Monday, July 28, 2008

Frederico III through old glass

Exploring and observing history can become all too routine, but sometimes there is something that quietly commands your attention. It is, sadly also all too rare that one gets to encounter great historic sites and their patron without vast adulatory and enervating overtures from guides. On this trip, one of the outstanding moments for me was discovering, essentially anew, the buildings and works of Federico III da Montefeltro, and realising what an remarkable story his life is - sadly not available in English as a full biography, as far as I'm aware.

Left: The handmade (perhaps original) glass in the Ducal Palace at Urbino reveal some aspects of the humanist architecture of the Duke.

He was a remarkably successful condottieri (now we would say 'mercenary', bringing a range of moral views that were quite different in the pre-Renaissance period) never losing a war, and actually fighting, on one occasion, successfully against a former client. He was an illegitimate son, who was recognised as legitimate, raised to a dukedom, and granted the Order of the Garter by a grateful English king, an award he was clearly particularly proud of. (For more of the facts, see the end of the post or the Wikipedia entry.)

Subtle colour variations have a kaleidoscopic palette effect.

But that was not what made him remarkable. From Wikipedia:

"Federico, nicknamed "the Light of Italy", is a landmark figure in the history of the Italian Renaissance for his contributions to enlightened culture. He imposed justice and stability on his tiny state through the principles of his humanist education; he engaged the best copyists and editors in his private scriptorium to produce the most comprehensive library outside of the Vatican; he supported the development of fine artists, including the early training of the young painter Raphael."

In two small Italian towns, we saw the nature of that influence. The quiet, sleepy town of Urbania (below) held one of his palaces, and the resonance of his influence was notable centuries later.

And not far away, we saw the university town of Urbino where that same influence was writ larger. Thankfully, the centre of the Italian Renaissance moved away from these towns, with the result that they still are Frederico's towns, to a remarkable degree.

What was important about that? Firstly, it was clear that here was a man, who through warfare and successful manipulation of the murderous nature of the politics of the day, had come to the top. But rather than continuing as he had succeeded, he was to set aflame the arts, and he clearly chose to push through the acceptable in both laying aside his weapons of war in favour of the tools of learning, but also to take that learning in new directions, past the acceptable in the monolithic Catholicism of his time into humanism but into asking questions, through some of the great artists and thinkers of the day, that still puzzle us now.

It is ironic that Frederico was one of the men who started the Renaissance, employed artists who taught Leonardo da Vinci, and founded many aspects of the humanist revolution that underpin our values even today, yet is often overlooked for less innovative patrons in less original cites, such as Florence.

In a country infamous for unfinished culture (many of the great Italian cathedrals are still awaiting, as they probably will for ever, numerous missing items from complete facades to galleries and more) the drift of the centre of culture away from Urbino and Urbania meant that these two cities are more complete and uncompromised examples of the artistic vision than arguably greater, later places.

Many soldiers (and patrons) have often wanted to be seen as great thinkers, leaders and men of note; and just when you think you can predict what he would do next, yet at every turn Frederico continues to surprise:

"He often strolled the streets of Urbino unarmed and unattended, inquiring in shops and businesses as to the well-being of the citizens."

He was a man both of his time and also ahead and outside of it. He was clearly aware of his own strengths and importance, yet laid works where he was not the focus. His name and deeds are in many ways forgotten or overlooked, yet they have a greater effect than many more famous people who followed him shortly after. Unlike many historical figures, where one can easily encompass their achievements and motivations, where there is little left to discover, he's someone I would like to meet, to find out more of what made him tick. He cannot have been an easy man, nor one who suffered fools gladly, but one who valued thought, originality, and artistic achievement.

Above: The Palace from outside the walls of Urbino. Below: The huge stair tower, designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (one of Bev's study subjects) for bringing horses up to the city from below.

Above: Spot the art historian... Below: An enigmatic carving in a stone on the outside wall of the Palace. What is the story?

Below: The river wall of the Palace in Urbania. The far tower, was again, designed and built by Francesco di Giorgio Martini.

From the Marche History website:

"Federico da Montefeltro was born in 1422 to a small-time noble family that ruled over an insignificant square of the chess-board that was then central Italy. Yet within sixty years he had become "the light of Italy" and the paradigm of Renaissance man, as skilled in letters as in arms.

He made his money as one of the most successful condottiere, or hired generals, of his time. Always fighting on short-term contracts and strictly for cash on the nail, he displayed the timeless Italian ability of never taking sides - he managed once to fight for Florence against the Pope only to later take up the Papal banner against the Florentines.

His fortune made, he turned to the arts as enthusiastically as he had to war and settled down to create his shining court. Almost all the great names of the Quattrocento passed through his palace, and his library was reckoned amongst the largest in Europe.

On his death in 1482, his sickly son, Guidobaldo, managed to keep alive the splendour of the court with the help of his emancipated wife Elisabetta Gonzaga. Baldesar Castiglione wrote his famous Book of the Courtier, the classic account of the Renaissance ideal, as a member of Guidobaldo and Elisabetta's retinue.

On his death in 1508, the Dukedom passed to the Della Rovere family and Urbino's decline began; the light was finally extinguished in 1631 when the last Duke handed the Duchy to the Papal States - its palace stripped of its treasures, Urbino sank into unbroken torpor."

Torpor, maybe, but two towns that, for me, outplayed Rome, Florence, Venice and Orvieto. No small achievement. We'll return to this topic again.


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