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Italian Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was a period of great cultural and artistic innovation that occurred in Italy during the 14th to the 17th centuries. The movement was characterized by the revival of classical style and themes from ancient Greece and Rome. The movement also emphasized humanism in art, which placed a greater emphasis on individuals and their achievements rather than religious themes. This emphasis on humanism led to the use of perspective and realism in art in a way that had not been seen before. Additionally, Italian Renaissance art was characterized by a focus on secular themes, such as mythology and landscape.

One of the most significant characteristics of the Italian Renaissance art movement was the emergence of new techniques and mediums. New techniques such as chiaroscuro and sfumato were developed, which allowed artists to create more depth, contrast, and realism in their paintings. Additionally, the development of oil paints made it possible for artists to create more intricate and detailed works. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo created some of the most famous works of this period, including the Mona Lisa and the statue of David, respectively.

Italian Renaissance art also had a significant impact on European art and culture as a whole. Renaissance art spread throughout Europe, leading to the development of new styles and techniques in other countries. The movement also influenced other areas of culture, such as literature, music, and philosophy. The Italian Renaissance is considered to be a turning point in Western civilization, as it marked the transition from the medieval era to the modern era. Its emphasis on humanism and classical ideas continues to influence art and culture to this day.

Let's discuss this region, period and survey some of its artists and their works...

How did the art of the Italian Renaissance reflect the values of Humanism?

The art of the Italian Renaissance is an excellent reflection of the values of Humanism. Humanism is a philosophical and intellectual movement that emphasizes the dignity and worth of the individual, and the potential of human beings to achieve greatness through education and the pursuit of knowledge. It is characterized by a focus on the study of classical literature and art, and a belief in the importance of reason and scientific inquiry. The artists of the Italian Renaissance embraced these ideas and reflected them in their works.

One of the hallmarks of Humanism is a deep appreciation of the beauty and complexity of the natural world. This is reflected in the art of the Italian Renaissance, which features realistic depictions of the human form and the natural world. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo achieved a level of anatomical accuracy that was unprecedented in their time, and their works are imbued with a sense of wonder and awe at the complexity of the human body.

Another important value of Humanism is a belief in the importance of education and the pursuit of knowledge. This is reflected in the subject matter of many works of Renaissance art, which often depict scenes from classical mythology or history. Artists like Botticelli and Raphael incorporated these themes into their works, creating intricate and sophisticated compositions that reflect the intellectual pursuits of the time.

Finally, the art of the Italian Renaissance also reflects the Humanist emphasis on individualism and self-expression. Many of the greatest works of this period are portraits or self-portraits, which highlight the individuality and unique qualities of each subject. Artists like Titian and Veronese achieved a level of emotional depth and psychological insight that was rare in their time, creating works that are as deeply personal as they are beautiful.

The Bronze Renaissance

Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

April 22, 2020

The bronze casting method dates far back to ancient times when sculptors made fine miniature statuettes forged out of metal. The strength, durability, and overall finish of bronze works made them especially appealing. Creating the mold took much time, patience, and skill, and because bronze is a copper-based alloy with a lower melting point than steel or iron, it freely allowed ancient artists to cut even the most intricate details into the casting. The hardness factor also allowed bronze sculptures to retain these specific details even in outdoor conditions. Nevertheless, it was an incredibly precious commodity, and as a result, many works of art have been lost to time primarily because they were melted down to reuse the valuable metal. For example, many Greek statues were lost when the Romans came. However, first, they were copied in marble, before being melted down to create more functional everyday objects, such as tools, weapons, and shields in which their empire greatly depended upon. And so bronze sculpture became a "lost art" of sorts.

It was much later, in the early 15th-century, that ambitious European makers and patrons of the arts sought to emulate their Greco-Roman forebears' tastes and technologies not only for large-scale statuary and statuettes but for relief plaquettes and medals. For sculptors working in bronze during the Renaissance, it was often an expensive and technically challenging material. Regardless, bronze statuette achieved great popularity during this time, partly because of its classical origins. Although production peaked in the 16th-century and then died off again, the form was first revitalized in the Italian Renaissance by the Florentine sculptor Giovanni di Bertoldo.

Bertoldo di Giovanni (1420-1491) was a sculptor and medalist who operated in the republic of Florence during the second half of the 15th-century, also known as the Quattrocento period of the Italian Renaissance. Bertoldo worked in such disciplines as statuettes, reliefs, medals, and mostly in the arena of small bronze production. He was a very significant figure in Florentine culture as his art was intrinsically intertwined with the world in which he worked and intimately linked with the ruling class of the Medici of Florence, who heavily favored him as patrons. His sculptures appealed to the private audience of his patronage and their inner circle and helped shape diplomatic relationships with powerful figures abroad, for his collection was an exclusive affair and an enticing gift. As one of the Lorenzo de’ Medici’s favorites.

Bertoldo was an also active collaborator with many other artists of the time and even those from the past. As we can see with his work "Battle" (below) it was originally designed for the Medici palace and commissioned by Lorenzo himself. This was Bertoldo's largest bronze, and it is an adaptation of an ancient sarcophagus that depicts a battle between Roman soldiers and barbarians. The original sarcophagus he based his composition on was actually severely damaged long before Bertoldo laid his eyes on it. But he managed to reconstruct the scene and organized the chaotic imagery by following what was remained of the ancient example. 'However, instead of repeating the narrative of Romans attacking foreigners, clearly identified by their costume in the sarcophagus, here all of the soldiers attack one another without any obvious underlying logic or clear identification. At the center of the melee, for example, the largest warrior wears both the helmet of the god Hermes and the lion skin of the hero Hercules. Bertoldo created a scene with an unfixed narrative, thereby encouraging discussion among viewers attempting to discern its subject.' (1)


“Battle” (relief) (c. 1480–85), Bertoldo di Giovanni. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence 
Photo: Mauro Magliani; su concessione del Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali
Battle, The Frick Collection, Available at

Posthumously, Bertoldo has been somewhat overshadowed by that of his pupil and his teacher. His pupil, of course, was the great Michelangelo Buonarroti, and his teacher was another great, Donatello, from whom he studied the art of sculpture. These connections have somewhat added to the suffering of Bertoldo’s reputation in the annals of history. 'His legacy was largely written out of history by Michelangelo, who fashioned his own identity as a self-taught artist divinely blessed with ability. Michelangelo’s biographers, including the art historian Giorgio Vasari, reduced Bertoldo’s role significantly, mentioning him only in passing while focusing more extensively on the pioneering creativity of Donatello, the magnificent patronage of the Medici family, and the staggering genius of Michelangelo.' (2) It can be said it was both a blessing and a curse that he was known as being a student of Donatello and the teacher of Michaelangelo.

Bertoldo did not travel far and wide like many other artists of the day, but rather he preferred to stay close to the Medici court while devoting most of his career to Lorenzo’s initiative of cultural renewal. It was here Bertoldo helped to rediscover the lost art of bronze sculpture during the Renaissance, which is not a far stretch considering he was also the custodian of the Roman antiquities for the Medici. The sculptural skills required to recreate the lost art required heightened skills, patience, and ingenuity. 'Artists working in bronze typically used the lost-wax technique, a 6,000-year-old tradition employed by the Greeks and the Romans. In the simplest version, an initial model is created and covered with beeswax, which is then covered in plaster. Once hardened, it is fired, melting the waxy contents.' (3)

From a historical perspective, bronze is the most versatile and artistically effective material for cast metal sculptures, and so the works of Bertoldo’s bronze figures helped to showcase the form again while returning the mode to popularity. The artist helped bring this method back into fashion per se by working predominantly in bronze technique and also prominently shedding a spotlight on Greco-roman era subject matter, which was widely associated as a revival movement within the period. However, Bertoldo sculpted with a twist by attuning his work slightly with the era and appealing to his princely audience which was well versed in learned reference to antiquity.

For example, we may look to this in his work "Bellerophon Taming Pegasus" (below). Here we see the struggle of the hero Bellerophon takes to tame the winged horse Pegasus, which was a common subject of ancient texts and artworks, but Bertoldo's depiction was one of the first since antiquity. Following a classical ode, the sculptor captures the precise moment at which Bellerophon bends Pegasus to his will using an enchanted bridle. But here we see the bridle is still slung over the hero's shoulder, and the sculptor has departed from the poem's narrative in which Bellerophon subdues the Pegasus by gently placing the charmed reins on the horse. What Bertoldo is doing with this classical story instead is transforming the scene into a violent contest between man and beast.


Bellerophon Taming Pegasus (c. 1480–82), designed by Bertoldo di Giovanni, executed by Adriano Fiorentino. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Photo: KHM-Museumsverband
Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence, Fine Art Today, Fine Art Connoisseur, Available at

These types of allegorical changes more attuned to realism would have been appealing to a Renaissance culture more concerned with humanism and bringing spirituality more tied to an early realm. It must have also been appealing to Bertoldo's princely audiences to be exposed to such narratives that was charged to spark discussion and debate.

Bellerophon Taming Pegasus is the only statuette signed by Bertoldo. The surface under the base is inscribed, EXPRESSIT ME BERThOLDVS * CONFLAVIT HADRIANVS [Bertoldo modeled me; Adriano cast me]. Bertoldo created the wax original, then entrusted the bronze casting to his collaborator, Adriano Fiorentino. The Pazzi Conspiracy medal (also included in the exhibition) was similarly designed by Bertoldo but cast by another hand, indicating that this was standard practice for the sculptor.

From his statuettes, we can see how he incorporated the ancient allegories and exercised some ingenuity. Many of his sculptures are artistic representations of a classical subject or as 'All'antica. An Italian term meaning 'in the manner of the ancients' used for works of art, architecture, and literature that sought to revive the style and principles of the classical past, especially that of Ancient Rome.' (4) He was gifted at replicating the iconography of the ancient civilizations into his artworks and obviously a master of bronze work. Bertoldo demonstrated his narrative style using motifs from ancient stories, so they were synonymous with classical resonance but also embodied a more fluid visual movement that creates the impression of natural action in his works of art. He combined influences of increased awareness of nature, a revival of classical learning, and a more individualistic view of man, which of course is a telltale sign of the Renaissance. Thus, Bertoldo’s techniques in bronze casting tell us a lot about the sculptural skills used and employed during the Italian Renaissance period. 

The historical evidence concerned with his process has survived from the era to give us a detailed track record of the technique that he and other sculptures used during the Quattrocento. 'Bertoldo’s working method is especially considered, tracing his artworks from concept to design to production, across media, and, often, involving collaboration with other well-known artists. The statues, reliefs, medals, statuettes, and frieze attributed to Bertoldo demonstrate his ingenuity, as well as his essential role in the development of Italian sculpture between the Early and High Renaissance.' (5)

With Bertoldo’s "Shield bearer" works (below) we see a muscular, naked man with a thick beard (below left). When viewing this piece we notice the girdle of vine leaves at his hips matches the wreath on his head that sits upon his head. He carries a large club as well as his shield which is meant to be reminiscent of the Greek hero Hercules. What we are seeing here, is the bronze master artist combining the attributes of so-called savages with those of iconic likes of the mythological Hercules and Bacchus. This was mostly meant to act as a satyr. And upon looking at Betoldo's other shield-bearer figure (below left) the same attributes apply to this companion piece, but for this figure it represents Bacchus and we see his body is much leaner, has no beard, and appears youthful and joyful. Bacchus of course was known not for his physical prowess like Hercules but was especially known as a god of wine and ecstasy, so his stature is not as large, stocky, or muscular. These two works and Bertoldo's statuette of "Hercules on horseback" (below bottom) which is separately housed in the Galleria Estense in Modena, formed a miniature equestrian monument for the initiall owner of this group of statuettes. The original owner was Ercole d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, who was a patron to many representations of Hercules in his home town. This duke was also known as a very able horseman as well. These three bronze figures are considered to be the earliest statuettes by produced by Bertoldo, and date from c. 1470.


Bertoldo’s pendant Shield Bearers (ca. 1470-80), displayed together at:
"A Frick first: Florence’s earlier sculptor, instructor of Michelangelo, in Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence show" (Sep 18- Jan 12 2020)


“Hercules on Horseback”, early 1470s, bronze, 27.2 cm high; Gallerie Estensi, Modena, Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali – Archivio fotografico delle Gallerie Estensi,
photo: Carlo Vannini.
Hercules on Horseback, The Frick Collection, Available at

Hercules is here identified by a club (his signature weapon), lion-skin cloak, and muscular appearance. He is large in proportion to his horse, emphasizing his physical strength. Again 'equestrian depictions of Hercules were unique to the Este family. The imagery of Hercules on Horseback is connected to Ercole's wedding to the princess of Naples or to a springtime festival during which Ercole rode throughout Ferrara in costume, bringing flowering branches to the city's most beautiful women.' (6)

His art demonstrates a creative process, shows many intricate details, and ingenious design across different bronze media; it helps that Bertoldo worked small, creating miniature bronze figures, narrative scenes in relief, and in Renaissance medals, which often looked like classical coinage.


“Mehmed the Conqueror” Medal by Bertoldo di Giovanni 


Bertoldo also worked with production in wood, metal, and terracotta, exploring the innovation of his work across media reveals 'both his versatility as well as his ability to create a unified style, mediated through diverse scale, media, and hands. The objects shed light on his creative process—the development of a sculpture from idea to design to production.' (7)

What remains constant is his work is the engaging lyrical style and 'the essential role he played in the development of Italian Renaissance sculpture. Indeed, Bertoldo was one of the earliest sculptors since antiquity to create statuettes in bronze, an art form that became ubiquitous in prestigious collections during the 15th-century and thereafter accompanied by an inventive allegorical scene or incredibly detailed historical event.' (7) Bertoldo may not have been quite as popular as others in his own time, but at least we have come to be more familiar with his name, appreciative of his technique and understanding of influence in the past and our own times. We can now credit the often forgotten sculpture for the first great Bronze Renaissance.


  1. Battle, The Frick Collection, Available at

  2. Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence, Fine Art Today, Fine Art Connoisseur, Available at

  3. A new collector’s guide to Renaissance bronzes, Christie's, Available at

  4. All'antica, The National Gallery, Glossary, Available at

  5. Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence, The Frick Collection, Available at

  6. Hercules on Horseback, The Frick Collection, Available at

  7. First Monographic Exhibition on the Artist Presented through Gathering of Nearly Entire Extant Oeuvre, The Frick Collection, Available at


The Bronze Renaissance

The Zodiac elements in Botticelli works

Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Title: A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts
Date: 1486
Country: Paris, Louvre Museum 
Medium: Fresco on canvas 

The signs of the Zodiac have been used since time immemorial and have often been interpreted in many medieval and modern masterpieces.
Among the various examples in the world of Art we have that of the sign of Scorpio, which covers the period between 23rd October and 22nd November, an intriguing symbol of concepts often in antithesis, such as death and eternal life, destruction and regeneration, war and fecundity.

There is a legend in greek mythology which tells that the goddess Artemis, being offended by the giant Orion persuaded a great scorpion to kill him with its poison. As a gesture of gratitude the goddess transformed the Scorpion into a constellation. The god Zeus transformed  Orion into a constellation and he was forevermore forced to flee from the Scorpion across the night Sky. This is interpreted as a symbol of revenge. 
In the work, “A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts” part of a fresco by Sandro Botticelli, dated to about 1486 and kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris, the symbol of the Scorpion has a very different meaning. Here in the hands of a young woman, Prosopopoeia Dialectic, it is used to express the sometimes pungent and poisonous power of words, a lethal weapon of combat, With Venus and the three Graces she offers gifts to a young man (probably a member of the Tornabuoni family) at the villa Tornabuoni,  a suburban residence near Florence, The work was part of a larger fresco some of which is still in place. 

It is unclear when the series was executed, partly because character identification is not definitely established. The most likely hypothesis is that the work was commissioned for the marriage between Lorenzo Tornabuoni, son of Giovanni Tornabuoni, and Giovanna di Maso degli Albizzi, celebrated on 15 June 1486. The frescoes were discovered in a loggia that may have been used for the wedding feast.

The trees in the background suggest a garden, a young man, perhaps Lorenzo Tornabuoni, is presented by Grammar to Prudence and the other Liberal Arts, each with its own attribute: Rhetoric with the scroll, Dialectic with a scorpion in her hands (usually a snake), Arithmetic with a perforated sheet, Geometry with a rule, Astronomy with an armillary sphere, Music with an organ. The scene, imbued with themes related to the Neoplatonic Academy, takes place at night, perhaps because according to medieval literature the encounters between men and allegorical or mythological figures can only take place in dreams. The design is harmonious and delicate. The lines are elegant and play gracefully and decoratively  from one figure to another. The search for ideal beauty and harmony that takes place in the design and contour line is undeniable. The design of the figures is not purely decorative, but maintains a regard for the volume and the truthful rendering of the various materials, especially in the fabrics of the garments. The clear color, derived from the particular technique of the fresco, fills the figures with light, highlighting the penetrating purity of beauty. A typical characteristic of the artist is the serene and slightly melancholic look of the figures.


 A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts, 1486 by Sandro Botticelli
Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Vitruvian Man

Elvira Valentina Resta

ASAG Journal

April 22, 2020

Inspired by the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvia, in the 13th century, Leonardo da Vinci created one of the most iconic images known to humankind. Through the creation of the Vitruvian Man, da Vinci attempted to elevate humanity to a higher level, through the complete synthesis of mathematics, art, architecture the cosmos, philosophy, science and the divine.

The famous drawing "Studies of the proportions of the human body", the "Vitruvian Man",1490/95, (Galleries of the Academy in Venice) disappeared for more than four centuries.  In 1952, it was rediscovered and brought into being again, with an acute analysis by Rudolph Wittkower in his famous essay on proportions. Since then, it has moved from the archives of history to a larger place in the art world and popular culture-the golden reference for the perfect equation of the human form.
Across his yellow notebooks, in pen and ink,  Leonardo first drew the geometric figures that would define the symmetry of the anatomical proportions of the human body. Upon these structures his human figure began to emerge. The messy and decomposed writing of the artist/scientist on the pages of the famous image, establishes the anthropomorphic measures of man with respect to architecture, which was a great influence on his mind. Leonardo believed everything was connected and influenced by each other. And in fact, he designed cathedrals after the proportions, and in likeness to the human skull.
Leonardo’s work and ideas, born from the  Renaissance, are pure artifacts of the profound relationship between art and science. In the 1450’s, the concept of art and the laws of creation placed the Artist and Scientist in the same arena of knowledge and innovation. A symbiotic relationship that relied on one another for ingenuity and the birth of new ideas.  As Neoplatonism began to emerge, the thinkers of the time began to ponder how humans could climb the ladder of intellect in relationship to god.
According to this school of thought of the era, the Scientist strove to uncover the laws that govern the universe, while the Artist tried to materialize the rules and harmony of divine creation. Thus, through this partnership of cohesion and at times tension, the theory of perspective was born. Geometry and Euclidean optics was the new way of seeing the world. The drawing of the Vitruvian Man is a  mathematical portrait, with man inscribed in a square where the measure of the side of the square is given by the amplitude of the arms that, by the height of the human figure, is collected within a circumference.  Architect Franca Manetti Valli brought this deeper understanding of the work to the modern mind. According to her, the figure of da Vinci’s man presents key points: the jugular, the navel and the genital organ.  There is a precise relationship between the distances of these points and the measures that characterize the Vitruvian Man. She believed, as did other scholars, that these relationships are essentially dominated and defined by the golden ratio. 
Da Vinci’s ultimate “divine man” in beautiful composition, makes explicit reference to the square that reflects the earth and the circle that represents the otherworldly sphere, and the cosmos in relation to the microcosm of humanism. If you put a compass in the navel of the figure you can form the perfect circle, and with the arm and leg span, can create a perfect square, which is using the human form as a metaphor for the still unsolvable math problem of squaring a circle. The analysis of the movement of the limbs that form perfect geometrical expressions, reveal that when you mirror the rotation of the arms you get a rectangle. In the definition of the opening of the legs you get a square, and these two areas are equivalent to each other. The side of the rectangle that inscribes the arms is the golden section of the side of the square, and the legs move in perfect orchestration and precise imagery within this template. The golden section that contains the whole human figure is the precise geometric formula of Euclidian patterns. (Element, proposition 11).
This higher man is the ultimate love letter to the Divine. The Greek letter "Tau"  between the upper rectangle and the lower square is an etymological form of reverence.  Through the invention of the Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci positions humankind in the cosmos, not based on abstract idealism or irrational values, but with scientific formulas that can be built geometrically-exactly the same as any mathematical structure. 


Sofonisba Anguissola: The Renaissance Female Painter

Denise K. McTighe

ASAG Journal

April 22, 2020

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was a ground breaking Italian artist, although little talked about today , who opened the door for women to pursue the arts during the Italian Renaissance. Born in Cremona into nobility of modest means, her background directed her into the realm of the fine arts and higher education, where it was discovered she had the skills of a true master. Michelangelo himself promoted her abilities to the audience of the time, and she studied with him in Rome for two years.
She was commissioned by notable clients including the Spanish queen Elizabeth of Valois, where she later became her lady in waiting, and the Duke of Alba. 

After the Queen’s death , Anguissola married an aristocrat, and continued to further her career as highly respected and sought after painter, creating astounding canvasses that reflected her pure genius.
In Self-Portrait at an Easel Painting a Devotional Panel, late 1550s, The artist in modest attire, peers intently out with confidence from the canvas, establishing her virtuous place among the greats.

Pictured: "Self-Portrait", 1556 by Sofonisba Anguissola. Housed in the Lancut Museum, Poland


 Self-portrait, 1556 by Sofonisba Anguissola
Sofonisba Anguissola, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Werl Altarpiece (detail)

The Werl Altarpiece (detail) 1438
(oil on 3 piece panel) - by Robert Campin (c. 1375 – 26 April 1444), now usually identified as the Master of Flémalle
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Werl Altarpiece is a triptych altarpiece painting completed in Cologne in 1438, of which the center panel has been lost. The two remaining wings are now in the Prado in Madrid.


Michaelangelo's Moses

Michaelangelo's Moses is a marble sculpture made in 1513-15. One of the many amazing details of this Renaissance masterpiece is very small, as we can see here, when the artist shows us a muscle in the forearms that only contracts when lifting one's pinky finger. Michaelangelo brilliantly carves this movement in stone, using his subject, Moses, who is lifting his pinky, and therefore we can see that tiny muscle is being used. This detail, however rather invisible, demonstrates the true mastery of the great sculptor indeed.


'Moses' (1513-15) by Michelangelo
Jörg Bittner Unna, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Oculus from the Painted Room 

Oculus from the Painted Room (Camera Picta)
Artist: Andrea Mantegna c.1465–74

Gonzaga Palace, Mantua, Italy In a virtuoso display of perspective, Mantegna creates the illusion that the ceiling of the “Painted Room” opens on to the sky: servants and ladies peep down over a parapet, accompanied by cleverly foreshortened putti.


Oculus on the ceiling of the Spouses Chamber, 1473 by Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Monarchs at Urbino

Innovating Techniques & Renaissance Ideals

from Tradition to Individualism

Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

April 22, 2020

Piero della Francesca was one of the most innovative Old Masters of the Quattrocento. His diptych painting of ‘The Duke and Duchess of Urbino’ shows us why he was a leading pioneer in technique and humanist ideals during the early Italian Renaissance period.

Piero della Francesca (1415-92) was a painter who believed that artistic compositions should convey the purity of geometric forms and accuracy of linear perspective. He was known to his contemporaries as a geometer and was also later dubbed the "monarch of painting" by Luca Pacioli, a late Renaissance mathemetician who collaborated with Leonardo da Vinci. Piero was from the Republic of Florence but spent much time at the walled medieval town of Urbino in the Le Marche region of central Italy. Today Urbino is known for its remarkable historical legacy of Renaissance art and is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is considered a Renaissance gem because it experienced a golden age of culture in the mid-15th-century when the powerful Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1444-82), established his court there. He was ‘a military leader, a man of letters and a patron of the arts, under his stewardship, Urbino attracted the greatest artists, architects, and scholars of the day and became a thriving artistic centre’. (1) It is here where Piero della Francesca, under the patronage of Montefeltro, painted the famous double portrait of the monarch Federico and his wife Battista Sforza (1446-72), known as the ‘The Duke and Duchess of Urbino’ (c. 1465-72). This artwork, in essence, demonstrates the cultural rebirth and innovation of the period as well as illustrates a number of key iconographies that the Renaissance would become noted for, including:

  • traditional styles and revival of Classical art forms

  • patronage and use

  • the rejuvenation of faith in the nobility of man (humanism)

  • the mastery of illusionistic painting technique in which Piero maximizes 'depth' through linear perspective, foreshortening, and geometry

  • the naturalistic realism in the faces and figures, enhanced by oil painting techniques like sfumato

  • individualism and Christian allegories


In this iconographical analysis, we can describe and interpret the painting and comment on why some elements are represented the way they are. We can also consider why the subject matter and technique are significant to the Italian Renaissance art movement's overall context.


‘The Duke and Duchess of Urbino’ portraitures
by Piero della Francesca 1473–1475

(Credit: Wikipedia, 2018)
Piero della Francesca, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cultural rebirth and innovation
Prior to the Renaissance, the bust and portrait genre had all but disappeared during the Middle Ages, and portraitures were something we rarely saw in Europe for centuries. This is because, in medieval society, it was believed to be too proud and arrogant to have individual images produced for the sake of posterity. However, in the Renaissance, there was a resurgence of all things Greek and Roman, including the rebirth of portraiture. The renewal of this style can be seen fully in Piero’s ‘The Duke and Duchess’ which took a very humanistic approach, and furthermore, was innovative because it was one of the first portraits of the period - and a double one at that. Within an objective view of this work, we can also consider ‘The Duke and Duchess’ as a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art because it employed such groundbreaking applications with the use of geometry and perspective for the viewer. 

Patronage and use

We know that Federico da Montefeltro was the patron of this work, which helps us to unlock the key to its multifaceted meanings and use. It was initially commissioned in 1465 to celebrate the couple’s union and their dominion over Urbino. However, sadly Battista had died young giving birth, so Piero completed her portrait in 1472 from a death mask, and so it became more of a commemorative work for the duke to remember his wife by. Thus we can view its use from two contexts, one - as a statement of matrimony and power, and two - as a memorial for the duke in his home after his wife’s untimely death.

The materials used were tempera paint on wood panels and it was executed as such to be viewed as a large diptych, which is a painting specially made into a monumental altarpiece, with two hinged wooden panels that may be opened and closed like a book. The cover panels feature another set of paintings that add to the overall theme. 


Traditional styles and revival of Classical art forms

As we can see with this double portrait, the sitters were actually painted on two separate panels. In this period, men and women, even husbands and wives, were nearly always portrayed apart in compositions as per Renaissance ideologies. The roles of men and women were strictly defined in the culture as men were expected to go out to work, rule, or fight, whereas women should stay home, caring for the household - or at least ensuring the staff did. With individuals during the Renaissance, the sexes traditionally occupied different and distinct fictive spaces. However, as we can see in this overall work, the stylized backgrounds help to unify the duke and duchess figures in both the main portrait scenes and cover panel scenes. In the main portrait scenes, we can note that the duke and duchess are also lined up to perfectly meet each other’s gaze. Thus we can commend Piero’s efforts to connect his subject matter with his methodical approach to symmetry and his ability to circumvent traditional norms.

Upon viewing, we see the duke and dutchess are painted from the bottom of their chests up, like busts from antiquity. The use of the bust-length profile was an attempt to recreate ruler portraits as seen on coins from the classical age and to convey a position of power. These kinds of Classical art form recreations were only obtainable for wealthy individuals, as ‘humanist courts of the 15th century were very fond of collecting coins of ancient Rome.’ (2) Traditionally the sitters of a profile portrait like this face the right, but because of the duke's deformities suffered during his military career, this was not favorable for him, the painter or the composition. And so we derive that Piero circumvented tradition yet again while adding to the overall impression of the subject matter. By facing the duke towards his wife, it adds power to the bond they share, and as in this specific case, it is a bond that transcends even death.


The rejuvenation of faith in the nobility of man (humanism)
With the diptych, we can see that Piero depicts his subjects in a nuanced dynastic and celebratory theme with elements of serene humanism at the heart of his overall composition. The portraits present the duke and his wife as a couple who hold divine-like powers as ‘they seem to occupy a somewhat elevated position against a unified landscape that continues from one panel to the other and extends all the way to the horizon.’ (3) Thus we can consider the nobility themed metaphors associated with how the sitters are situated relative to the background landscape. Their heads are positioned in the sky and can be interpreted as being in a celestial or ethereal realm. Their bodies are on earth and they can also be seen as being in a corporeal or physical state. Overall this idea of a heavenly place for their minds and a grounded place for their bodies on earth can be representative of the Renaissance humanist philosophy of ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’, which is a Latin phrase that translates to "a sound mind in a healthy body" (4)


Position of the sitters to the background & ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’
(Credit: Youtube, 2020)

Upon viewing the background landscape, we can see how it is a highly detailed and accurate reflection of the lands the pair have control over. ‘This “world landscape” of fields, bodies of water, mountains, and settlements represents the dominion of the Montefeltros and symbolizes the “good rule” of the duke and duchess.’ (5) It feels as if Piero sets the entire scene up to illustrate how the couple rules over Urbino justly and watchfully with a bird’s eye view. The artist paints us a vast, all-encompassing country scene to emphasize the couple's significance, which can be representative of the Renaissance trend of moving towards a greater focus on individualism.

The mastery of illusionistic painting technique
(depth through linear perspective, foreshortening, and geometry)

The duke brought many skilled artisans to Urbino's epicenter, including some Northern Renaissance painters who may have influenced this particular work's intricate details with their northern technique styles of painting. During the Renaissance, knowledge in the artistic application of things was passed on with comradery between artists, and ‘in this work Piero enriches his knowledge of traditional Florentine painting with a meditation on Flemish art’. (6) As we can notice, his skill with the southern linear perspective is mixed with the northern attention to detail in this one composition, which intensifies the illusion of foreshortening. Piero adds a volume to the lands, a mass to the rolling hills, the countryside, and the structures that occupy it, which helps us comprehend how vast the background space is. He also paints the horizon to stretch out and has the imagery become smaller and smaller. The colors then lose its vibrancy, grow fainter, and all the details appear to naturally fade away into the distance, just as our natural peripheral vision would upon looking out and over Urbino from a mountain top.

When we look at the entire composition and try to soak it all in, we find the relationship between the Urbino landscape and the portrait sitters in the foreground feels very close. With the monarchs' portraits, in their hieratic profiles, we get the sense of how they dominate the painting just as they dominate over the expanse of their territories depicted in an extraordinary landscape extending so far that its boundaries are lost in the misty distance. The painting's audacity lies within this sudden switch between such distant perspective planes and the closeness its main subjects.  


Accurate details and perspective (top) modern Urbino landscape (bottom) Piero’s perspective switch
(Credit: Wikipedia, 2022 Piero’s perspective switch)

The naturalistic realism in the faces and figures, enhanced by oil painting techniques like sfumato
The diptych's primary focus is on a detailed representation of the couple's facial features and the jewelry and complicated braided hairstyle of Battista Sforza. With the duchess, we can also get a clear sense of feminine ideals and the aristocratic fashion style of the mid-15th-century for lady monarchs. This is rare for us because there were not many portraitures of women produced during the Renaissance, and very few survived to offer such insights. When we look at Battista in all her glory, it feels like we are being shown a bit of social commentary due to such a realistic portrayal of her likeness and stature in society. Piero captures traits that embody everything about being feminine and aristocratic in the Renaissance, with her pale and purposefully blanched skin (a tan complexion implied too much exposure to the outdoors, and would be regarded as "common"), bleached blonde hair (a rare head color in Italy), a high plucked forehead (considered in fashion). A sign of the times.


Battista’s braided hair (left) & Examples of refined jewelry and embroidered garment (right)
(Credit: Youtube, 2020)

‘The gentle profile of the duchess contrasts with the angular features of Federico da Montefeltro and his wrinkled warty cheeks. Although he is dressed in the bright red of a civic ruler, his peremptory expression alludes to his past as a condottiere (military captain).’ (7) With many other princely rulers, Fredrico achieved his stature and fortune by working hard as a mercenary in command of a group of men, so his rugged appearance displays his many virtues. Conversely, we feel the duchess seems pure and untarnished as opposed to Fredrico who is visibly tanned, with moles and blemishes. Since Battista's portrait was posthumous it may have added resonance to the pallor of her skin and other contrasts we see between the two figures. Humility in the face of Battista's death might also explain the simplicity of the duke's dress. Red fabric was the most expensive and in some realms specifically restricted to ruling classes or to indicate a wealthy merchant, yet it appears to us here as not nearly as elaborate as Battista's dress, with gold brocade sleeves and impressively set jewels.
With the duke, we see his nose is also portrayed as very naturalistic in terms of Renaissance ideals, as it shows how he was missing the bridge from previous injuries. When we look at him we get the sense that Piero painted in an almost photo-realistic style, or as close as one could get during the time, he does not show the deformities on the right side of the duke’s face but still shows warts, wrinkles, a dark beard, and whispy hair.


Naturalistic portrayals of Federico’s features
(Credit:Youtube, 2020)

Individualism and Christian allegories

The outside panel paintings act as a precursor for the portraits and show the sitters before their marriage. Piero works in some traditional Christian theology on the cover portion of the diptych as we see the duke and duchess' allegorical portrayals in society and spiritualism. When we look at the scene on the left, we notice the duke is dressed in his glorious armor and riding upon his horse carriage with the Cardinals of Virtue, Justice, Fortitude, Wisdom, and Prudence. This can symbolize his worthiness of a union with the duchess. When we look to the other side on the right, we see the duchess being drawn not by horses but by unicorns which we can interpret as a symbol ‘associated with chastity and virginity (and could only be captured by a virgin) and also with Christ’s love of mankind.’ (8) Piero paints her moving toward the duke and towards holy matrimony. Thus, the impression we get here is that she has found the right man to marry in both earthly and spiritual realms and we get some understanding of these individual's personal traits and romantic story.


Diptych painting cover panels
(Credit: Wikipedia,2005)
Piero della Francesca, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Piero’s ‘The Duke and Duchess’ emphasizes some iconic traits which overall add to the power of this masterpiece and ‘his painting art is characterized by its serene humanism and its use of geometric forms, particularly in relation to perspective.’ (9) Piero helped the art of the day transition to a more humanistic outlook with a greater degree of individualism as exemplified in the Montefeltro's diptych paintings. He created a work of extreme sentimental value and incorporated some learned northern technique.

The Renaissance would change the world as people found new ways of doing things better. And while at Urbino, painting this work, Piero della Francesca became a true Renaissance man and monarch of painting in his own right. His elaborate and methodic artistic approach with ‘The Duke and Duchess of Urbino’ illustrates why he is one of the most admired 15th-century Italian painters and a forerunner to other skilled artists who used mathematics including Leonardo Da Vinci.


  1. Bridget (2019) One Day in Urbino, Italy: A Renaissance Gem, The Flash Packer, Available at 

  2. Puchko,K. (2017) 15 Facts About 'Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino', Mental Floss, Available at 

  3. King, R & Grebe, A. (2015) Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, p.231 

  4. Dr. P, (2013) A Healthy Mind In a Healthy Body: Mens Sana in Corpore Sano, Dr. Pribut's Blog, Available at

  5. King, R & Grebe, A. (2015) Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, p.231 

  6. Piero della Francesca, Travelling In Tuscany, Available at 

  7. King, R & Grebe, A. (2015) Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers 

  8. Royal Unicorn, The Heraldic Sculptor, Available at 

  9. Diptych Portrait of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1472), Travelling in Tuscany, Available at,his%20works%20reflect%20these%20interests.

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