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Standing out as a fine example of Renaissance civilization, the magnificent court of Urbino was a cultural magnet, attracting artists, craftsmen, intellectuals and those in search of knowledge.
Federigo da Montefeltro (1422-82) was the last of the great condottieri, that breed of professional soldiers who sold their skills to warring states. By all accounts he was an unusually gifted man who became ruler of Urbino by popular demand after the murder of his half brother, Oddantonio. His reputation as a trustworthy general made him increasingly sought after, and enabled him to charge high fees for his services. And the income from these military campaigns provided the funds for Federigo's greatest achievement, the Ducal Palace of Urbino, in which he assembled a court that became a scintillating example of Renaissance civilization.
As the Duke, Federigo himself set the standard for court life. He had been given the all round education of character, mind and body offered by the famed Vittorino da Feltre, and attempted in his own life to combine the virtuous man of action with the intellectual. He had the typical Renaissance characteristics the need for display, self-expression and prestige and he channelled these aspects of his personality into the public life of the court; personally, he maintained a sober and ordered existence.
Federigo was a deeply religious man. But his was not a narrow belief rather it was a broad understanding, in keeping with the inquiring spirit of the age. And the all-embracing nature of his mind is indicated by the plans he made for various temples to be built within the court. One was to be dedicated to the Christian divinity, another to poetry and humanity, a third to nature triumphant. This seeming paganism, far from threatening his Christianity, reinforced it.
Constantly in search of knowledge, Federigo encouraged speculation. He studied philosophy and practiced Latin and Greek. One biographer praised him for his skill in geometry and arithmetic, claiming that the Duke made a point of acquiring some new piece of knowledge every day. Meanwhile his artistic patronage also represented power, and reflected his military success. In 1465 Federigo was appointed Captain of the Papal armies, and in some of the disputes between rival city states it was he who held the balance of power. Consequently, it was as much from self-protection as from profit that he took employment against the Malatesta family of Rimini and then later allied with them against Papal greed.
Castiglione in his famous Book of the Courtier described Federigo as 'the light of Italy'. Certainly for later generations this book put Urbino on the map, as the ideal city state whose inhabitants pursued the most refined code of manners available. Undoubtedly, the women of the court were a greatly civilizing presence. Two in particular, Federigo's wife, Battista Sforza, and his daughter-in-law, Elisabetta Gonzaga, enjoyed a reputation for possessing formidable intelligence and personality. Customs were changing: greater respect was paid to the opinions of women, especially when the Duchess proved so capable of governing in the Duke's absence on campaign.
Details of everyday life at the court of Urbino are few. Federigo's reign was described in several chronicles, but the writers pay most attention to his military exploits. Some interesting figures were recorded, however, which gave an indication of the royal scale of life in the palace. There were some 500 people at the court and this figure included 200 servants, five 'readers aloud' at meals, and a man whose job was to look after the pet giraffe.
The Book of the Courtier portrays the ideal lifestyle for the ideal courtier, with the right mixture of physical pursuits, such as hunting or tennis, and the mental delights of brilliant discussions and intellectual games. In some ways it is a political book, justifying the new profession of courtier as the natural Renaissance successor to the medieval knight. Here is the notion of the universal man warrior and scholar, Christian believer and classical hero, the product of an integrated and disciplined education. But Castiglione is deliberately idealizing: the real Urbino, which remained somewhat provincial despite the Montefeltro influence, and the inevitable crudeness of early 16th-century court life are fictionalized into perfection. Yet of all the city states Urbino came closest to the ideal. In comparison to a contemporary ruler like Sigismondo Malatesta, whom Pope Pius II denounced for practising incest and barbaric cruelty, Duke Federigo was conspicuously civilized. The court reflected the man, and its fame spread.
Federigo wanted an architectural monument to give expression to both his power and taste. Believing as he did that architecture was the greatest of the arts, and of primary importance in moulding social patterns and ethics, great care, therefore, was taken in the design of the Palace. And its success can be measured by the way the court inspired not only established intellects but also the young. Urbino became an educational centre to which wealthy Italian and even foreign families sent their children. At least two important figures of the later Renaissance were stimulated by these cultured surroundings: both Raphael and Bramante were brought up in and around Urbino. Tradition has it that Bramante studied perspective under Piero della Francesca; certainly Bramante's own architecture was influenced by the design of the Ducal Palace. And Raphael's father was Duke Federigo's chronicler and court poet: the court connections were well-established.
Federigo and even Piero probably had a hand in the design of the Ducal Palace, but the two principal architects were the little-known Luciano Laurana, and his successor the Sienese, Francesco di Giorgio. Numbers of anonymous craftsmen came from all over Italy, while individual masters like Ambrogio da Milano and Domenico Rosselli of Pistoia were engaged for the more important ornamental carvings. This creative ferment also attracted many painters, among who was Melozzo da Forli and the Spanish court painter Pedro Berruguete, who worked on palace decorations.
Flemish influence was relatively strong at Urbino and was reflected in Federigo's musical tastes and in the number of Flemish intellectuals and textile artisans who visited the court. Prominent Italians were also attracted: conversation, for example, between Piero and Alberti or the painter Mantegna, presided over by Federigo himself, promised a rare level of intellectual stimulation. Federigo built up an unsurpassed library, with the help of the Florentine Vespasiano da Bisticci and a number of writers (including Piero, in his book on perspective in painting) dedicated works to the Duke of Urbino. Indeed the court was the ideal intellectual context for an artist like Piero, whose mathematical investigations to some extent a theoretical search for universal principles, and explanation of life were very much the concern of that universal man, the Renaissance courtier.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish