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The Monarchs at Urbino

Innovating Techniques & Renaissance Ideals

from Tradition to Individualism

Randy H. Sooknanan

Art & History Writer

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.

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‘The Duke and Duchess of Urbino’ portraitures

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. 

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Outside door cover panel paintings

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Two main inside portrait paintings

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.

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Duke and Dutchess in likeness to ancient Roman emperor coins

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)

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Position of the sitters to the background & ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’

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.  

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Accurate details and perspective (top) modern Urbino landscape (bottom) 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.

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Battista’s braided hair (left) & Examples of refined jewelry and embroidered garment (right)

‘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.

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Naturalistic portrayals of Federico’s features

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.

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Diptych painting cover panels

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.

Bibliography and References:

  1. Bridget (2019) One Day in Urbino, Italy: A Renaissance Gem, The Flash Packer, Available at https://theflashpacker.net/day-in-urbino-renaissance-gem/ 

  2. Puchko,K. (2017) 15 Facts About 'Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino', Mental Floss, Available at https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/77617/15-facts-about-portraits-duke-and-duchess-urbino 

  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 https://www.drpribut.com/wordpress/2013/01/a-healthy-mind-in-a-healthy-body-mens-sana-in-corpore-sano/

  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 http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/pierodellafrancesca.htm 

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

  8. Royal Unicorn, The Heraldic Sculptor, Available at http://www.heraldicsculptor.com/royal%20unicorn.htm 

  9. Diptych Portrait of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1472), Travelling in Tuscany, Available at http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/pierodellafrancesca/montefeltroportraits.htm#:~:text=Piero%20della%20Francesca%2C%20an%20Italian,his%20works%20reflect%20these%20interests.