On this day in the year 1422 was born the creator of one of the great libraries of the Italian Renaissance, Federico da Montefeltro. He was a natural (and later legitimized) son of the count of Urbino, a small city in the Marches region of Italy, 160 miles almost directly north of Rome. At the age of sixteen, he began his career as a captain of a band of mercenary soldiers, or “condottiere” in Italian. On his father’s death in February of 1443, his younger half-brother Oddantonio, who was legitimate from birth, inherited his father’s titles. However, after ruling for only 16 months, Oddantonio was assassinated during a night-time raid on the ducal palace, and Federico (whose involvement in the murder was inevitably suspected, but has never been proved) succeeded to the title.
Due to his brother’s extravagant mismanagement, the duchy was in serious financial trouble, and Federico therefore continued his lucrative career as a condottiere, in which he was also highly successful from a military point of view. After some notable setbacks, he was able to consolidate the political position of Urbino against its local rivals, culminating with the marriage of his daughter to the favorite nephew of Pope Sixtus IV in 1474, at which point Urbino itself was permanently elevated to the rank of a duchy.
In 1460, he married his second wife, Battista Sforza, a daughter of one of the most powerful families in Italy, then 14 years old, and twenty-four years his junior. Battista was as well-educated as any prince of her era, fluent in both Greek and Latin, and once delivered a Latin oration before Pope Pius II, himself one of the most learned men in Europe. Despite the differences in age and background, their marriage was a truly happy and successful one. When Federico was away from Urbino on campaign, she often acted as his regent. After bearing him six daughters, and raising her husband’s three illegitimate children as her own, she died in 1472, a few months after giving birth to his only legitimate son and heir.
(Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, 1467-72, by Piero della Francesca. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Over the course of his career, Federico, inspired by his wife, and by the example of much greater and more important courts, made his tiny city (current population less than 14,000) into one of Italy’s great cultural centers. The ducal palace was rebuilt out of two older and much simpler structures into one of the finest princely residences on the peninsula. It is estimated that the book collection which Federico inherited had fewer than 100 items in it; by the time of his death, it had swelled to over 900, predominantly in Latin, with a good number in Greek, a few in other languages, and many vernacular translations of classical works. His acquisitions policy was guided not only by his wife, but also by a Florentine named Vespasiano da Bisticci, the most important bookseller of the 15th century. Over a third of the collection came from Florence, and the manuscripts were decorated by some of the finest artists of the era, among them, the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, the future teacher of Michelangelo. He was also the patron of many architects and painters, most notably, the great Piero della Francesca.
The library was very much a symbol of Federico’s personal ambitions and status, and after his death in 1482, was not cultivated with anywhere near the same passion by his immediate successors. However, a century after the elevation of Urbino to a duchy, the title was inherited by another ardent bibliophile, Francesco Maria II della Rovere (1549-1631), who doubled the library’s manuscript holdings, and acquired literally tens of thousands of printed books, by then the new standard. He also created a new ducal residence in the small town of Casteldurante (now called Urbania), a few miles away from Urbino, to which he moved the entire library. On his death without heir, and the extinction of the duchy, which became part of the Papal state, the manuscript collection was left to the city of Urbino, and the printed volumes to Urbania. In 1658, Pope Alexander VII transferred the Urbino manuscripts to the Vatican library, where they are still kept to this day, and in 1666, had the books from Urbania brought to another library which he himself has founded. This latter is now property of the Italian state, and housed at the University of Rome.