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Piero della Francesca: The Duke and Duchess

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 8, 2019

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Piero della Francesca: The Duke and Duchess of Urbino

The Virtues of Montefeltro and Battista

by Gertjan Schutte

The Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy contains many treasures. Among the best-known works are not only Michelangelo’s Tondo and Botticelli’s Primavera, but also Piero della Francesca’s diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza, the doppio ritratto [double portrait]. Montefeltro was a successful warlord, who had himself, together with his wife, pictured as a successful and virtuous couple. Here I want to expand on the virtues that are pictured in this diptych and the self-image that is thereby brought to expression.

In the fifteenth century Italy consisted of a disorderly collection of city states that regularly fought each other, yet without any one party achieving lasting dominance. Every state, often led by a single family, tried to increase its influence via little wars and political marriages. Even the popes took part in this. They made their ‘nephews’ cardinal and their ‘nieces’ marry other parties, while the papal armies waged wars to advance political power. Erasmus, the Christian moralist and humanist from Rotterdam, was shocked to witness the attack on Bologna by the papal armies, led by Pope Julius II himself.

This kind of warfare was a small-scale and strategic sparring match with professional soldiers and their leaders, the so-called condottieri. Therefore, these wars offered cunning, hardened men a career as mercenaries. As an illegitimate son of either Count Urbino or condottiero Bernardino Ubaldini, Federico began his career as soldier in his teenage years. He fought for the Sforza family of Milan, for the Medici of Florence and also for the pope, always with an eye to his own advantage. He was exceptionally successful in this and was rewarded by the pope, who appointed him Duke of Urbino in 1474.

The other side of Montefeltro’s personality consisted of his attention to culture. He amassed an extensive library that was brought to the Vatican by a later pope. He also attached artists and writers to his court and gave them commissions.

Montefeltro’s cultural and military success was surrounded by many myths. This was a conscious strategy of the duke himself. During his life he devoted much attention to creating a certain persona. The aim here is not to separate myth from reality, but to look more closely at this self-image.

The double portrait that Piero della Francesca made at about 1465, commissioned by Federico, presents an interesting picture. In the front side of the diptych Montefeltro and his wife are pictured from the side, facing each other. Their faces are placed against the background of the mountains, rivers and defensive works of middle Italy, the landscape that Federico had conquered and now partly ruled.

Federico and his wife Battista show no emotions. There is not a trace of anxiety, fear, or exaggerated pride. Instead, Della Francesca shows them as rulers with almost stoic self-control, who with complete self-confidence can and will give shape to their own environment. The landscape in the painting is not the ‘landscape of the heart,’ of a fictitious inner world. Federico and Battista control themselves and the land of Middle-Italy.

The portrayal of Federico and Battista shows strength, courage, and especially a lot of self-confidence. But on what is that based? The reverse of the diptych gives us an answer: it shows how the couple approach each other on two ostentatious carriages across a rugged, mountainous landscape. Federico, on the left, is sitting at the back of the carriage. The figure behind him represents victory, while the four figures at the front represent four virtues.

These are the four cardinal virtues. Prudentia represents the capacity to do the right thing at the right moment in the correct measure, or intelligence and wisdom. Fortitudo refers to the capacity to persevere under difficult circumstances, hence to strength and tenacity. Justice represents acting well and righteously. Temperantia represents the happy medium, for moderation in action and equanimity in temperament.

Battista is also accompanied by four virtues. First of all these are the virtues of faith, hope and love. The fact that Battista esteems these virtues is confirmed by the prayer book she is holding. The fourth virtue is pudicitia, [chastity], which refers to the sexual purity of Battista.

On the one hand the cardinal virtues are masculine and the other virtues feminine, on the other hand man and wife form a unity. Strength and good judgment are masculine, while respectability and being devoted to God are considered feminine. This division is complementary; husband and wife complement each other. Together they make the enormous military and cultural success of Montefeltro possible.

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Piero della Francesca: The Duke and Duchess of Urbino, 1465-1472, tempera, 47 cm × 66 cm. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Piero della Francesca was an artist and mathematician who with his paintings contributed to the Renaissance of painting, above all through his use of perspective. He is known for his portraits of rulers and his religious paintings and frescoes, for example, his Christ-cycle in the Saint Francis Church in Arezzo.

Gertjan Schutte is a historian and works at the European University Institute in Florence. His interest is in the intersection of history, religion, art, and philosophy.

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ON THE WEBSITE   NEW ON THE WEBSITE   NEWS

1. CANADIAN MAGAZINE – Ekstasis, based in Toronto, was born in 2016. Art meets academia, kingdom meets culture; beautiful aesthetic design merged with thoughtful intellectualism and faithful orthodoxy. Ekstasis plays a unique role in the world of literary publications. We feature essays, interviews, photography and design that demonstrate the spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic depths latent within the Christian understanding of human life. Also online. Sends out a bi-weekly newsletter. https://www.ekstasismagazine.com/

2. THIS SUNDAY MORPHE ARTS ON SONGS OF PRAISE – Sunday 8 September, 1.45 pm, Morphē Arts on Songs of Praise on the BBC.

3. WILLIAM BLAKE IN THE TATE – 11 September 2019 - 2 February 2020, Tate Britain, Millbank, London: William Blake. William Blake was a painter, printmaker and poet who created some of the most iconic images in British art. Radical and rebellious, he is an inspiration to visual artists, musicians, poets and performers worldwide. His personal struggles in a period of political terror and oppression, his technical innovation, his vision and political commitment, have perhaps never been more pertinent. Inside the exhibition will be an immersive recreation of the small domestic room in which Blake showed his art in 1809. You will be able to experience for yourself the impact these works had when they were shown for the first time. In another room, Blake’s dream of showing his works at enormous scale will be made reality using digital technology. With over 300 original works, including his watercolours, paintings and prints, this is the largest show of Blake’s work for almost 20 years. It will rediscover him as a visual artist for the 21st century. Monday-Sunday 10am-6pm. www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain

4. NEW BOOK – Chloë Reddaway, Strangeness and Recognition: Mystery and Familiarity in Renaissance Paintings of Christ, Brepols, 2019. How do you paint a figure who is fully human and fully divine?  How do you paint Christ? Strangeness and Recognition takes a fresh look at well-known Renaissance paintings of Christ and shows how surprising and deeply 'strange' they can be. This book brings an imaginative and affective theological perspective to the viewing experience as it explores the twin roles played by ‘strangeness’ and ‘recognition’ in responding to the challenge of creating and relating to images of Christ. By confounding expectations and defamiliarizing subject matter, the ambiguity and mystery of these paintings disturbs viewers’ expectations and reconnects them with the extraordinary mystery of the Incarnation. Read more

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Other recent meditations:
- September 2019: Friedl Dicker-Brandeis: Art in Terezín
- August 2019: Helene Schjerfbeck: Self-Portrait Black Background
- August 2019: Gao Zhen: Execution of Christ
- August 2019: Johannes Wickert: Beggars

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists