So, who are these mysterious characters that populate the painting ?
The argument has been going on for decades, and Ronchey adds her theory while at the same time mentioning past interpretations and explaining why she agrees or not with them
The first key to understanding the painting is to try and put a date on its execution. This is another element that has been controversial. Ronchey agrees with many in placing it around 1458-1459 mainly because of the influences of Leon Battista Alberti's architectures that are echoed in the painting. This means Piero has ultimated the Flagellation just before the Council of Mantova, the one in which Bessarion and Pope Pius II were trying to find funds and members for the crusade.
In Ronchey exegesis the work does not refer to the Council of Mantova, though, but to the previous attempt at saving Bysantium, the Council of Ferrara/Firenze ( it had moved from one city to the other because of the threat of a plague epidemic). The procession of hundreds of Byzantine personalities with their colourful and strange clothes was seen by a huge crowd, among which probably Piero.
The artist who got to get a privileged view of the dignitaries and of the Basileus ( then Giovanni VIII Paleologo) himself was Pisanello. There is a large group of drawings by Pisanello ( Louvre) where the artist had sketched people and costumes. Pisanello also was the author of at least one medal, bearing the profile image of the Basileus, that had a wide circulation and became his definitive image in those years.
So we can affirm that the first figure in the Praetorium is Giovanni VIII Paleologo, who is pictured as Pontius Pilatus, and is wearing the red footwear that were the attribute of the Basileus.
Giovanni, argues Ronchey, is not the one who is letting the flagellation happen ( this is a more contemporary view of the gospel's figure), but rather a powerless witness to it.
The person who is responsible for ordering the flagellation is actually the figure standing barefooted with our back to us. He is identified with the Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Costantinople. After the occupation of the town Mehmet had his men look for the body of the dead Emperor: He was after the red footwear embroidered with the double-headed black eagle, symbol of imperial power. That is why he is now pictured without footwear ( at the time of the Council of Mantua Constantinople had yet not fallen). The two men performing the flagellation seem to be two pirates of which there's an iconographic precedent again in Pisanello's drawings.
The body of Christ represents symbolically the church of Bysantium. He is tied to a column on top of which is a golden sculpture that might be identified with the huge bronze statue of Emperor Costantino, of which only a few fragments now remain, that was in Rome in front of the Lateran. The whole space in fact represents the town of Constantinople.
In this vision, the two spaces in which the painting is divided are not removed in time from one another, but in space. What happens to the left of the painting, the torture of Constantinople, picture symbolically as the flagellation of Christ, is happening WHILE the three figures on the right are discussing the situation.
As we have seen the painting refers to the Council of Ferrara-Firenze. The first figure on the left, the greek mediator, is identified by Ronchey with Bessarione. We don't have any confirmed image of the Cardinal at a younger age, but the double pointed beard, the cloak and hat all point to the charismatic Cardinal.
Elements of the architecture in the right hand side are another sign that point at the Council of Ferrara. The roof on the left is found in a painting by Francesco del Cossa and reference the tower by Leon Battista Alberti.
If this negotiation is happening in Ferrara, it is likely that the figure on the right is Niccolo' III D'Este, Lord of Ferrara and host of the council. His son Lionello would be pictured with a similar brocade overcoat in a painting by Jacopo Bellini in 1441. Niccolo's sons, Lionello and Borso, were filo-Byzantium and had ties with Bessarione and his neo-platonic circle; they also helped Giovanni VIII Paleologo's brother Tommaso when he escaped to Italy in 1460.
There is only one last figure to identify, the striking young man dressed in crimson that echos the posture of the tortured Christ. "Porfirogenito", this was what the basileus was called, "he who was born in porpora ( crimson, the imperial colour). The man looks like other figures painted by Piero: a fragment of a fresco in Sansepolcro, an angel in the National Gallery Baptism, a prophet in the fresco from the Duomo of Arezzo. Ronchey argues that this is an idealised portrait of Tommaso Paleologo, the youngest brother of the Emperor who could inherit the throne if it was to be saved.
A bearded Tommaso, twenty years older but still fair and " of great aspect", would arrive in Italy for his melancholic exile, where he would die as ever assisted by Bessarione in 1465.
In 1474 the Cardinal was still looking for help for the Empire. Tommaso's daughter Zoe was the csarina of Russia, and Bessarione left for France and England to try and organise yet another crusade. He knew his health was declining and he had planned to come back to his great friend Federico da Montefeltro who had already prepared an abode for him at Castel Durante.
Bessarione took with him all his precious books, which he had left in legacy to Venice ( they would become the initial core of the Biblioteca Marciana). He left them with Federico whom he trusted, perhaps he had a foreboding feeling about his trips.
Bessarione didn't make it back to Urbino, and died in 1472 in Ravenna. His books, after having been detailed in an accurate inventory, were handed to Venice by Federico in 1474. Is it possible that another of Bessarione's treasured possessions was left back in the hands of his loyal friend, thus becoming the most precious treasure of the city of Urbino ?
I cannot recommend enough the book by Ronchey if you read Italian. The exegesis is of course much more detailed and complex than I could cram in these few lines. The book analyzes many other contemporary works of art such as Benozzo Gozzoli's Cappella dei Magi, Vittore Carpaccio's Visione di Sant'Agostino, Pisanello's San Giorgio e la Principessa and many others ( view iconography ). The research was huge and conducted with great respect for other scholars, the result is convincing and profound.