Review of Urbino: The Story of a Renaissance City

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June Osborne, Urbino: The Story of a Renaissance City. Photographs by Joe Cornish. Foreword by Sir John Mortimer. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2003. 208 pp., 140 colour illus. £35.00. ISBN 0-7112-2086-7.

The court of the Montefeltro and Della Rovere Dukes of Urbino was one of the most brilliant, intellectually and visually, of Renaissance Italy. It reached its greatest glory during the rule of Federigo da Montefeltro in the second half of the fifteenth century. Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Federigo’s only legitimate son, died without an heir in 1508, and the duchy passed to his nephew Francesco Maria I Della Rovere. After the extinction of the Della Rovere dynasty in 1631, Urbino devolved to the Papal States and sank into a period of decline. Although Giovanfrancesco Albani, member of a prominent local family, plucked Urbino from that humiliating state when he was elected Pope Clement XI in 1700, Urbino’s second re-nascence was all too brief. Clement XI died in 1721, and his native town soon returned to a state of provincial somnambulance. When Augustus Hare visited it in the 1870s he observed ‘the extraordinary beauty of the inhabitants, especially of the young men. Humanity flourishes here while all else is in decay. ( . . . ) There is scarcely a house, a street, or a church in Urbino that does not now wear a deserted and desolate aspect; even the grand palace of the Dukes, formerly not to be outshone for brilliancy by any Court in Europe, is tenantless or given up to base uses’ (Cities of Northern and Central Italy, II, New York 1876, pp. 420–21).

Such criticism can no longer be levied at Urbino. After World War II, a number of skilled soprintendenti, most notably Pasquale Rotondi, began to restore the fabric of Federigo da Montefeltro’s Ducal Palace to something approaching its former splendour. There is, however, another circumstance that has contributed significantly to the city’s rediscovered Renaissance magic, namely that Urbino has managed to survive the post-war era in a kind of time capsule. The hideous mushrooming of modern industry and housing that has blighted such former jewels as Florence has not yet engulfed Urbino.

One’s first glimpse of Urbino’s Ducal Palace from the winding mountain road still quickens many a heartbeat. Curve follows curve from Urbania to Urbino, when suddenly, a kilometre or so outside the city, the twin tower façade materializes through the trees, like a gigantic stage set. The façade’s alignment with the road is not accidental. For centuries travellers arriving from the Papal States to the south have rounded the same curve and have been thrilled by the same awesome first sight of Urbino.

Although it has never been easily accessible, Urbino in its heyday was far from isolated, thanks to the fame of the Montefeltro and Della Rovere dukes in matters military and cultural, and to Castiglione’s widely read Book of the Courtier. The links with England are especially numerous and begin in 1474 when Federigo da Montefeltro received the Order of the Garter. John Scrope, 5th Baron Scrope of Bolton, visited the Ducal Palace in 1475. In 1504 Federigo’s son Guidobaldo was nominated to the Order of the Garter, and Baldassare Castiglione travelled to England in 1506 as his proxy. Polidoro Virgilio, a humanist from Urbino, lived in England from 1502 to 1552. The Welshman William Thomas spent time in Urbino between 1544 and 1548 and wrote with admiration about the duchy’s two principal cities, Urbino and Pesaro, in The Historie of Italy, published 1549. Pope Clement XI, who supported the cause of the Catholic Stuarts of Britain, invited James III, the Old Pretender, to take up residence in the former Ducal Palace of Urbino, which James did in 1717–18, returning in 1722. Early in the nineteenth century, the Scot James Dennistoun came to Urbino to look at art; he ended up spending six years researching and writing three volumes on the history and culture of Urbino, entitled Memoirs of the Dukes ofUrbino 1440–1630. In 1873, John Morris Moore generously helped the Accademia Raffaello (founded 1869) to purchase Raphael’s birth-house for its headquarters. And today it is largely the Accademia Raffaello, with its activities and publications, that maintains the links between Urbino and England.

The Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino, which was republished in 1909 with notes by Edward Hutton, is still the most widely read work on the subject. If, in the mid-twentieth century, the historian Denis Mack Smith had not switched his interest from Montefeltro to Mussolini, our understanding of Renaissance Urbino doubtlessly would have been greatly enriched. As it is, no one has yet surpassed, or indeed matched, James Dennistoun’s masterful coverage of a long and complicated story, although scholars such as Cecil Clough have written countless articles about specific aspects of the dukes and the duchy.

But Urbino has always had – and will always have – its passionate amateurs, and June Osborne is one of these, determined to share her love of Urbino with the wider public. The photographs illustrating her book Urbino, most of which were especially commissioned from the renowned Joe Cornish, are achingly beautiful. Subtitled The Story of a Renaissance City, Osborne’s book is, in fact, much more, beginning with an account of the Roman settlement and taking the story up to the twentieth century. She organizes the material into twelve chapters, the longest of which are those on the Ducal Palace and on painting in fifteenth-century Urbino. The information on Roman and early medieval Urbino will be especially interesting to the English audience since most of the secondary literature on the subject is in Italian. To allow the reader to appreciate Urbino’s (and Federigo da Montefeltro’s) place in the political affairs of early Renaissance Italy, Osborne provides a readable historical context in the fourth chapter, ‘Prelude to a Golden Age.’ We are introduced to Federigo in chapter five. Osborne presents not only Federigo the warrior, but also Federigo the ruler of a court, in which she is guided by the well-informed fifteenth-century bookseller and biographer Vespasiano da Bisticci. The following three chapters are about architecture, scholarship, and painting, all focusing on Federigo’s patronage. Chapter nine has a slightly misleading title – ‘Later Days of the Duchy’ – for it stops with Guidobaldo, Federigo’s only legitimate heir, who died childless in 1508. The Duchy of Urbino continued to flourish, however, under the leadership of Guidobaldo’s nephew Francesco Maria I Della Rovere, adopted by his uncle as heir in 1503. In chapter ten, ‘The Arts in the Later Days of the Duchy,’ Osborne gives a useful overview of the general situation, which she highlights with a few masterpieces by Raphael, Titian and Barocci; she also illustrates the arts of maiolica, music, dance, poetry, and theatre, concentrating, whenever possible, on the earlier Montefeltro period. Urbino from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries is treated in the last chapter, under the rubric ‘Over the Hill.’ Perhaps the most useful chapter for the Englishspeaking student will be chapter eleven, devoted to Baldassare Castiglione, a Mantuan nobleman who served the court of Urbino from approximately 1505 to 1516. It was there, during Guidobaldo’s reign, that Castiglione began collecting material for his Book of the Courtier, which is constructed along the lines of a four-day symposium. Osborne gives brief biographies of all the people participating in the conversations and provides a detailed summary of each of the work’s four parts.

With its spectacular photographic apparatus, the book is sumptuous and a pleasure to look at. Clearly much care has been lavished on its physical appearance. This makes it all the more remarkable that a few typographical errors and mistaken captions nevertheless survived the editing process. Some errors occur in place names (p. 22 Pagannuccio/Paganuccio; p. 31 Faenze/Faenza); others are mis-spelt words or inverted dates (p. 56 greivous/grievous; p. 85 corrame/corame; p. 97 1497/1479; p. 176 Capella/Cappella; p. 194 in notes 4 and 6 for Chapter 2 Luni’s title has inconsistent spelling; p. 198, note 10 of Chapter 10, Isituto/Istituto). Names and titles also should have been re-checked: on p. 67 Osborne refers to Dennistoun’s book as Memoirs of the Counts of Urbino; on p. 108 Justus of Ghent’s Communion of Apostles has become the Communion of Saints, although it was correctly identified on p. 104; on p. 124 she claims that Federico Gonzaga married Isabella d’Este, while in fact it was Francesco (correctly named on p. 127). The photograph on p. 36 illustrates the former site of one of the three cloisters of S. Francesco, destroyed in the 1890s and now known popularly as the Piazza delle Erbe; Osborne’s caption implies that the photograph is of the Piazza della Repubblica, which is in fact further up the road (a map of Urbino with its modern street names would have been a most useful addition to Osborne’s book, and not only in this instance). On p. 38 the caption mistakenly identifies a view of S. Francesco as that of the ‘Scalzi.’

Other inaccuracies are of fact: the chronicler Giovanni Villani is not from Perugia but from Florence (p. 32); it was not Girolamo Genga, but his son, Bartolomeo, who built the top floor of the Palazzo Ducale (p. 136); the eighteenth-century guidebook to Urbino was composed by Pope Clement XI for the visit of Mons. Origo and Lancisi, not the other way around (p. 178); and the unicorns on the vault of the ‘King of England’s Room’ are not the unicorns of Scotland, but one of the symbols of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, for whom the room was originally decorated in the sixteenth century (pp. 178–79).

The condensation of a long and complex tale into a readable text of less than 200 pages will inevitably result in some confusion. We are told, for instance, that the last duke was forced to flee to Urbania, taking his library of manuscripts with him (p. 100), but in fact Casteldurante (as Urbania was then known) had been Francesco Maria II’s preferred place of residence since the 1590s, whence he transferred his library of printed books, leaving the manuscript collection in the palace in Urbino.

More critical editing might have allowed Osborne to modify suggestions that are anachronistic or questionable. For example, she imagines that the floor of the Urbino library had been covered by a carpet (p. 100), an unlikely arrangement since the beautifully tiled floor was meant to be seen, and carpets were then used to cover tables rather than pavements. Piero della Francesca’s diptych with the portraits of Federigo da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza is a small and exquisite work painted on both sides, which most certainly did not hang on the wall of the enormous Throne Room in the Ducal Palace (p. 116). It is much more likely to have been kept in a protective container and stored in a secure place with other costly artefacts, to be brought out for the pleasure of important guests. And the shaky hypothesis (first aired by Fert Sangiorgi, without foundation, in Documenti urbinati) that Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola had originally hung in the Cappella del Perdono of the Palazzo Ducale (pp. 138, 176) is repeated as though it were a solid fact. Osborne’s assertion that the famous performance in 1513 of Cardinal Bibbiena’s play La Calandria was staged in a room on the ground floor of the Ducal Palace (p. 149) is also dubious, since most authorities have argued convincingly that it took place in the Throne Room.

There are many accessible and reliable sources for much of the material covered by Osborne, and she usually gives credit where it is due. Perhaps, then, it was simply an oversight not to have acknowledged that the English translation of ‘Count Federico’s Concessions’ (pp. 56–57) comes directly from Dennistoun’s publication (Vol. I, Appendix IV).

The reaction by a native of Urbino when he first looked through Osborne’s book is, I believe, a credible forecast of what will be its enduring importance: in tones of the most profound awe and admiration he exclaimed that he was heading out immediately to show the book to the local professional photographers – one of whom, it must be said, is very talented – to show them how a real artist saw their city.

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