrara and Florence of 1438-1439 which aimed at the reunification of the Eastern and Western Churches and later also in Mantua. Christ would therefore represent Constantinople - the golden statue of the column would represent Constantine-Apollo-Helios in the ancient city forum – taken by the Turks. Pilate represents the emperor John VIII Palaeologus while the three figures in the foreground are Bessarion (left), Tommaso Palaeologus in the centre standing barefoot because he is not yet an emperor, and Niccolò III D’Este, Lord of Ferrara (right).
According to Ronchey, Piero’s work was painted twenty years after the Council of Ferrara when Constantinople had already been long under Turkish rule, and therefore the scene on the left would represent the moment when the Council was organized and, on the right, in the foreground, the moment that happened twenty years later, when Pope Pius II, at the suggestion of Bessarione, organized the Crusade that was destined to fail even before it took place in the Council of Mantua.
The work had a gilded frame, mentioned in an inventory in the 18th century, which now has been lost. In the following century, the Flagellation was almost taken from Urbino for good. In 1857, Charles Lock Eastlake, director of the National Gallery in London, decided to buy the painting for the English museum even though it did not fully meet his artistic taste. Instead, Eastlake mentioned the work to Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle who was later engaged in cataloguing the artistic heritage of Umbria and the Marche on behalf of the newly founded Italian government. In 1870 Cavalcaselle himself had the work restored and cleaned which unfortunately was so excessive that the original inscription mentioned in the inventory disappeared which read “Convenerunt in unum” alluding to the Council to Mantua, according to Ronchey.
The life of the painter is not well documented and even his date of birth is not certain. It is known that Piero was born in Sansepolcro in a wealthy family and he probably got his artistic training in Borgo Sansepolcro, which was culturally active place for artists at the time.
Piero began his activity as a painter of pennants and flags with the insignia of Sansepolcro but also as the author of painted works in the church of San Giovanni Evangelista. However, his real training took place in Florence, where he moved in his thirties and started at Domenico Veneziano’s workshop, whose works truly influenced him, especially when it comes to use of light. In that period he made the first painting attributed to him, Madonna with Child, which was already in the Florentine collection of Contini Bonacossi, in which the artist used perspective, clear light and solemn figures which was typical of his works.
Back in Sansepolcro, where he was also active in politics, he painted the famous Polyptych of the Misericordia (1445-1462), now in Museo Civico. Piero della Francesca spent the following years traveling at the service of various Italian courts, such as Urbino, Ferrara and Bologna, introducing himself also to Flemish painting and paintings of Antonello da Messina, which greatly influenced his work.
In 1451 Piero stayed in Rimini, at the service of lord Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta who commissioned him the fresco with St. Sigismund and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta at the Tempio Malatestiano, the family mausoleum.
The following year he stayed in Arezzo, where he made the frescoes with the Stories of the True Cross which he worked until 1458 and resumed the work two years later, following his stay in Rome, where he painted the Dream of Constantine. The famous cycle is considered one of Piero’s masterpieces.
Between the 1460s’ and 1470s’ he stayed in Perugia and Urbino at the court of Federico da Montefeltro. He painted the famous double profile portrait of Federico and his wife Battista Sforza, preserved today in the Uffizi Galleries, closely linked to Flemish culture for its setting, minimal details, use of light and colors.
In the 1470s’ in Urbino he also painted the Madonna di Senigallia (Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle March) and Pala Montefeltro (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera) both presented with a monumental structure and characterized by the serious and austere figures, which was typical of his painting.
Back in Sansepolcro he devoted himself to mathematical and perspective studies, which he cultivated his whole life and published in some treatises. Piero traveled once more to Rimini before returning to his hometown where he died in 1492.
National Gallery of the Marche