Laura Camille Agoston

title.none: Banker, The Culture of San Sepolcro (Laura Camille Agoston )

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.008 04.02.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Laura Camille Agoston , Trinity University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Banker, James R. The Culture of San Sepolcro during the Youth of Piero della Francesca. Series: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Civilization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Pp. x, 277. $62.50 0-472-11301-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.08

Banker, James R. The Culture of San Sepolcro during the Youth of Piero della Francesca. Series: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Civilization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Pp. x, 277. $62.50 0-472-11301-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Laura Camille Agoston
Trinity University

James R. Banker's study of San Sepolcro during the first decades of the fifteenth century has two linked purposes. One is to contribute to the growing literature on smaller cities and communes during the Italian Renaissance, correcting the overwhelming emphasis on the great urban centers of Florence, Rome, and Venice. The second is to reclaim Piero della Francesca as the product--socially, culturally, and intellectually---of his natal city of San Sepolcro. To these tasks Banker brings a wealth of new evidence, the culmination of more than ten years in the archives, and a clear framework in which to highlight his discoveries. Banker's methodology privileges the document as the ultimate arbiter on any issue. The social fabric of San Sepolcro gradually re-emerges as a complex weave of economics, politics, education, religion, and the crucial importance of family strategy and alliances. It is refreshing to read a work of such meticulous scholarship on a broad range of issues resting on an impressively solid foundation of evidence. In an era when many books show signs of haste and the career pressures that compromise quality, Banker's study is exemplary of patient "slow cooking."

For art lovers and those on the "Piero trail," San Sepolcro is primarily the birthplace of a singular Renaissance master, whose religious art combines qualities of mystical solemnity, intellectual sophistication, and technical bravura that continue to fascinate, and somehow elude definition. The great altarpieces and the frescoes at Arezzo have occasioned both a long, convoluted iconographical literature for specialists and the passionate admiration of non-specialists, including painters (Picasso), historians (Carlo Ginzburg), and novelists (Iris Murdoch). This Piero, the mature artist at the service of Federigo da Montefeltro and the forerunner of the artist/intellectuals of the sixteenth century, has little interest for Banker. His approach is resolutely anti-mystical and he seeks to reverse the whole tendency to see the city as basking in the reflected glory of the artist. Instead, Banker argues that the city made the man, and not the other way around. This seemingly logical presumption, that any fifteenth-century person is profoundly formed by his or her local culture, society, and traditions, is in fact highly controversial in the specialist Piero scholarship. Prominent art historians have long maintained the decisive impact of Florentine culture on Piero's artistic development, ceding little importance to his training and education in San Sepolcro. In these accounts, provincial San Sepolcro becomes something Piero had to overcome to achieve greatness. Prejudicing the argument is the fact that we are incomparably better informed on virtually every aspect of Florentine society in the early fifteenth century. Banker's book challenges that presumption of Florentine cultural dominance by reconstructing with precision both the society of San Sepolcro, and the place of the della Francesca family within it.

Banker begins with an ambitious, synthetic chapter on the political, religious, and economic character of San Sepolcro from 1400-1440. He argues that successive reigns of foreign domination by the Malatesta, the papacy, and the Florentine republic did not squash a distinctive local political culture. Indeed, the ruling elite of San Sepolcro persisted largely unchanged despite the sieges and occupations of foreign regimes. The striking feature of the political culture is the notable absence of clerical participation in civic government. Banker reveals how the ruling elite of San Sepolcro abstained from the practice of investing great wealth in the collegiate chapters of secular clergy, limiting their political power. Religious corporations did not suffer from the conflicts between local elite families, but had little opportunity for influence. In other regards, San Sepolcro was typical of the period in the communal government's attitude to church institutions, its stress on public morality, and the strong role of confraternities in maintaining the social fabric. San Sepolcro was a prosperous market town for agricultural products with a multifaceted local economy in which cloth, leather and woad (a cheaper form of indigo) were the most important exports. The guilds of San Sepolcro did not exert the kind of political muscle on local government so evident in contemporary Florence and Siena. However, guild membership was a reliable marker of social status and family name the distinguishing sign within guilds of merchants, notaries, and doctors of law.

Although Piero's theoretical writing, principally the Trattato d'abaco and De prospectivs pingendi, postdates by decades the chronological span of his study, Banker traces the roots of Piero's intellectual achievements to his modest hometown schooling. Banker approaches the difficult question of Piero's degree of Latin literacy by reconstructing the history of grammar school education in San Sepolcro in the early fifteenth century. Despite his reputation as a cultural sophisticate, Piero wrote all his treatises in the local vernacular rather than Latin. Unlike Alberti, a superb Latinist who attempted to situate the art of painting within geometry and mathematics from outside workshop practice, Piero deployed simple vernacular language to help workshop apprentices understand the intricate geometry of representing foreshortened objects. Piero and his cohort received no formal mathematical training in San Sepolcro; as with his Latin proficiency, Piero moved beyond his humble training by dint of his own drive and a lifetime of practice. Banker own archival discoveries allow him to reconstruct the curriculum of the communal school in detail. He presents two fascinating case studies of grammar school masters in San Sepolcro, discovering surprisingly large personal libraries of Latin texts. One school master, Benedetto di Nicolello di Lello da Gubbio, straddled the gap between the traditional grammar school instruction and a humanist interest in classical texts to such an extent that he defended himself against charges of heresy. While Banker draws heavily on Paul Grendler's research to establish the characteristic features of San Sepolcro's communal school, he disputes Grendler's claim that Piero attended a school of abacus, since no record of even a single teacher of abacus exists. Piero was a part of a gifted cohort of six students, one of whom went on to a degree in canon law and a career as secretary for Sigismondo Malatesta. Piero maintained his bonds of friendship with his five schoolmates throughout his life.

The chapter devoted to the socially ambitious Benedetto della Francesca renders him a far more vivid figure in Banker's account than his famous son. Benedetto used his leather business as a platform to pursue both greater wealth and social position, and it is unlikely he would have encouraged Piero's artistic inclinations. Piero's presence in the grammar school speaks of his father's aggressive pursuit of social position. While Piero established his reputation outside San Sepolcro throughout the 1440s and 1450s, the late-blooming artist maintained "strong but conflicted" bonds to his family and city. Benedetto's concerted strategy was to pull the della Francesca family out of the artisan and into the merchant class, and to do so he pushed the envelope of legal business practices. Banker argues that the dual nature of Piero's artistic accomplishment, mixing the traditional and the innovative, re-enacts in the sphere of painting his father's social maneuvering. However, Banker does not analyze Piero's mature accomplishment in any detail, so that intriguing theory remains half-developed. Through a wealth of unpublished notarial records Banker traces step-by-step Benedetto's rise from dealing in leather pelts to assessing taxes on oil and grain. Michael Baxandall's classic discussion of the "period eye" delineated the ability to gauge objects at a glance by volume and weight, a skill that served both father and son in different ways. Benedetto carefully negotiated the marriages of his large family, often sacrificing land and wealth for social gain. By studying Benedetto's marriage to Romana, Banker presents convincing evidence that Piero was born probably more towards the 1410s than the 1420s. Interestingly, Raphael's father, Giovanni Santi, provides nearly contemporary evidence in his Cronaca rimata, that Piero was older than Andrea Castagno (b. 1419). Various sixteenth-century sources claim that the artist lived into his eighties, therefore a birth year between 1406-12 seems most likely. Banker narrows that range further through documentation establishing that Piero was either the first or second-born after the 1410 marriage of his parents. The earlier birth-date is a lynch pin for Banker's claim that Piero was a formed artist in his late twenties rather than a raw teenager when he first came to Florence in 1439.

Piero received his apprenticeship in San Sepolcro, probably in the late 1420s, but he certainly served under a local master, Antonio di Giovanni d'Anghiari, in the 1430s. Since the earliest works of Piero do not survive, Banker carefully reconstructs the circumstances in which the artist began his career. San Sepolcro could not boast anything resembling the rich cultural ambient of Florence in the 1430s, but Piero was no prodigy and so the less competitive climate may have benefited his development. Similarly, Banker claims that his family's disinterest in the figurative arts worked to Piero's advantage, making his growth as a painter a highly reflective process of exploration and discovery, rather than inherited custom. Stylistically the mature Piero shares little with his master Antonio d'Anghiari, yet the apprenticeship gave the younger artist a range of opportunities, including work on large high altarpiece commissions. Earlier altarpieces in San Sepolcro, particularly Niccolo di Segna's imposing polyptych featuring a triumphant Christ climbing out of the tomb, clearly planted the seeds for Piero's startling masterpiece of the same subject.

Piero's humble beginnings painting flags and banners, his familial connections to the production of textiles and leather blossomed into the remarkable virtuosity of his later work. Piero possessed both a thorough grounding in the craft of an artisan and the hunger to demonstrate the intellectual foundations of his art in mathematics and classical literature. Banker's thesis is that this distinctive dual profile was the product of Piero's education, apprenticeship and his father's example, all deeply interwoven in the culture of San Sepolcro. While Piero never found prestigious commissions in Florence, Siena, Venice, or Rome, Banker cogently argues for the importance of Perugia in his artistic formation. By the late 1430s Piero returned to San Sepolcro with his own distinctive style and received a commission with his old master Antonio for frescoes in Santa Maria della Pieve (now Sant'Agostino). Through rigorous archival research, Banker establishes both that Piero's father had a hand in the commission and that Piero independently produced figures of the saints later praised by Vasari. Banker also seeks to reposition Piero's Baptism of Christ (National Gallery, London) as his earliest extant work, originally commissioned for the high altar of San Giovanni Battista in San Sepolcro. Once again, Benedetto della Francesca probably played an important, behind-the-scenes role in securing the commission through his close relationship with the church's parish priest. Banker interweaves a wealth of archival evidence linking Piero to the preparations for a high altarpiece at San Giovanni Battista in the 1430s. This early dating of Piero's first masterpiece challenges stylistic accounts of the artist's development. Well before a powerful encounter with the murals of Masaccio in Florence, Piero emerges with his own distinctive style on his own native soil.

Like many archival studies, Banker's book delivers conclusions to narrowly defined problems with a thick register of evidence. Banker's focus on clarifying basic factual issues--Piero's birthyear, the curriculum at his school, the precise years he left and returned to San Sepolcro--makes a fundamental contribution to our knowledge about the artist's early career, ripe with implications for all his work. Banker is less interested in teasing out the implications of his discoveries and venturing into the trenches of iconographic and stylistic debate about Piero's art. Banker's immersion in the artisanal world of San Sepolcro seems to have shaped his own values as an historian. His book is clear, solid, and meticulously crafted. As a work of cultural history, the book is not altogether satisfying, nor is it a gripping read. The archival discoveries Banker has made set the agenda of the chapters, often narrowing the scope of the questions he considers. Readers familiar with recent social histories of Italian cities in the early fifteenth century will find many of Banker's conclusions predictable. In the mountain of research on the family in the early modern period, the della Francesca are noteworthy only for giving birth to Piero. Yet Banker keeps his distance from Piero's genius, bringing us right to the edge of a remarkable career. Banker only heightens the mystery of how Piero came into the full possession of his artistic voice. San Sepolcro provides part of the answer, as Banker claims, yet the London Baptism of Christ reveals an artist who had already traveled an extraordinary distance from his training.