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Federico da Montefeltro, “Clarus Virorum”

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday, we looked at the library of Federico da Montefeltro (1422-82), the duke of Urbino, who turned his little fiefdom into one of Italy’s major cultural centers. Among the many artists who benefitted from his patronage was the painter Piero della Francesca (1415 ca. – 1492), a master of the art of perspective, on which he wrote an influential treatise. His most famous work, and perhaps the most famous portraits of the Italian Renaissance after the Mona Lisa, is a double portrait of Federico and his wife Battista (1446-72). It is generally believed that these were made separately, although they were long displayed facing each other in a single cornice: Federico’s first in about 1465, and Battista’s some time after her death in 1472.

The portraits in profile are deliberately reminiscent of similar images on ancient Roman coins and medallions. The serenity of their faces is intended to reflect the serenity which they as rulers brought to their lands, shown in the background. In 1450, Federico had lost his right eye and the bridge of his nose from an injury suffered in a tournament, and was therefore always show in paintings from the left side.

(Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The classical inspiration is also very evident on the reverse of the two panels, which show the couple as if they were celebrating a triumph in the fashion of ancient Roman generals. This motif is inspired by the Triumphs of Francesco Petrarch, a series of allegorical poems about the triumphs of various abstractions such as Love, Chastity etc. Federico, armored and holding a sceptre, sits on wagon drawn by two white horses, while the winged figure of Victory stands behind him, crowning him with laurels. This refers to his remarkably successful career as a “condottiere”, the commander of a company of mercenary soldiers, which he began at the age of 16. In front of him are seated the four philosophical virtues, of which he represents the embodiment: Justice with a sword and scale, Prudence with a mirror, Fortitude with a broken column (reminiscent of the Biblical figure of Sampson), and Temperance, whose face and traditional attribute, a set of reins, are sacrificed to the demands of perspective.

Battista, one of the most educated noblewomen of her times, triumphs through the exercise of the theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, which are seen as more becoming a woman and a wife. Her cart is drawn by two unicorns, a common medieval symbol of chastity.

The inscriptions on the painted architectural bases below them are designed to be read as a pair. The first, that of Federico, begins with the word “clarus”, and the second, that of Battista, ends with the words “virorum”, looking back to the title of Roman senators “vir clarissimus”, and thus associating the couple with the virtues of the ancient Romans, which are perfected by the Christian virtues, and united in the sacrament of matrimony.

Both are written in Sapphic stanzas. Federico’s reads as follow:

Clarus insigni vehitur triumpho
quem parem summis ducibus perhennis
fama virtutum celebrat decenter
sceptra tenentem.

In triumph renowned is carried that illustrious man, whom the ever-lasting fame of his virtues fittingly celebrates as the equal of the greatest leaders, as he holds the sceptre. (The words “parem summis ducibus – the equal of the greatest leaders” probably allude to Federico’s ambition to be made a duke, which was realized in 1474.

And Battista’s:

Que modum rebus tenuit secundis
coniugis magni decorata rerum
laude gestarum volitat per ora
cuncta virorum.

She who maintained moderation in favorable circumstances flies on the mouths of all men, adorned with the praise of her great spouse’s deeds.

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