Piero della Francesca’s “Flagellation” was kept in the sacristy of the cathedral of Urbino before it entered the Galleria in 1915. Regarded as an absolute masterpiece in the history of art, it remains one of the most mysterious works of all time, and many of its secrets are yet to be revealed. The painting’s commission, its original location, its intended use, and even its meaning are all unknown.

The only certainty is provided by the inscription bearing the artist’s signature, located on the left on the step of Pilate’s seat, which reads: “Opus Petri de Burgo S[an]c[t]i Sepulcri.

The scenic design follows the scientific principles of Leon Battista Alberti and is said to imitate an urban context that can be attributed to fifteenth-century Urbino. The precise perspective representation of space and the zenithal light typical of Piero della Francesca are evident, along with architectural decorations reminiscent of classical elements found in the Ducal Palace.

An artwork so enigmatic has led to many interpretations, some of which are worth mentioning. The oldest and most traditional interpretation originates from an inventory from 1744 prepared by Father Ubaldo Tosi, which can be found in the Urbino University Library. It describes the painting, focusing on the three figures in the foreground to the right, initially identified as the Dukes of Urbino: Federico da Montefeltro, his half-brother Oddantonio, and his son Guidubaldo. This description is also present in the ‘Report of the Visit’ by Archbishop Marelli, a few years earlier (1725-31), preserved in the Archbishop’s Curia in Urbino.

Subsequently, the identification was corrected, retaining only the recognition of Oddantonio in the blond barefoot figure in the center, recognizable due to his likeness to his portrait at Ambras (now at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna), along with his malevolent advisors, Manfredo del Pio and Tommaso dell’Agnello. The three were slaughtered in the “Conspiracy of the Serafini” in 1444, which is also considered the year of the painting’s execution. According to this interpretation, confirmed by the Latin inscription “Convenerunt in unum” on the lost frame of the painting, Oddantonio’s fate is related to the martyrdom of Christ, depicted in the background beneath the elegant loggia.

In 1951, Kenneth Clark, following Witting’s 1898 thesis, rejected the previous interpretation and saw the three figures on the right as a reflection on the sufferings of the Church, evoked by Christ’s flagellation in the background, carried out by the Turks, symbolized by the figure with a turban seen from behind. Clark dates the work to 1459, the year Pope Pius II called for a conference among Christian princes and rulers in Mantua, urging them to undertake a crusade to liberate Constantinople, which had fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. He also suggested 1461, the year when Thomas Palaiologos, brother of the late Byzantine Emperor John VIII, brought the relic of Saint Andrew to Rome. He identified the bearded figure in the foreground as a Palaiologos but could not identify the other two interlocutors.

The political-religious interpretation introduced by Clark is the most plausible and has gained the support of many scholars who have revisited and expanded upon it, such as Maurizio Calvesi (1992, 1996) and Silvia Ronchey (2006).

In 1976, Thalia Gouma-Peterson further explored Clark’s hypothesis, identifying Pontius Pilate with John VIII Palaiologos due to the crimson stockings typical of Byzantine emperors. The work would again allude to the suffering of the Church at the hands of the Turks, relating the passivity of John VIII, who did not effectively oppose the Ottomans, to the inaction of an unspecified “Western prince,” the figure on the far right dressed in blue and gold brocade. The bearded man in the center of the composition, dressed as a “Greek,” would allegorically represent a mediator between East and West, or more precisely, between the two figures placed at the ends of the painting. The young, blond, and barefoot figure, is seen allegorically as the “champion of virtues” ready to fight against the Turks. According to the scholar, the painting was commissioned by Cardinal Giovanni Bessarione to be given as a gift to his friend Federico da Montefeltro, encouraging him to participate in a crusade against the Turks. The panel may have been painted in 1459-64 or in 1469-72, periods when the Popes were planning the crusades promoted by Bessarione.

In 1981, Carlo Ginzburg’s hypothesis also began with the Ottoman threat to the Church but recalled a tragic episode in Federico’s life. The work, datable to 1459, would commemorate the death of Buonconte da Montefeltro, the beloved natural son of the Lord of Urbino, a cultured and virtuous youth depicted with angelic features as the pale, blond, and barefoot figure in the foreground, who died of the plague at the age of 17 in 1458. To his left appears the profile of Giovanni Bacci, an Aretine, who was the Podesta of Gubbio in 1456-57 and is depicted in various works by Piero. Ginzburg believes him to be the patron of the painting. In the bearded man, Ginzburg sees the face of Cardinal Bessarione, the godfather of the deceased Buonconte, appointed commendatory abbot of the Castel Durante abbey in 1445. In the background scene, Pilate is still identified with Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, considered an accomplice of the Turk commanding the flagellation of Christ, symbolizing the suffering of the Eastern Christians. For Ginzburg, the painting was sent by Bessarione to Federico da Montefeltro, through Bacci, to request his political and military intervention against the Turks, appealing to his sensitivity as a father, experiencing grief like the Eastern Church for having lost a beloved son.

Author: Piero della Francesca
Realization date: 1459-1460
Storage location: Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche
Place of originBorgo San Sepolcro
INV COD:DE 229
Dimensions: 67,5 × 91 cm
Technique: Tempera on panel

Author: Piero della Francesca
Realization date: 1459-1460
Storage location: Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche
Place of originBorgo San Sepolcro
INV COD:DE 229
Dimensions: 67,5 × 91 cm
Technique: Tempera on panel


Piero della Francesca’s “Flagellation” was kept in the sacristy of the cathedral of Urbino before it entered the Galleria in 1915. Regarded as an absolute masterpiece in the history of art, it remains one of the most mysterious works of all time, and many of its secrets are yet to be revealed. The painting’s commission, its original location, its intended use, and even its meaning are all unknown.

The only certainty is provided by the inscription bearing the artist’s signature, located on the left on the step of Pilate’s seat, which reads: “Opus Petri de Burgo S[an]c[t]i Sepulcri.

The scenic design follows the scientific principles of Leon Battista Alberti and is said to imitate an urban context that can be attributed to fifteenth-century Urbino. The precise perspective representation of space and the zenithal light typical of Piero della Francesca are evident, along with architectural decorations reminiscent of classical elements found in the Ducal Palace.

An artwork so enigmatic has led to many interpretations, some of which are worth mentioning. The oldest and most traditional interpretation originates from an inventory from 1744 prepared by Father Ubaldo Tosi, which can be found in the Urbino University Library. It describes the painting, focusing on the three figures in the foreground to the right, initially identified as the Dukes of Urbino: Federico da Montefeltro, his half-brother Oddantonio, and his son Guidubaldo. This description is also present in the ‘Report of the Visit’ by Archbishop Marelli, a few years earlier (1725-31), preserved in the Archbishop’s Curia in Urbino.

Subsequently, the identification was corrected, retaining only the recognition of Oddantonio in the blond barefoot figure in the center, recognizable due to his likeness to his portrait at Ambras (now at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna), along with his malevolent advisors, Manfredo del Pio and Tommaso dell’Agnello. The three were slaughtered in the “Conspiracy of the Serafini” in 1444, which is also considered the year of the painting’s execution. According to this interpretation, confirmed by the Latin inscription “Convenerunt in unum” on the lost frame of the painting, Oddantonio’s fate is related to the martyrdom of Christ, depicted in the background beneath the elegant loggia.

In 1951, Kenneth Clark, following Witting’s 1898 thesis, rejected the previous interpretation and saw the three figures on the right as a reflection on the sufferings of the Church, evoked by Christ’s flagellation in the background, carried out by the Turks, symbolized by the figure with a turban seen from behind. Clark dates the work to 1459, the year Pope Pius II called for a conference among Christian princes and rulers in Mantua, urging them to undertake a crusade to liberate Constantinople, which had fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. He also suggested 1461, the year when Thomas Palaiologos, brother of the late Byzantine Emperor John VIII, brought the relic of Saint Andrew to Rome. He identified the bearded figure in the foreground as a Palaiologos but could not identify the other two interlocutors.

The political-religious interpretation introduced by Clark is the most plausible and has gained the support of many scholars who have revisited and expanded upon it, such as Maurizio Calvesi (1992, 1996) and Silvia Ronchey (2006).

In 1976, Thalia Gouma-Peterson further explored Clark’s hypothesis, identifying Pontius Pilate with John VIII Palaiologos due to the crimson stockings typical of Byzantine emperors. The work would again allude to the suffering of the Church at the hands of the Turks, relating the passivity of John VIII, who did not effectively oppose the Ottomans, to the inaction of an unspecified “Western prince,” the figure on the far right dressed in blue and gold brocade. The bearded man in the center of the composition, dressed as a “Greek,” would allegorically represent a mediator between East and West, or more precisely, between the two figures placed at the ends of the painting. The young, blond, and barefoot figure, is seen allegorically as the “champion of virtues” ready to fight against the Turks. According to the scholar, the painting was commissioned by Cardinal Giovanni Bessarione to be given as a gift to his friend Federico da Montefeltro, encouraging him to participate in a crusade against the Turks. The panel may have been painted in 1459-64 or in 1469-72, periods when the Popes were planning the crusades promoted by Bessarione.

In 1981, Carlo Ginzburg’s hypothesis also began with the Ottoman threat to the Church but recalled a tragic episode in Federico’s life. The work, datable to 1459, would commemorate the death of Buonconte da Montefeltro, the beloved natural son of the Lord of Urbino, a cultured and virtuous youth depicted with angelic features as the pale, blond, and barefoot figure in the foreground, who died of the plague at the age of 17 in 1458. To his left appears the profile of Giovanni Bacci, an Aretine, who was the Podesta of Gubbio in 1456-57 and is depicted in various works by Piero. Ginzburg believes him to be the patron of the painting. In the bearded man, Ginzburg sees the face of Cardinal Bessarione, the godfather of the deceased Buonconte, appointed commendatory abbot of the Castel Durante abbey in 1445. In the background scene, Pilate is still identified with Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, considered an accomplice of the Turk commanding the flagellation of Christ, symbolizing the suffering of the Eastern Christians. For Ginzburg, the painting was sent by Bessarione to Federico da Montefeltro, through Bacci, to request his political and military intervention against the Turks, appealing to his sensitivity as a father, experiencing grief like the Eastern Church for having lost a beloved son.