Preface to Denis Mack Smith's Federigo da Montefeltro

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There have probably been more biographies of Federigo da Montefeltro than of any other man of his period.[1] One of the earliest was written during his lifetime by a man very close to him, his secretary and chancellor Pierantonio Paltroni.[2] Soon after Federigo’s death, the Florentine Vespasiano da Bisticci paid tribute to his extraordinary qualities in his collection of lives of illustrious men, giving him the longest biography of all.[3] Federigo’s fame did not diminish over the succeeding centuries, when some of the biographies that had remained in manuscript form were finally published. Then, in 1978, almost five hundred years after Federigo’s death, Walter Tommasoli brought out a meticulously documented study, which remains the most authoritative secondary source on Federigo in Italian, just as James Dennistoun’s Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino (1851) still ranks as the standard work in English.[4]

In 1961 Denis Mack Smith published a biographical essay on Federigo,[5] which is here republished in the original English version, together with a specially commissioned Italian translation.[6] If Dennistoun and Tommasoli gave us what might be described as the written equivalent of the grand state portrait, Mack Smith presents us with an informal and charming miniature. Yet it is not only in size that Mack Smith’s biography stands apart from all the modern publications on Federigo. It is different also because of Mack Smith’s technique—simple and masterful at the same time—for constructing the biography. He uses the same elements as do the other biographers, taking the details of Federigo’s character from contemporary sources, and relating the historical background from his own (twentieth-century) viewpoint. Instead of blending Federigo into the panorama of the fifteenth century, however, Mack Smith keeps him prominently in the foreground. He lets us see the human, personal qualities of Federigo, which are as significant as any of the external factors or historical circumstances for understanding his political role. Thus, in place of the usual ‘official’ portrait of the ruler—in which he is admired, but remains remote—Mack Smith provides us with the picture of a man as accessible to the modern reader as (according to Vespasiano da Bisticci) Federigo himself was to his subjects.

Written in prose that is flowing and unpolluted by jargon, Mack Smith’s biographical essay is essential reading for appreciating Federigo da Montefeltro, both the public and private man.


[1] Riccardo Scrivano, “Il ritratto del principe: biografie di Federico di Montefeltro,” Il modello e l’esecuzione, Naples 1993, pp.23-41.

[2] Pierantonio Paltroni, Commentari della vita et gesti dell’illustrissimo Federico Duca d’Urbino, ed. W. Tommasoli, Urbino 1966.

[3] Vespasiano da Bisticci, Le vite, ed. A. Greco, Vol.I, Florence 1970, pp.355-416.

[4] Walter Tommasoli, La vita di Federico da Montefeltro, Urbino 1978; James Dennistoun, Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino, 3 volumes, London 1851; 2nd ed., London 1909, with notes by E. Hutton. Dennistoun’s chapters on Federigo are in Volume I, Book Second, Chapters IV-XII.

[5] Denis Mack Smith, “Federigo da Montefeltro,” in J.H. Plumb, Horizon Book of the Renaissance, New York 1961, pp.321-28.

[6] The Italian translation includes the references, omitted in the original English version,  for all the quotations in the text.

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This page last updated: September 8, 2005.