Piero della Francesca and the art of the Italian Renaissance court

Introduction and outline

The Renaissance court of the Italian city states is the archetypal cauldron where one can examine art and history in partnership. They were unique and vibrant places, populated by extraordinary characters whose lives and stories are akin to some of our most popular and dramatic television spectaculars. The Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga in Mantua, the Visconti, succeeded by the Sforza, in Milan, the house of Aragon in Naples, the d’Este in Ferrara; all have histories worthy of study. In this article, I shall look at two princes of the quattrocento – Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini and Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino, whose individual lives as well as the lingering feud which existed between them illustrate the colourful history of this period. It also allows me to introduce to you one of my favourite artists, Piero della Francesca, perhaps lesser known than some of the Renaissance greats but more than worthy of our attention.

This is a story of princely magnificence and devious scheming, of battles – lost and won – of the construction of lavish palaces decorated with beautiful artworks. We see the best and worst of human nature, how it can be, almost simultaneously, gracious and cruel. At the heart of the story is the overriding desire, which to an extent I think we all share, to leave a legacy and be remembered as significant.

We begin with some introductory remarks about the general ethos and structure of a typical Renaissance court and then explore some of the types of court artist which were employed there, as well as the characteristics demanded of them. Next we meet the two main protagonists of our story – Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini and his bitter rival, Federico of Montefeltro, ruler of Urbino. We study their lives and careers as military generals for hire, condottiere, as well as the reasons behind, and manifestations of, their fierce enmity.

As well as general remarks about the court which each ruler developed, we examine in detail the most significant building in each; the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini and the Ducal Palace in Urbino.

The artist who executed some of his finest works for each ruler, especially in Urbino, was Piero della Francesca and, after a brief introductory biography, we examine six of his masterpieces in the historical context of their creation.

My trip to Urbino was some twenty five years ago, but I remember it vividly. The Ducal Palace is one of the most magnificent constructions I have ever visited, redolent of history and the maiestate which Federico sought to install therein. I also remember travelling far and wide, often to small and remote locations, to view the art of Piero della Francesca, which continues to exert a strange fascination over me. As always, it is enlightening to seek an understanding of the creative processes in operation, but as we do so I encourage you to pause to study the unconventional beauty which infuses his work.

The Renaissance court 

For the Renaissance ruler, image was everything. Money lavished on art and architecture was money spent honourably. This display of wealth came to be seen as a public statement of economic and political power, indicative of a time of peace dedicated to glory and security. Extravagance was not only encouraged but expected, defined by propagandists as magnificentia. Humanists like Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo Bruni quoted Aristotle – wealth was a prerequisite of virtue in the public arena. A number of treatises described the princely notions of decorum and dignity; along with the traditional virtues – piety, justice, fortitude, prudence, temperance, magnanimity and liberality – two qualities were given particular weight – clemency and majesty (maiestate), the outward display of inner dignity. In a world where political machinations were always centre stage, at the same time as projecting these qualities, the aim was for subjects and rivals to be so awestruck that overpowering the ruler seemed impossible.

The courts of the Italian city states were both secular and religious. Public buildings emphasised a ruler’s civic duty whilst religious projects bore witness to unstinting piety. Courts grew and accrued heft over the years. Rulers sought dynastic continuity, the longing for a male heir providing a constant momentum to the ruler’s existence, and this desire for unbroken lineage established a trend to employ local artists who had worked for previous regimes and to complete projects which had already been embarked on. Although frequent feuding could interrupt the process of building a court, the Peace of Lodi in 1454 brought a new political stability, allowing whole cities to be redesigned around the court of their ruler.

As with many aspects of Renaissance Italy, there was a conscious choice to emulate the magnificence of the Roman Empire. Leon Battista Alberti, in his De Re Aedificatoria of 1450, wrote “and is it not true to say that the whole of Italy is fixed by a kind of rivalry in renewing the old?” And yet, in parallel, the developments which grew out of the burgeoning Renaissance also informed artistic output in the courts.

Although each court had a unique individual character, there existed a complex network of marital relationships, ensuring that links and rivalries were established among the families of the northern courts, in particular the Este, Gonzaga and Sforza. Occasions such as weddings, coronations, funerals and state visits were arenas for particularly ostentatious display. Gifts were exchanged in attempts to curry favour with rivals and build alliances. Many courts shared common values, derived from French and English chivalric literature. Art was commissioned on a variety of scales, from the large (decoration of entire rooms) to the small (portable paintings, cameos and medals). Many artists were peripatetic, working between different courts, often being recommended one to another.

Whether or not engaged in this manner at the time, all artists were expected to keep up to date with trends in other courts and cities and were sometimes sponsored by their patron to travel to do so.

The court artist

The qualities sought in a court artist included technical merit (drawing, use of perspective, ability with colours), style, organisational ability, speed, industriousness and imagination. There was a constant balance between the artist’s individuality and the requirement to work within the recognised style, maniera, of the court. For the artist, the benefit of a guaranteed salary was offset by the restrictions on their freedom to travel and accept commissions (although some princes did allow this). There were no fixed salary scales; remuneration was completely at the discretion of the prince and often subject to cash-flow limitations and cost-cutting exercises.

The established visual language, well into the fifteenth century, was the International Gothic style, gradually modified by new Florentine ideas. Maiestate, the outward display of inner dignity, became central to courtly art, reflected in the dress, gestures and poses of the painted figures as well as the temperate manner in which the painter shows his skills in composition and the use of colour. This clarity, order and decorum is seen in the art of three famous court artists – Andrea Mantegna, Piero della Francesca and Leon Battista Alberti.

Gentile da Fabriano ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1423) Uffizi Gallery, Florence – an example of the International Gothic style

In painting, achieving the desired heights required employing the most celebrated artists and using the highest quality of materials, in particular ultramarine (the most expensive pigment) along with gold and silver leaf. Painters functioned beyond the primary role of applying paint on canvas or panel, serving as interior designers, supplied with a team of craftsmen such as stucco artists, wood carvers, embroiderers and goldsmiths, to translate their designs into furnishings. In a similar manner, the architect at court tended to fulfil the role of artistic director, military and civil engineer, supervising the building of fortresses, churches and palaces as head of a team of hundreds of craftsmen.

In architecture, the discovery in 1414 of Vitruvius’s Latin treatise De Architectura, written in the first century BCE, resulted in a return to the Vitruvian order of columns – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Alberti’s treatise of 1450 also incorporated features such as classical temple fronts and triumphal arches into facades, such as the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. In buildings, imported stone was more expensive and prestigious than local stone, with Carrara marble being particularly valued.

Rules for decorum also applied to decoration in the form of sculpture and internal frescoes. Sculptors tended to live outside the palace due to the dirty, noisy nature of their work. Historical subjects were preferred for the public rooms of city palaces, while private rooms were decorated more informally, with depictions of subjects such as hunting, hawking and games. Many palaces included a studiolo, an intimate room decorated with favourite paintings, marquetry and objets d’art which served both as an intimate haven of quiet for the prince and an important showpiece for visiting dignitaries. We examine the magnificent studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro when we tour the Ducal Palce in Urbino.

Portraits were presented as diplomatic gifts and to facilitate marriage arrangements. Portrait busts were a common form of dynastic memorial. As the portraitists spent much time with their subjects, they were expected and required to possess social graces appropriate to a courtier. 

Malatesta and Rimini – The life of Sigismondo Malatesta

Image of Sigismondo taken from Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Adoration of the Magi’ fresco in Medici Palace, Florence


Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (19 June 1417 – 7 October 1468) was an Italian condottiero (a captain in charge of a mercenary unit) and nobleman, a member of the House of Malatesta, lord of Rimini and Fano from 1432. He was widely considered by his contemporaries to be one of the most daring military leaders of his era and commanded a wide range of forces from his childhood to the end of his life. Ever a redoubtable foe, he was regarded by many as the foremost captain in all Italy. We shall consider his military career in some detail shortly.

But Sigismondo was also a great patron of the arts and made Rimini into a vibrant centre of Renaissance culture, one of the greatest Renaissance courts of its time. He exemplified many of the essential qualities of the Renaissance prince, that heady mix of ruthless warrior and proponent of the arts and humanities which typified the courts of northern Italy.  

The Malatesta ruled Rimini from 1280 and over the following century extended their influence down the Adriatic coast, including the cities of Pesaro and Cesena. By 1400 the dynasty was divided between different branches of the family; at the age of just fifteen, Sigismondo was lord of one of the richest provinces of the state of the Church, whose dominions extended to Romagna, from Rimini to Montefeltro, and in the northern Marche, from Fano to Senigallia.

Birth to age 15

Sigismondo was born in Brescia, northern Italy, the elder of two illegitimate sons of Pandolfo III Malatesta and Antonia da Barignani, a Lombard noblewoman. His father, already lord of Fano, became lord of Brescia and Bergamo in 1404 thanks to services rendered in favour of the Visconti, the powerful dukes of Milan. However, he lost the lordship of Brescia and Bergamo in 1421. Sigismondo’s younger brother Domenico, known as Malatesta Novello, was born in Brescia on 5 August 1418. An elder (and also illegitimate) half-brother, Galeotto Roberto Malatesta, born in 1411, was the issue of the relationship of their father Pandolfo III with Allegra de’ Mori.

After their father’s death in 1427, the three brothers were entrusted to their uncle Carlo Malatesta, lord of Rimini, who had no children. At his death in 1429, the Malatesta seigniory, including Rimini, Fano and many other cities of the Marches and Romagna, was entrusted to Galeotto Roberto. But two years later, in 1431, he died, and the lordship passed to the two young brothers Sigismondo and Domenico.
Following the family’s tradition, Sigismondo after the death of his father debuted as man-at-arms at the age of 13 against his relative Carlo II Malatesta, lord of Pesaro and Pope Martin V’s ally, who aimed to annex Rimini, Cesena and Fano to his territories. After his victory, Sigismondo obtained, together with his brothers Galeotto Roberto and Domenico, the title of Papal vicar for those cities. In 1431, though having inferior forces, he repelled another invasion by the Malatestas of Pesaro. His outstanding military leadership was already in evidence.

First two wives

In 1434 Sigismondo married his niece Ginevra d’Este, Niccolò III’s legitimate daughter by his second wife Parisina Malatesta, first cousin of Sigismondo; they had one son, Galeotto Roberto Novello, who died as an infant, in 1438. On 12 October 1440 Ginevra died, and rumours spread that she had been poisoned by Sigismondo. Two years later he married Polissena Sforza, Francesco I’s illegitimate daughter; they had two children: a son, Galeotto, born in 1442, who only lived a few months, and a daughter, Giovanna, born in 1444 and later Duchess of Camerino by marriage.

Early years as condottiero

In 1432 Sigismondo accepted the command of the papal corps, defeating the Spanish condottiero Sante Cirillo and thwarting Antonio I Ordelaffi’s attempt to capture Forli (1435–36). However, the following year Sigismondo occupied the papal city of Cervia and was excommunicated; he was soon pardoned and again created commander of the papal army. Later he fought in Romagna and the Marche alongside Francesco Sforza.

He was appointed captain-general of Pope Eugene IV’s army in 1435, signed a condotta with Venice in 1437 and by 1439 had seized eight castles from the Montefeltro family, a dynasty with whom, as we shall see, a lifelong enmity had been born.

In this period he fought several times against another condottiero, Niccolo Piccinino, firstly in 1437, as a Venetian commander when he was defeated at Calcinara sull’Oglio. Later, while defending his lands from the papal invasion army led by Piccinino, Federico da Montefeltro and Malatesta Novello, he crushed them at Monteluro, managing to obtain some territories of Pesaro, although the latter was successfully defeated by Federico’s forces.

One can now see the immense complexity of the power struggle in the Italian city states at this time, as allegiances fluctuated and territories exchanged hands. Just how complex can be seen in events over the next couple of years.

Fluctating alliances

In early 1444, Sigismondo embarked on an attack to oust his cousin Galeazzo Malatesta, whose forces were led by Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, from Pesaro and Fossombrone. The battle was deadlocked and, as was often the case in those days, both parties withdrew and signed lucrative new contracts, Sigismondo once more as captain-general of Pope Eugene IV’s armies and Montefeltro with Francesco Sforza, who was fighting the pope and Alfonso of Aragon. 

To outwit Sigismondo, Galeazzo sold the fiefs – Fossombrone to Montefeltro for 13,000 ducats and Pesaro to Francesco Sforza for 20,000 ducats. We must remember that Sigismondo was the son-in-law of Sforza, having married his daughter Polissena in 1442. He stored resentment for future unleashing.  

Soon afterwards Sigismondo reneged on a condotto signed with Alfonso of Aragon and refused to return the advance of 32,400 ducats he had received. Instead, he signed a contract with Florence against Alfonso, during which he won perhaps his greatest victory at Piombino, forcing the Neapolitans to raise their siege. 

Rivalry with Federico da Montefeltro

Sigismondo’s relationship with Urbino was complex. The ruler, Oddantonio, had been assassinated without an heir. Sigismondo claimed the throne for his brother, Domenico, married to Oddantonio’s sister Violanta. But Federico seized power, claiming to be Oddantonio’s illegitimate half-brother. The ensuing rivalry between Sigismondo and Federico would be bitter.

A fierce verbal and written quarrel ensued, with each decrying the other in the vilest manner. Pope Eugene IV, whose forces Sigismondo commanded, excommunicated Federico for the purchase of the papal fief of Fossombrone but then died on 23 February 1447. His successor Nicholas V took a very different position, lifted the excommunication and accepted 12,000 ducats to recognise Federico as lord of Urbino and Fossombrone.


During his two marriages, Sigismondo had numerous mistresses, but only two were well known: Vannetta dei Toschi, who bore him a son, Roberto, in 1441, and Isotta degli Atti, daughter of a local wool merchant. She and her family gained places at court, to the displeasure of his wife Polissena and her father Francesco Sforza. Isotta bore him four children: Giovanni (who died in infancy), Margherita (later wife of Carlo di Fortebraccio), Sallustio and Antonia (later the first wife of Rodolfo Gonzaga, Lord of Castiglione delle Stiviere, who beheaded her in 1483 when she was discovered in adultery).

In 1449 Sigismondo’s second wife Polissena died under mysterious circumstances. Francesco Sforza claimed that Sigismondo had her drowned by one of his servants, but this has remained unconfirmed. 

In 1456 Sigismondo married Isotta, an unusual occurrence for the times, and Pope Nicholas V legitimised their three surviving children; their only son, Sallustio, was declared his heir. 

Battles around 1450s

After 1449 Malatesta served variously under Venice, Florence, Siena, Naples and Sforza himself. The Peace of Lodi (1454), from which he was excluded, pushed the major Italian powers against him and thereafter his territories were repeatedly invaded by Aragonese, Venetian and Papal troops.

Excommunication to Hell

In 1458 Sigismondo became embroiled in a long quarrel over tithes and territory with Pope Pius II (ruled 1458–1464). An ally of both Alfonso I and Federico da Montefeltro, Pius confiscated Senigallia, Mondavia and Mondolfo from Sigismondo and gave them to his own family. 

Pius wrote and circulated a lengthy invective in which he condemned Sigismondo for unbridled lust and rape, blasphemy, atheism (epicureanism), paganism, and deification of his longtime consort and third wife Isotta degli Atti. Pius also accused Sigismondo of murdering his first two wives, Ginevra d’Este by poison and Polissena Sforza by strangulation. He formalised a list of crimes in a papal consistory in 1460 and on 25 December a famous trial in absentia was held in Rome against Sigismondo. Pius, who considered Sigismondo guilty of treachery towards Siena arising from his long-running feud with Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, excommunicated him, declaring him a heretic and attributing to Sigismondo a further series of sins (incest, sodomy with his son Roberto and others) which smeared his reputation for centuries. In a unique ceremony, Sigismondo was canonised into Hell with the curse, “No mortal heretofore has descended into Hell with the ceremony of canonisation. Sigi shall be the first deemed worthy of such honour.” 

Battles with papal troops

His possessions were declared forfeit to the church and Malatesta’s image was publicly burnt in Rome. A de facto crusade was then launched against him, in a league including the pope, the king of Naples, the Duke of Milan and Federico da Montefeltro. Sigismondo defeated the first contingent of Papal troops, led by Napoleone Orsini on 2 July 1461 at Castellone di Suasa.

In 1462 he was able to take Senigallia, but was forced to flee to Fano after the arrival of Federico da Montefeltro. The latter followed and severely crushed him on 12 August 1462 near Senigallia at the mouth of the Cesano. Sigismondo sought alliances with the pope’s enemies, even sending an envoy to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, sworn enemy of Christendom, but to no avail. The war ended in 1463, due to the intervention of Venice, with the loss of all Sigismondo’s territories apart from Rimini and a territory of some eight kilometers around it: both, however, were assigned to return to the Papal States after his death.

He then sought greater fortune as a general for Venice in its war against the Ottomans, as a field commander in the Peloponnesus (1464–1466). The Venetians granted him a contingent of 150 men to defend Rimini and his other lands during his absence. After some initial success, Sigismondo was forced to abandon the crusade and returned to Rimini.

The defeat of Sigismondo started the triumphant career of Federico, lord of Urbino, who became the undisputed lord of Montefeltro and the greatest of the Italian leaders. 

Feud with Pope Paul II

Pius’ successor, Pope Paul II (1464–1471), was wary of Sigismondo and kept him as a virtual prisoner in Rome, demanding he exchange Rimini for Spoleto and Camerino. During this time Sigismondo reportedly made plans to murder the pope with a hidden dagger and may have been involved in the so-called humanist conspiracy against the pope in February 1468. 

In 1468, having returned to Rimini, Sigismondo died in Castel Sismondo: he was 51 years old. 

Humanist court

Sigismondo revived the culture of Ancient Rome, creating one of the most sophisticated courts of the period, where he was surrounded by humanists and artists who celebrated Malatesta glory in prose, poetry and art. He was extolled as an avid student of classical literature, especially Homer’s epics, and among the several humanists in his court were Basinio of Parma (who exalted Sigismondo in an epic poem ‘Hesperis’ (early 1450s) inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid), Tobia del Borgo, Roberto Orsi, Pandone de’ Pandoni (Porcellio), Pietro Parleo, and Roberto Valturio. He hosted debates on learned subjects in his castle, which was praised as a “wonder of the age” for its innovative defensive design. 


Sigismondo commissioned a medal to commemorate the building of Castel Sigismondo , the first Renaissance medal to commemorate an edifice rather than a person. He was an avid patron of portrait medals, following the example set by Leonelle d’Este. His favourite artists were Pisanello and his pupil Matteo de’Pasti. Among the first medals struck was one of Isotta. Another commemorated Sigismondo’s appointment as Eugene IV’s captain-general in 1445.

Matteo de’Pasti ‘Portrait Medal of Isotta degli Atti (1446), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Matteo de’Pasti ‘Sigismondo Malatesta’ (1446), Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Tempio Malatestiano

We shall study this building in more detail in a separate section. 

Castel Sisimond

Sigismondo’s first building project was a military one, the remodelling of the old Malatesta family castle. Sigismondo built a notable series of fortifications in his Romagna possessions, including the Rocche (“Castles”) of Rimini and Fano.

Castel Sismondo, Rimini (1437-52)


Sigismondo can be seen as the victim of the intrigues of two unscrupulous rulers, Pius II and Federico da Montefeltro; however, he certainly did himself few  favours, lacking prudence, patience and tolerance, qualities which might have improved his lot. 

Malatesta’s reputation was largely based on Pius II’s perception of him as a violent character, ‘the bilge of every vice’, although in addition numerous contemporary chronicles described him as a tyrant and a womaniser, who delved in ‘rape, adultery, and incest’. Italian Renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini defined him as ‘enemy of every peace and well-living’. His deeds and political manoeuvres were characterised by all the typical play of violence, intrigues and subtleties typical of Renaissance Italy; however, Sigismondo was well aware of his sins, and tried to justify them in a series of love sonnets dedicated to Isotta.

But other historians, driven by pity towards someone they view as an unfortunate prince, offer evidence from his cultural legacy of many signs of his intelligence. They have tried to reduce the amount of accusations turned on him, to look past the clichés, the exaggerations and instead reveal the entirety of the man of his time, with his passions, abilities, ingenuity, errors and loves. 

It is fascinating to consider that this is a reverse route to the one often afforded Federico da Montefeltro, who despite the murder of his brother, has always been portrayed as the essence of fidelity, temperance and other virtues. Perhaps Federico must be brought back to earth from the paradise of perfection in which he has been placed by his first biographers and in the same way Sigismondo must also be brought back to earth by lifting him from the hell into which the anathemas of an irascible pope threw him. 

Federico da Montefeltro  

Birth and early life

Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, is an archetypal Renaissance prince, demonstrating the dual nature evidenced by so many of his kind. Soldier of fortune and yet consummate aesthete, ruthless conspirator and yet educated intellectual, he is most celebrated in a double portrait by Piero della Francesca in which he is shown with his wife, Battista Sforza; we shall examine this work later. Federico’s patronage of the arts contributed enormously to Urbino’s status as the ideal Renaissance court. In 1510, the humanist Paolo Cortese described Federico and Cosimo de’Medici as the two greatest artistic patrons of the fifteenth century. Early in life, Federico achieved the wealth and stability that allowed him to devote the latter half of his reign to the pursuit of his princely ambitions; the civilising arts of peace made possible through the prudent conduct of war. 

From a young age he was seen as a wise and resolute condottiero; indeed, Federico was the most successful condottiero of his age. He gained experience under the famous Niccolò Piccinino, abilities which allowed him to amass a huge fortune which he would lavish on establishing and enriching his court; it is estimated that he spent more on the arts than any other Renaissance prince.

Peter Paul Rubens copy of ‘The Battle of Anghieri’ by Leonardo da Vinci; reportedly, Niccolò Piccinino is the second figure from the left

Federico’s crowning glory is his palace, built in the style of a ‘city in the form of a palace’, the merits of which, under the rule of Federico’s son Guidobaldo, Baldassare Castiglione extolled in the book Il Cortegiano, published in 1528. The Ducal Palace in Urbino is the first example in Italy of a complex closely tied to its natural surroundings and we shall, of course, closely examine this magnificent building.

The Montefeltro family were of Germanic origin and descendants of the Counts of Carpegna. After centuries of conflict with the papacy, the church entrusted custody of Urbino to the family in 1355. 

Oddantonio ascended to power age 16 on the death of his father, Guidantonio, in 1443. He was immediately unpopular as a result of his debauched lifestyle and the high taxes he imposed upon his subjects in order to fund them, and it was no surprise that he died at their hands in an uprising within a year of his ascension, leaving the way clear for Federico to come to power. 

Federico was born in Gubbio in 1422, said to be the son of Guidantonio and therefore half-brother of Oddantonio, through which he claimed succession. However, doubts about his parentage persisted and would cause considerable difficulties during the early phase of his reign. He was raised by the widow of Bartolommeo Brancaleoni, one Giovanni Alidosi, whose daughter Gentile became his first wife in 1437. 

At age 11, Federico became a hostage in the city state of Venice, when Venice intervened in a dispute between Pope Eugene IV and Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan, with whom Federico’s father was allied. Life, they say, is what you make it and from what for many might have been traumatic circumstances, Federico flourished: for fifteen months he frequented the highest ranks of Venetian society, no doubt learning much which he would use to his advantage in later life. From there he spent two years in Mantua, where he was schooled in a broad humanist curriculum – Latin, astronomy, music, mathematics, geometry – alongside young members of the Gonzaga family. Here he also learned the virtues of self-discipline and restraint which served him well throughout his life. 

Rise to power – 1440s

Oddantonio became papal vicar of Urbino on his father’s death on 21 February 1443. That April he was created Duke of Urbino at age sixteen. Within a year, through his debauched lifestyle and imposition of heavy taxes, he was universally hated and murdered by his own subjects, leaving Federico, his half-brother, to come to power on 23 July 1444 aged 22, although he was only allowed access to the city when he acquiesced to conditions imposed by the people. Rumours persisted that Federico had been responsible for the death and that he was not, in fact, the son of Count Guidantonio da Montefeltro but rather that of the commander of his army and, partly as a result of this, discontent was never far from the surface and the first years of Federico’s rule were met with opposition from family, neighbouring states and Rome. However, aided by policies such as low taxation (funded by his income as a mercenary), establishing ecclesiastical foundations and portraying his magnificence through the arts, Federico eventually secured his popularity. 

Federico had already, by this time in his life, proved himself formidable on the battlefield, having signed his first condotta with Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan when he was sixteen. As a shrewd politician he always had a talent for choosing the correct allegiances, such a vital part of succeeding in the always changing political world of the Italian city states. His overarching objective was to secure Urbino from the clutches of his ambitious rival, Sigismondo Malatesta, with whom, as we have seen, he had a long and bitter enmity. 

After several seasons fighting for Milan, Federico changed allegiance to Alfonso V of Aragon and Naples in October 1442. Already low in funds, he was penalised for the sale of the papal vicariate of Pesaro, being excommunicated by Pope Eugene IV in 1446. He was reinstated and made Count of Urbino by Nicholas V in 1447; however, Nicholas refused to grant Federico the dynastic right to pass the state to his legitimate sons. 

In 1446, Federico signed a condotta with Francesco Sforza. Together, they finally conquered Milan, which had been leaderless and riven by infighting after the death of Filippo Maria Visconti in 1450. Sforza established himself as Duke of Milan. From this time on Federico built a stable rule through a series of alliances with courts and republics throughout the peninsula. 

Feud with Sigismondo

The lifelong bitter feud between Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta came into being immediately upon Federico’s claim upon the territory of Urbino and as a result of Sigismondo voicing loud and long the doubts about Federico’s parentage. In retaliation, Federico launched a lengthy and colourful invective accusing Sigismondo of a catalogue of heinous crimes.

Although initially Federico’s claims were dismissed for what the probably were – bitterness and revenge – subsequently with the intervention of Pius II, as we shall see, these accusations against Sigismondo would stick and indeed be amplified.

The two princes were very different in temperament. In distinction to Sigismondo’s hot-headed impetuosity, Federico was controlled and prudent in his manner. 

In 1446 a plot was uncovered to provide supporters of Sigismondo Malatesta access to Urbino and, predictably, Federico took swift and decisive action, executing those accused of treason.  

It was the favour of Pius II in the 1460s that transformed Federico’s fortunes. Now firmly in papal favour, Federico was urged to ‘conquer, destroy and consume this accursed Sigismondo and in him neutralise the poison of Italy’. He was more than willing and able to agree to the Holy Father’s behest. One by one, Malatesta fortresses were conquered – over fifty in all – generating a profit for Urbino of up to a million ducats between 1451 and 1482. 

Briefly, in mid conflict, Federico had actually sided with Sigismondo, who presented him with a deluxe copy of Valturio’s military treatise De Re Militari, which promoted Sigismondo as the exemplary modern prince and general! 

Setting up court – 1450s

It was during a joust in celebration of his victory over Milan in 1450 that Federico sustained the injury in which his right eye was forced out of his socket. This explains the remarkable profile that we shall see in his most renowned portraits. Some historians claim that he then had the upper part of his nose removed to improve his visual field from his left eye although the evidence for this is not universally accepted. Federico always saw his jousting accident as punishment from God for him placing an oak sprig in his open visor as a token of love for a young mistress whom he had seduced in the ruins of an oak tree. 

In 1451 he sided once more with Alfonso V; ever the shrewd negotiator, Federico had secured, in addition to financial gain, a promise of military aid in the event of any attack on Urbino. This contract expired with the Peace of Lodi in 1454 and he was rewarded with a pension from Alfonso of 6000 ducats a year. Federico remained a loyal ally of Naples for the rest of his life, as opposed to most condottiere who frequently switched sides. 

Utilising this period of political and military stability wisely, Federico set up a court at Urbino to display his rank and ambitions. He did not, unlike other princes, surround himself with humanists and apparently had plain tastes in food and did not drink wine. By comparison with others, the Urbino court was relatively modest, with four hundred courtiers and staff. By all accounts, Federico was a fastidious man, imposing strict rules on his household and detailing the structure and duties of his household in a written document (Ordini et offici). 

Undoubtedly the one blight on this otherwise happy and prosperous time in Federico’s life was when his first wife, Gentile Brancaleoni, died childless in 1457. 

Marriage and a family – 1460s

In 1460, Federico married Battista Sforza, the fourteen year old daughter of his neighbour Alessandro, lord of Pesaro and niece of the Duke of Milan. The couple are depicted in Piero della Francesca’s rightly celebrated magnificent double portrait, now on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. 

Their marriage was a happy one and they were described by a contemporary, Baldi, as “two souls in one body”. Federico called Battista “the delight of both my public and my private hours.” Moreover, he spoke with her about political issues and she accompanied him to almost all official events outside of Urbino. Perhaps the one frustration that Federico may have experienced was that each and every one of the first six pregnancies with which the couple were endowed ended with the birth of a daughter. In these times, the birth of a healthy male heir was the overriding aim of a union such as their’s. Carrying on the Sforza family’s tradition of humanist education for women, Battista educated her daughters in a similar manner to the education she had received from her aunt Bianca Maria.  

Shortly, after the wedding, in a move which clearly heightened Federico’s sense of joy, Pope Pius II granted him the right to pass his title to his legitimate sons. 

An heir, a Dukedom but tragedy too – 1470s

1472 was a triumphant year for Federico. In battle, in June, he conquered Volterra, regarded as one of his finest military triumphs. He was rewarded with a triumphal entry into Florence and a gilded silver helmet cast by Antonio Pollaiulo. On 17 January, his son and heir Guidobaldo was born but sadly Battista never recovered from the pregnancy and birth and died in July that year. Federico commissioned the double portrait by Piero della Francesca, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. We shall look at that work on the section about Piero in Urbino. 

Federico made an alliance with Pope Sixtus IV in 1473 when he was in Rome as a guest of Cardinal Giuliano delle Rovere. On 21 August he was installed as Duke of Urbino in Saint Peter’s basilica and his daughter was betrothed to the pope’s nephew (they married in 1478). In September 1473 he was installed as a Knight of the Ermine by Ferrante I in Naples and as a Knight of the Garter by Edward IV of England. Then in 1474 in Rome he was named Knight of Saint Peter and Gonfalonier of the Church. 

In response to finally being recognised by the pope, Federico ostentatiously emblazoned FE DUX (Federico, Duke) around the windows in the courtyard of his palace and on the mantelpieces of his fireplaces He also began to commission portraits, most notably one of him with his son, Guidobaldo, the authorship of which is disputed between Pedro Berruguete and Joos van Ghent.

Interior of Ducal Palace showing prominence of FE DUX
Pedro Berruguete or Joos van Gent (1475), Gallerie Nazionale delle Marche

Federico wears full armour, sword at his side, with a helmet laid on the ground beside him. Proudly displayed are the chain and ermine-lined scarlet robe of the Order of Ermine and the badge of the Order of Garter at his left knee. He reads from a leather-bound manuscript, emphasising his learned nature. The pearl-encrusted hat above the lectern may have been a gift from the ambassador of the Shah of Persia. His son holds the ducal sceptre given to Federico by Sixtus IV, inscribed ‘Pontifex’, lest we forget the longevity of his power. 

Closer to home, in 1474 Italy’s political situation was destabilising, largely in response to a feud between Pope Sixtus IV and Lorenzo de’Medici. Sixtus allied with Naples, under Ferrante I, and with Federico, whilst Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza sided with Lorenzo and with Venice. Federico became captain-general of the papal army. One consequence of this divide was the murder of Giuliano de’Medici in the Pazzi conspiracy of 26 April 1478 (in which Sixtus was almost certainly a knowing participant), retaliatory killings of churchmen in Florence by Lorenzo and armies led by Federico and Alfonso of Calabria marching on Florence.  

Federico saw this conflict as his chance to achieve the fame, wealth, social status and political power which Renaissance princes craved. The feud became drawn out, lingering until 1478. In the interim, Lorenzo de’Medici had been excommunicated for the execution of the clergy for their role in the Pazzi conspiracy. The aim had become that of forcing a regime change on Florence but, before this could be achieved, Lorenzo subsequently negotiated a peace treaty with Naples and Ludovico Sforza, the Triple Alliance, to the fury of Sixtus IV. Once again we see the immensely complex and ever changing world of political allegiances in the Italian peninsula at this time.

Death – 1480s

To further demonstrate the fluidity of allegiances, the Triple Alliance appointed Federico as captain-general in 1482 and marched on the Papal States, whose forces Federico had previously commanded. Alliance troops were routed at the Battle of Campo by Venetian allies of the pope led by Roberto Malatesta, but at this point Federico was absent, ill with malaria in Ferrara. On hearing of the defeat, he started for home but his condition deteriorated and Federico died, having returned to Ferrara on 10 September. 

Guidobaldo’s succession was peaceful and his descendants ruled into the seventeenth century. In tribute, Guidobaldo built the church of San Bernardino as his father’s burial place. 

Artistic legacy

Like other rulers , Federico’s lavish spending on the arts had several aims: 

  • Asserting the legitimacy of his succession  
  • Promoting himself as a prince of incorruptible Christian virtue 
  • Advertising his military prowess and securing further employment  
  • Propagating his image as a just and benevolent ruler 
  • Celebration of the Montefeltro dynasty 
  • Winning esteem amongst kings and princes at home and abroad 

The art he commissioned is characterised by clarity, order and dignity. Artists he employed include:

  • Piero della Francesca (c. 1410/20-1492) 
  • Luciano Laurana (1420/25-1479) 
  • Melozza da Forli (1438-1494) 

Federico also employed a northern artist, Joos van Ghent, active in Urbino from 1460 to 1475, who also worked in oil, and was the only Italian leader to do so. In 1472, van Ghent painted ‘The Communion of the Apostles’ for the Corpus Domini Confraternity. A strange mixture of Italian and Flemish styles, techniques and imagery, it depicts the Last Supper as an enactment of the sacrament of the Eucharist . It includes portraits of Federico, the late Battista and baby Guidobaldo.

Joos van Gent ‘Communion of the Apostles’, Gallerie Nazionale delle Marche, Ducal Palace, Urbino

Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini

Sigismondo Malatesta was not a religious man, and his Tempio Malatestiano, also known as San Francesco, built in Rimini by Leon Battista Alberti and decorated by artists including Piero della Francesca, the medal-caster Matteo de’ Pasti and Agostino di Duccio, was essentially a lay monument to Isotta degli Atti, his lover and third wife. It was a landmark Renaissance building, being the first church to use the Roman triumphal arch based on the Arch of Augustus (27 BCE) in Rimini, as part of its structure. Three arches are flanked by fluted Composite columns supporting a classical entablature; Sigismondo’s role as patron is written in the frieze. The planned dome, based on that of the Parthenon, was never completed.

In 1447, plans were drawn to remodel two of the chapels, one dedicated to Saint Sigismund for his own tomb and one dedicated to Saint Michael for that of Isotta. The chapels were lavishly decorated. The entrance arch to Sigismondo’s chapel rests on elegant Composite piers set on on pairs of elephants carved in black marble. Inside, Piero della Francesca’s votive fresco (1451) shows Sigismondo kneeling before St Sigismund with a roundel depicting Castel Sismondo and a pair of greyhounds.

In 1454, Sigismondo rebuilt the interior, cladding the walls with marble – red from Verona and white from Carrara. Several new chapels were built, including ones for his wives Ginevra and Polissena and the Chapel of the Planets, dedicated to Saint Jerome, ornamented with reliefs of the planets and signs of the zodiac. Along the sides was a series of niches holding the tombs of humanists and courtiers.

Agostino di Duccio ‘Aquarius’, Chapel of the Planets, Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini

The classical detail of the building infuriated Pope Pius II who described it as a ‘temple of heathen devil worshippers’.

The Ducal palace in Urbino

In keeping with his status as a Renaissance prince, Federico built palaces and upgraded fortresses and castles in his subject towns. In Urbino he built a cathedral, churches and convents, but undoubtedly most ambitious project was the Ducal Palace, begun in 1468, which cost 200,000 ducats. The Duke also spent lavishly on furnishing his Palace; a set of tapestries depicting the Trojan War, woven by Jean Grenier of Tournai, cost 2557 ducats.

The Ducal Palace of Urbino is one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Italy, a Unesco World Heritage site since 1998. As expected for a project of this magnitude, the building has several different periods of construction, resulting in a lack of stylistic continuity. The palace is built on steeply sloping ground, necessitating several changes in height but simultaneously allowing integration of the building between the city and the natural environment. It is a synthesis of fortress and palace, with two contrasting facades.

From the country to the south, best seen from the road approaching from the Bocca Trabaria mountains, the walls, ramparts and turrets suggest a fortified citadel, while the city façade, opening onto the piazza opposite the cathedral, is elegant and open. I liked this description of the aspects of his rule which the Duke expressed through his palace, which I found in a travel blog. ‘The first facade, looming over the hills of the Marche and the lands of the Montefeltro from this heftily fortified, but elegant, acropolis, is that of homo ferox; Federico presents himself to potential invaders as a man of war. Looking towards the city this facade is altogether less forbidding; here Federico shows himself as homo emptor, a ruler attuned to the needs of his subjects and the importance of commerce’.

City facade

The first architect of the palace was a Florentine, Maso di Bartolommeo, a pupil of Michelozzo. In 1465, Federico brought the Dalmatian architect Luciano Laurana from the court of Alessandro Sforza in Pesaro. Laurana was given complete charge and, between 1466 and 1472, developed the areas around the courtyard and then the wing stretching out towards the façade of the twin turrets.

Federico possessed a fascination with architectural space and was actively involved in the design of his buildings. The palace’s interior is unusual in its use of natural light, admitted through a series of wide windows. Laurana brought together the pre-existing medieval buildings on the East side around an elegant arcaded courtyard, fortified the exterior of the palace and created some exquisite interiors: the Scalone d’Onore (monumental staircase), the Library, which is one the largest and most sumptuous in Italy, second only to the Vatican’s, the Salone del Trono (Hall of the Throne), the Sala degli Angeli (Angels’ Hall), and Sala delle Udienze (Hall of the Hearings). 

In 1472, Laurana departed for Naples and was replaced by Francesco di Giorgio from Siena who completed the structure and undertook both external and internal decoration. In addition to his work on the Palace, due to his skills as an engineer, Francesco made Urbino into the leading centre for the architecture of defence. Federico spent 600,000 ducats on a series of forts throughout his territory (eg. Rocca San Leo) under the leadership of di Giorgio. 

The entrance to the Ducal Palace is from a small piazza facing the cathedral and consists of a wide portal of travertine stone. The building is mainly constructed of brick with additional use of this white travertine stone whose brilliance renders it akin to marble. One immediately enters a central courtyard, surrounded by arcades of round arches supported on Composite columns with Corinthian pilasters flanking the windows on the first floor, the two levels separated by a trabeation bearing an inscribed frieze which extols the virtues of Federico. The alternation between red brick and white stone along with the exact ratio of its proportions gives the space lightness and elegance. (The two upper portions, which to an extent remove some of the airiness, are 16th century additions).

The wide staircase, which is the first monumental staircase of Italian civic architecture, ascends from the courtyard. On the piano nobile were all the audience rooms and Federico’s suite of private rooms, connected to the studiolo, the chapel, a garden and an airy loggia with views over the countryside.

The interior was, and indeed remains, magnificent with grand reception halls and audience chambers, private apartments for family and guests, a chapel, gardens, loggias, stables, kitchens, storerooms and cellars. The interior decoration and marquetry furnishings have been attributed to Lombard, Venetian and Florentine masters, including the Tuscan Domenico Rosselli and the Venetian sculptor Ambrogio Barocci. A sense of balance is achieved through gently alternating chromatic chords and pure geometric relationships. Much of the internal space is now taken over by the Gallerie Nazionale delle Marche. 

The studiolo was begun around 1475 and at 11.5 feet square is one of the jewels of the Renaissance.

Its gilded coffered ceiling is studded with Federico’s devices.

The walls are covered in intarsia panels by the bottega of the Florentine Baccio Pontelli, employing over forty different types of wood, creating a fictive study with latticed cupboards, piles of books, musical instruments, an astrolabe, a basket of fruits, a parrot, a chessboard and a squirrel with a nut.

In one panel, Federico is portrayed as a humanist and harbinger of peace, with down-pointing spear, his armour laid aside.

Also represented are the Theological Virtues, drawn by Botticelli.

Above is a series of twenty-eight portraits of famous men, including Moses, Solomon, Plato, Aristotle, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, Dante, Federico’s tutor in Mantua, Vittorino da Feltre, and the popes Pius II and Sixtus IV. The portraits are the work of both Pedro Berruguete and Joos van Ghent; many of these are now reproductions with the originals in a variety of galleries.

This space served a dual purpose, as a place for Federico to relax and enjoy his scholarly pursuits and as a place to exhibit his ‘magnificence’ and moral authority to friends and rivals alike. He could similarly utilise his library, which contained eleven hundred volumes, from rare works on agriculture and mathematics to more conventional texts on history and poetry. These were all manuscripts, beautifully illustrated, some in Latin, some in Greek, a few in Arabic and Hebrew, many of which were supplied by the Florentine Vespasiano da Bisticci, for whom Federico represented the Christian ideal of the active and contemplative life. Teams of scribes and illuminators were housed in court. Specific texts included in the library were a lavishly illustrated bible bound in gold brocade, a deluxe Dante’s Divine Comedy, a treatise by Francesco di Giorgio and Piero della Francesca’s ‘On The Perspective of Painting’, although Federico’s personal preference was for military treatises and ancient military history, as well as scientific and philosophical studies. 

The collection has been retained intact in the Vatican museums and the main feature of the library now is its ceiling which is decorated with a medallion containing at its centre a black stone eagle, emblem of the Montefeltros, surrounded by a ring of cherubs and a halo.

The Salone d’Onore is the most imposing and beautiful room in the palace, traditionally referred to as the throne room. In the Sala degli Angeli there is a splendid fireplace with an architrave showing a frieze of angles dancing and playing instruments . It is the finest work of the sculptor Domenico Rosselli, as are the lunettes above the doors; the use of gold on an azure background is exceptional.

The Salle delle Udienze, with its large fireplace, crowned with a carved chimneypiece, contains two paintings by Piero della Francesca, the ‘Flagellation’ and the ‘Madonna di Senigallia’. These works are studied in the section on Piero’s life in this article. The Porta della Guerra was the work of Ambrogio Barocci and contains the symbol of the Order of the Garter, dating it to after 1474.

There are two small adjoining chapels – the Chapel of Forgiveness (Capella del Perdono) and the Temple of the Muses – similar in decoration, one dedicated to the Holy Ghost, the other to Apollo, Pallas and the Muses. Each has a classical order of columns framing an altar niche.

Brief biography of Piero della Francesca

Piero was born Piero di Benedetto in the town of Borgo San Sepolcro, modern-day Tuscany to Benedetto de’ Franceschi, a tradesman, and Romana di Perino da Monterchi, members of the Florentine and Tuscan Franceschi noble family. His father died before his birth, and he was called Piero della Francesca after his mother, who was referred to as “la Francesca” due to her marriage into the Franceschi family. Romana supported his education in mathematics and art. He was apprenticed to the local painter Antonio di Giovanni d’Anghiari and took notice of the work of some of the Sienese artists active in San Sepolcro during his youth, such as Sassetti.

When one views any of Piero’s works, his style is instantly recognised. Indeed, his style did not significantly develop over the years, making dating of Piero’s undocumented work difficult. It was not because of lack of exposure to different artistic approaches, however. He spent years in the most influential centre of the Renaissance, Florence, where, in 1439 he received, together with Domenico Veneziano, payments for work on frescoes for the church of Sant’Egidio in Florence, now lost. He must also have met leading masters like Fra Angelico, Luca della Robbia, Donatello, and Brunelleschi. As with many of his contemporaries , the classicism of Masaccio’s frescoes and his majestic figures in Santa Maria del Carmine were for him an important source of inspiration.

Piero returned to his hometown in 1442 and was elected to the City Council of Sansepolcro. Three years later, he received his first commission there, to paint the ‘Madonna della Misericordia’ for the church of the same name, which was completed in the early 1460s. In 1449 he executed several frescoes in the Castello Estense and the church of Sant’Andrea of Ferrara, now also lost.

The Baptism of Christ, now in the National Gallery in London, was completed in about 1450 for the high altar of the church of the Priory of S. Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro. Other notable works are the frescoes of ‘The Resurrection’ in Sansepolcro, and the ‘Madonna del Parto’ in Monterchi, near Sansepolcro.

In 1457, summoned by Pope Nicholas V, he moved to Rome, where he executed frescoes in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, of which only fragments remain. Two years later he was again in the Papal capital, painting frescoes in the Vatican palace, which have since been destroyed

In 1452, Piero was called to Arezzo to replace Bicci di Lorenzo in painting the frescoes of the basilica of San Francesco. The work was finished in 1464. The ‘History of the True Cross’ cycle of frescoes is generally considered among his masterworks and those of Renaissance painting in general.

In his later years, painters such as Perugino and Luca Signorelli frequently visited his workshop. He completed the treatise ‘On Perspective in Painting’ in the mid-1470s to 1480s. By 1480, his vision began to deteriorate, but he continued writing treatises such as ‘Short Book on the Five Regular Solids’ in 1485. Piero made his will in 1487 and he died five years later, on 12 October 1492, in his own house in San Sepolcro.

Piero in Rimini 

The artistic life of Piero della Francesca was deeply influenced by the attendance of the humanistic courts of Urbino, Ferrara and Rimini. After his work in Ferrara, Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini entrusted Piero with the production of his portraits and this can be seen in his fresco of ‘Sigismondo Malatesta before Saint Sigismund’ of 1451. The pilasters in the background are fluted with five grooves rather than the six we are familiar with in works such as Masaccio’s ‘Holy Trinity’ and the buildings of Brunelleschi. The space is framed by architectural elements adorned with flowers, the upper edge of which is carried by the pilasters. In this way, the composition places Malatesta at the centre of what is otherwise an asymmetrical composition.  

Along with the portrait of Sigismondo now in the Louvre (1451-60) the profile is based on a medal created by Matteo de’Pasti.

Piero in Urbino


Piero worked for Federico da Montefeltro at various points during his career. The exact times during which he was employed there remain uncertain but the works which remain date from later in his tenure, as we shall see when we examine the individual works. Piero’s learned application of the new perspective technique and his ability in creating architectural settings were encouraged at court in Urbino. By this point in his career, had also mastered Piero mastered the newly defined oil techniques of the 1460s. 

The works we shall consider are: 

  • The ‘Diptych Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and of his Wife, Battitista Sforza’ 
  • ‘The Madonna and Child, Angels, Saints and Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino’ (also known as the ‘Pala Montefeltro’ and the ‘Brera altarpiece’ 
  • The ‘Madonna di Senigallia’ 
  • The ‘Flagellation’ 

Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza

General introduction

The ‘Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza’ is two separate panels now on display in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. In perfect tune with the fifteenth-century tradition, the Diptych depicts the eventual Duke of Urbino: Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482) and his wife Battista Sforza (1446-1472). The artwork dates from the time when Piero della Francesca was serving in the court of Urbino. The diptych came to Florence in 1637 through the marriage of Ferdinando II de’ Medici and Vittoria della Rovere, who was the inheritor of the Duke of Urbino’s estate since 1631. No longer a diptych, the work is instead displayed in a rigid modern frame, allowing visitors to view both sides of the work.

One of the most famous works by Piero della Francesca, the double portrait is representative of the relationship between the painter and the Count and Countess of Montefeltro. (It is important to point out that the couple were Count and Countess when this work was commissioned ; the Uffizi Gallery website erroneously refers to them as the “duke and duchess of Urbino.” Since Battista died two years before Federico was elevated to the dukedom, she never became duchess of Urbino.) Federico made possible the rise of Urbino, from an economically depressed territory to one of the most celebrated courts in existence and Piero was a frequent guest at their court, finding himself in a cultured and refined atmosphere which would soon become one of the most important cultural and artistic hearts of Italy.

Accord and harmony, deemed as essential for the validation of the prestige of a fifteenth-century Italian court such as Urbino, are clearly the central themes of Piero’s Diptych executed c.1472-1474. These concepts were only attainable through the presence of a proficient consort in a court ruled by a condottiere(mercenary soldier). This acceptance is perfectly captured in Piero’s Diptych. Each element of the work was carefully chosen to promote and propagate the image of the ideal court and the magnificence of those who ruled it.  

Creation – when and why

Painted between 1465 and 1472, the portraits of Federico and Battista represent  one of Piero della Francesca’s greatest works and one of the most famous portraits from the Italian Renaissance. 

Art historians in general believe that Piero began the Duke’s commissioned portrait as early as 1465. The 26-year-old Battista Sforza died of acute pneumonia brought on by childbirth on July 7, 1472. The common agreement is that her pale skin is not, therefore, a sign of her status, but more the pallor of death; that is, Battista was painted posthumously. The artist may have used Sforza’s death mask for reference.

Commissions bearing the iconographic typology seen on the reverse of the portraits were very common around the middle of the 15th century and were promoted on the occasion of marriages of high social standing. The marriage of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza was celebrated in January 1460, leading some to suggest a date as early as this for the work’s production. 

Other’s suggest that the commission was made some years later – between 1462 and 1463 – following a period of particularly intense military activity for the count. This iconographical reading is borne out by a series of stylistic considerations mainly concerning Piero’s relationship with the Flemish painting then known about in Italy. 

Federico was on many occasions a victorious commander famed for his excellence, and was honoured with a live triumph by the city of Florence in the summer of 1472 to celebrate his defeat of Volterra on behalf of the Medici rulers of Florence. Piero’s painting may well allude to that event.

In more recent studies, critics have dated Piero’s entire work to after the year 1472. These historians claim that the ‘diptych’ is considered to be contemporary with the great San Bernardino votive altarpiece at Urbino, today at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan (1472-74).  

Creation – who commissioned the painting?

Despite the diptych’s artistic quality and distinctive content, no documents have as yet shed light on its genesis. Since Federico was a highly erudite patron of the arts, and Piero is known to have spent time in Urbino during the period leading up to the likely date of the diptych, it has generally been assumed that Federico commissioned the work himself, soon after Battista’s death, to have a sweet memory for himself, wishing to be forever tied to his young wife, who died aged just twenty-six. To compound the tragedy, it was reported that Battista had prayed for a son and heir worthy of her noble husband, offering her own life in return—a pledge she had now fulfilled. The assumption that Federico commissioned the work in memoria has been questioned on the basis that the inscriptions’ emphasis on Federico’s deeds and virtues would have been inconsistent with his profound grief at the loss of his wife. 

The alternative scenario is that the diptych was commissioned by someone else (perhaps Lorenzo de’Mdici) as a gift both to honour Federico for his triumphant military campaign at Volterra and to console him for the loss of his beloved young wife, who had become ill in his absence and died so soon after his return.

About Battista Sforza

Battista – Federico’s second wife – was a scion of the powerful Sforza dynasty centred in Milan. Classically educated and schooled in the formal duties of court life from an early age, she was a remarkably fit consort for Federico, though twenty-four years his junior. Not yet fourteen when they married, she bore him no fewer than seven children and capably managed their domain during his frequent absences in the pursuit of military campaigns.

As in the case of Eleanora de Toledo, whose life I explored in a previous article in this series, Battista possessed a double persona; she had to fulfil her biological function as a woman as well as her domestic obligations while simultaneously performing her civic duties as a consort. Although Battista had successfully given birth to numerous daughters, her son’s birth was essential to secure her familial and political position, confirming her acceptance by the citizens of Urbino as a suitable and capable ruler in Federico’s frequent absences. 

What is a diptych?

Diptych literally means ‘two fold’. The term comes from the ancient Greek and was traditionally used to indicate a pair of wooden panels (sometimes ivory) joined by a hinge, or two separate paintings enclosed in double frames. The purpose was commemorative and the subjects most represented were high officials, saints or the list of high ecclesiastical dignitaries. 

Describing the painting


Overall appearance

In the tradition of the fourteenth century, inspired by the design of ancient coins, the two figures are shown in profile, an angle that ensured a good likeness and a faithful representation of facial details without allowing their sentiments to show through: indeed, the Duke and Duchess of Urbino appear unaffected by turmoil and emotions. Both Federico and Battista were widely praised in their day for their virtuous qualities and their benevolence as rulers and Piero’s depiction of them amply reflects such nobility of character. The couple are facing each other, etched against the rolling landscape in the background, which represents the area of the Marches over which they ruled. On the back of the panels, the couple are featured being carried triumphantly on ancient wagons, accompanied by the Christian virtues; the Latin inscriptions pay tribute to the couple’s moral values. The presence of the images on the reverse side suggests that the two paintings, now set in a modern frame, would once have been part of a diptych.

Significantly, the pairing of such profile portraits with allegorical scenes on their reverse is unique among extant paintings. It was characteristic of commemorative medals dating back to antiquity, however, and thus endows the work with a decidedly monumental quality.

The portraits

In keeping with the Roman numismatic tradition, the woman is depicted on the left and the man on the right. The Duke of Urbino was actually always represented on his right side for reasons of decorum, since he had lost his right eye in 1450; it was essential for a Renaissance ruler to hide any flaw from the painting’s audience. The couple are poised high above the landscape in the background, as if they are atop a tower. Thus, they have a bird’s eye view over their sprawling domain, speaking not only to Urbino’s hilltop position, but also to the pair’s high status. 

The chromatic contrast between the Federico’s bronze skin tones and the fine blond hair and porcelain complexion of Battista is striking. The pallor of the Duchess not merely respects the aesthetic conventions which were fashionable during the Renaissance, but could also allude to her early death. Her finery, in both costume and coiffure, contrasts with his sober red attire. 

Battista’s inclusion in the more honourable position to the left would also have been deemed appropriate and acceptable due to her death. Her privileged placement can be read as an attempt to promote her virtuous nature, emphasised further by the presence of the symbolically-charged pearl on her body. The allusion to her chastity and its significance to the Montefeltro and the future of the court permitted her to be placed in this most distinguished site as the person who preserved the balanced nature of rule. 

The Allegories

The back of the portraits are painted with scenes of allegories of triumphs. Latin inscriptions – painted as if they had been carved on marble barriers – celebrate both Federico, who is equated to the great military leader of ancient times, and Battista, who was always accompanied by modesty.  

The allegorical scenes on the back of the portraits are especially rich, both stylistically and iconographically, iconography which draws on a long and complex tradition harking back to Roman triumphs in celebration of major military victories. The symbolism was also directly inspired by Petrarch’s ‘Trionfi’. The celebration of the two lords of Montefeltro on horse-drawn carts can easily be interpreted as the Triumph of Fame and the Triumph of Chastity, upon which Petrarch’s poems dwell. 

The scene depicts the Count and Countess approaching each other, each riding an antique wagon. Gleaming in glorious armour, he is pulled by a team of white horses. Dressed in finery, she is pulled by unicorns. Joining the couple on their carts are characters meant as the physical embodiments of Virtues. Justice, Wisdom, Valour and Moderation flank Federico, while Faith, Hope and Charity ride with Battista. 


The couple’s positioning before the expansive and continuous landscape underlines their joint control as their large scale portraits dominate their surroundings just as the power of these rulers presided over their territories. The inclusion of such a vista demonstrates the importance of territory to the quattrocento prince as, without land, he had no legitimacy or authority. The countryside in the diptych appears to be far more placid and earthly than the reality of the Urbino landscape. The modification of the landscape can be interpreted as visual evidence of how it was tamed and maintained by its benevolent rulers and the effects of harmonious administration. 

The figures are boldly placed against this detailed background landscape; if the landscapes on the front and rear of the diptych are joined together the result is a broad landscape panorama corresponding to that which can be seen today from the west tower of the Ducal Palace. 

Portrait of Federico

Federico is depicted wearing a simple red giubbone (jacket) and the cylindrical red berretta often worn by condottiere princes. The austere appearance of the prince is furthered by the omission of any ostentatious display of jewellery or ornament on his person. Traditionally the subjects of profile portraits face the right. But we know that because of Federico’s deformities, this wasn’t an option. One effect of him facing left is that it locks his eyes with his lady, suggesting they share a bond that transcends death.

The painter seems to say, in his simplicity of depiction, that the value of the person does not lie in the appearance, but lies in his own essence. And yet, this is a regal portrait of a silent, proud, dignified idol standing on the view of his lands. This portrait of Federico would become a model for medalists and illuminators throughout Federico’s reign. Humanist courts of the quattrocento were very fond of collecting coins of ancient Rome. On these, great men were rendered in stark profile, a tradition that has carried through to currency all over the world. 

Portrait of Battista

The countess is represented as the ideal court lady magnificently dressed (magnifica pompa) in contemporary costume, adorned with her most precious jewels, her hair in an elaborate coiffure with the small facial features and a high forehead considered fashionable at this time; ladies would dedicatedly pluck away at their hairlines to achieve this coveted look. The intricate hairstyle was used not only to express the sitter’s rank, it also gave weight and majesty to her head. The gold chain around her neck of the Duchess is hung a large pendant with a ruby in the centre. The abundance of pearls – her favoured gemstone – other precious stones and the costly brocade dress in her portrait signified the wealth of her husband and of their court (pearls were also seen as symbols of chastity and virtue – important traits for a Renaissance woman to possess).

Allegory of Federico

Federico’s triumphal car is drawn by a team of white horses, as was traditional for victorious commanders in antiquity. In the scene of the Triumph of Fame, Federico, dressed in his suit of armour and reminiscent of a Roman general seated upon the field stool used on the battlefield, is crowned with laurel by a winged personification of Victory and accompanied by allegorical figures of the four cardinal virtues – Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance – the attributes of a good leader.  

His inscription can be translated as follows: 

‘The famous one is drawn in glorious triumph Whom, equal to the supreme age-old captains, The fame of his excellence fitly celebrates, As he holds his sceptre’. 

Allegory of Battista

Battista’s triumphal car is drawn by unicorns, symbolic of chastity, and carries the three theological virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity (love) – and a mysterious fourth figure clad in grey. Battista, mirroring the pose of her husband, is seated upon a chair holding a small book. The chariot is driven by Cupid.

A translation of her inscription reads: 

‘She who retained modesty in good fortune 
Now flies through all the mouths of men 
Adorned with the praise of her great husband’s deeds’. 

The fact that this celebration of her praises has the verb in the past, is likely to mean that, at the time of the painting, the Duchess had already died. 

Meaning of allegorical scenes

The decision to represent these specific Triumphs reflects the overall image Federico carefully constructed of his court and of his family.  The ruling couple are represented as conforming to societal ideals regarding their prescribed positions, leading to the success of the court under their rule. The balance and symmetry created by these two scenes replicates the central theme of unity and harmony on the front panels of the diptych, in this case a product of their respective achievements in their socially defined roles. 

Clearly the scene of the Triumph of Fame is intended to exhibit Federico’s prowess as a condottiero, attested to by his recent victory at the Battle of Volterra on the behalf of Florence, presumably the premise for the commissioning of the scene on the reverse of his portrait. Federico’s inscription clearly alludes, in the present tense, to his greatness as a commander.

The representation of Battista in the scene depicting the Triumph of Modesty (Pudicità) opposite that of her husband portrays a complementary image of a loyal and capable consort, accompanied by four female figures, including the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Charity and Hope., mythical creatures renowned for permitting themselves only to be caught by a chaste woman. Their presence emphasises the purity of the deceased, vital for the preservation of the Montefeltro lineage. The virtues associated with the countess within this work were seen as the indispensable requirements for the model Renaissance woman and consort. These were also mentioned in all of the panegyrics and orations written in her honour both before and after her death. 

Most important is the figure of Charity, who sits at the forefront of the car holding a pelican. That attribute has particular significance, as it was not generally employed in secular contexts. Because the pelican was believed to pierce its breast to feed its young with its own blood, it had come to symbolise Christ’s sacrifice for mankind. Only a few months prior to her death, Battista had finally borne Federico a son and heir; the allusion here is other ultimate sacrifice in so doing.

Next to Charity is the personification of Faith, holding a chalice and a cross. Standing behind Battista and facing toward the viewer is the figure of Hope. The other standing figure, garbed in gray with her back turned to us, may represent a nun of the Clarissan order, with which Battista had close personal ties; she is buried in the nuns’ common tomb in Santa Chiara.

Dressed in a grey costume and headdress, the traditional colour of Time, the figure may also be interpreted as the symbol of Eternity. When the two Triumphs of Fame and Modesty are read together, they can be interpreted as a Triumph over Death, signifying the eternal fame the couple have successfully achieved. Influenced by Petrarch’s Trionfi, Piero’s images follow the sequence of Triumphs which Petrarch established in his poem in an symbolic manner. In the work of Piero as well as that of Petrarch: ‘Chastity triumphs over Love, Death over Chastity, Fame over Death, Time over Fame, to be conquered only by Eternity.’ 

How and where would the painting have been used?

The two portraits, oil painted on two small wooden panels (47 x 33 cm each panel), are now separated from each other, but the fact that they were originally joined by hinges that allowed the panels to open and close like a book, suggests an intimate and private function, rather than public display, although it was common practice to display important artistic pieces to visiting dignitaries.

Given the duality of its design, the work is capable of fulfilling more than one function. When closed, the allegorical representations of the couple’s virtues depicted on the reverse acted as a ‘shield’, protecting the ruler portraits within. The diptych was therefore designed so that the visualisation of the sitters’ values was visible when portable, promoting the ideal behaviour expected of the ruler and his consort. The front panels represented a more authentic view of the couple as co-rulers of their domain. In this capacity, the diptych was a highly valued object to Federico and would have been in the count’s personal possession along with his other treasured items such as his medals and gems.  

A precise location within the Palace for the work has not been established, although a number of hypotheses have been made. It is likely a key role for the painting would have been as a keepsake for private reflection. Some argue that it was likely to have occupied a prominent position within the palace such as the Throne Room so that it could be put on display not only for the immediate family’s viewing but also so that it could be seen by esteemed visitors. It has also been suggested that the work was either placed upon a table in order for both sides to be visible or put on permanent exhibition in a space in the wall between the audience room and another space made into a chapel. The work may have been stored within the private space of Federico’s studiolo.

What does this work tell us about Piero?

One of Piero della Francesca’s most famous works, the double portrait is representative of the relationship between the painter and the rulers of Montefeltro; Piero was a frequent guest at their court, which would soon become one of the most important cultural and artistic hearts of Italy. The master painter marries the strict approach to perspective learned during his Florentine education with the lenticular representation more characteristic of Flemish painting, achieving extraordinary results and unmatched originality. The perspective view is perceived thanks to the progressive loss of details and obtaining the sfumato just with colour.

Federico – a noble warrior who combined military ability with a high consideration of culture – is painted by Piero with a raw sense of reality, which could almost appear irreverent. The olive complexion of his face, the growths of the skin, the wrinkles, the damaged nose due to an accident during a tournament, the raised eyebrow as a sign of disbelief; nothing is spared the Duke. Battista wears a precious dress and jewels, depicted with meticulous attention to detail – unequivocal proof of the painter’s proximity to Flemish art. The alignment of the sitters’ facial features and their positioning to face one another allowed the artist to depict their fixed gaze upon each other, reinforcing the promotion of their unified rule to the viewer. Piero’s use of complimentary colours in the couple’s portraits enhances this display of symmetry with an identical shade of red employed for the costume of Federico, his berretta, the touch of colour on Battista’s lips and the red brooch she wears. The red brooch depicted against Battista’s dress appears to reach towards the redness of Federico’s coat.

The landscape behind Battista is in shadow, that behind Federico bathed in early morning light. It is painted by Piero with Flemish precision, in the manner of Van Eyck. Piero did not include a balustrade or any other form of device to separate the sitters from the scene behind them, signifying that the landscape and those who ruled over it were unified; the couple integral to the preservation of the landscape and vice versa. His painterly technique masterfully reminds us of this. Formal parallels can be drawn between the patterns found on Battista’s brocaded sleeve and the diamond-shaped necklace she wears and those repeated in the ploughed field, while the single strand of pearls replicates the diagonal and whiteness of the distant city walls. Federico’s facial moles and their light-dark pattern is replicated by the design of the distant fields, the shaded area under his chin is repeated in the triangular hills while the white of his collar is echoed by the sails of the boats on the river.  

The reverse of the diptych celebrates the personal achievements of Battista and her husband and it is within these panels that the prescribed roles of the ruler and his consort are most clearly adhered to. Piero’s work is the earliest example of a diptych with scenes on the reverse. Image and text work together here to provide the viewer with an insight into the accomplishments of the sitters. The theme of unity is underlined in a similar manner to the front panels by the placement of the figures facing one another before a continuous landscape and the presence of the parapet underneath carrying Latin inscriptions proclaiming the virtues of the sitters. In these scenes, Federico regains the position of honour with Battista assuming the place traditionally assigned to women. 

Influence on Seurat

George’s Seurat ‘Bathers at Asnières’ (1884) National Gallery, London and ‘A Sunday on the Isle of La Grande Jatte’ (1884-6) Art Institute, Chicago

Art historians who’ve studied the work of the French post-Impressionist artist George Seurat, in particular his paintings ‘Bathers at Asnières’ and ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’ and argue that there is a connection between the painter and Piero. They believe the nineteenth century French painter’s predilection for profile subjects and simple forms shaped by use of light was inspired by Piero’s signature style.

Pala Montefeltro

The ‘Madonna and Child, Angels, Saints and Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino’ (also known as the Brera Madonna, the Pala di Brera, the Montefeltro Altarpiece and the Brera Altarpiece) is a painting by Piero della Francesca, executed in 1472–1474. It is housed in the Pinacoteca di Brera of Milan, where it was deposited by Napoleon in 1811 having previously been in the church of San Bernardino In Urbino. It is in the style of a Sacra Conversazione (Mary surrounded by saints). Its subject matter combines the private history of Federico with religious devotion and the public – and therefore political – purpose for which it was conceived, resulting in a complex set of connotations.

The work was probably commissioned by Federico to celebrate the birth of Federico’s son,Guidobaldo, in 1472. According to this hypothesis, the Child could represent Guidobaldo, while the Virgin may have the appearance of Battista Sforza, Federico’s wife, who died in the same year and was buried at San Bernardino. Other suggested origins are that is was painted for the Duke’s tomb in San Bernardino, after a commission by Guidobaldo, or to celebrate military victory for the Duke either in the Maremma or Volterra.

Work certainly started before 1474, as Federico lacks the Order of the Garter which was bestowed upon him then. Piero worked on the painting for a number of years as was often his wont, before it was completed around 1484 by Pedro Berruguete. 

Federico is depicted in the traditional manner as a donor, with all his insignias of power. He kneels, before his patron Saint, John the Evangelist, in shining armour, his sword at his side, his helmet, gauntlets and baton of command on the floor beside him, leaving his hands free to pray. Opposite stands Battista’s patron Saint, John the Baptist, Saint Jerome, Saint Francis, Saint Peter Martyr and Saint Bernardino. The saints all bear the wounds of their martyrdom. Jerome was the protector of Humanists. Francis would be present as the painting was intended for the Franciscan church of San Bernardino, where Federico was later buried.

The Virgin sits on a central dais with the Child in her lap, wearing a necklace of deep red coral beads, a colour which alludes to blood, a symbol of life and death, but also to the redemption brought by Christ. Coral was also used for teething, and often worn by babies. Mary’s rich brocade robe and veil have echoes of the Diptych portrait of Battista Sforza. The angels are also bedecked in jewels.

The Madonna is enthroned in the crossing amidst a complex and majestic architectural background, one which is fictional rather than representing a real interior but is clearly derived from designs very similar to the ones followed by Alberti in his construction of the church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua and is rendered in such meticulous perspective that the feigned depth of the coffer-vaulted apse at the rear can be calculated. Yet, at the same time, the architecture anticipates certain ‘classical’ elements which will be used by the young Bramante – another extraordinary artist from Urbino.

The work has been cut down on both sides, as shown by the portions of entablatures barely visible in the upper corners. Recent studies have shown that the artist intended the architecture to be more spacious and airy, with the figures gathered under the huge lantern of a dome.

The apse ends with a shell semi-dome from which an ostrich egg is hanging. Such an egg often hangs over alters dedicated to the Virgin. This has been the subject of entire theses regarding its significance and symbolism. From a purely technical viewpoint, the egg demonstrates Piero’s delight in contrasting reflective and non-reflective surfaces; the highlight on the egg’s surface brings it optically into the foreground of the painting.

The ostrich was a personal emblem of Federico and the Montefeltro family and can be applied here to Guidobaldo’s birth. It was believed that the ostrich let her egg hatch in the sunlight without intervention, and thus became a symbol of virgin birth. Also, the ostrich is here an absent mother, a symbol of the deceased Battista. The symbolism has roots in classical mythology; in classical Laconia, at the centre of which was Sparta, hung the egg of Leda, the wife of the Spartan king Tyndareos, a forerunner of Mary. 

In Christian imagery, the egg is a complex symbol for the Immaculate Conception, emblem alike of Mary’s fecundity and the promise of regeneration and immortality. According to another hypothesis, the egg would be a pearl, and the shell would refer to the miracle of the virginal conception (the shell generates the pearl without any male intervention).  

This work became the model for numerous altarpieces in northern and central Italy in the following years. Piero’s invention of an architectural apse echoed below by another apse, consisting in the figures of the saints gathered around the Madonna, was taken up time and again by artists working at the end of the 15th century and at the beginning of the 16th, particularly in Venice, starting with the almost contemporary paintings of Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini.The other aspect of this painting that must not be underestimated is its similarity with the new developments of Florentine painting, visible primarily in the work of Verrocchio and some of his young pupils. The angels’ garments are decorated with jewels and with huge precious brooches, their hair is held back by elegant diadems: these elements, and even their melancholy expression, are certainly influenced by the recent developments in Florentine art. In the same way, the bony limbs of Saints John the Baptist and Jerome, emaciated by deprivations in the wilderness, recall some of Verrocchio’s studies, whilst the sleeping Child, in his extraordinary contorted position, anticipates some of the young Leonardo’s drawings of putti

In this painting, too, the artist’s mastery of proportions is remarkable; it is almost symbolized by the large ostrich egg hanging from the shell in the apse. The shape of this symbolic element is echoed by the near perfect oval of the Madonna’s head, placed in the absolute centre of the composition. In this painting Piero places his vanishing point at an unusually high level, more or less at the same height as the figures’ hands, with the result that his sacred characters, placed in a semicircle, appear less monumental. 

Modern cleaning has revealed the great detail in characters’ clothes, the angels’ jewels, Federico’s reflective armor and the oriental carpet beneath the feet of the Virgin, reflecting the influence of Early Netherlandish painting.

Madonna di Senigallia

Madonna di Senigallia (1474), Gallerie Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

The Madonna of Senigallia is a work that stands out for its solemn religiosity, typical of Piero’s style, especially evident in the figure of the Child Jesus, seated on his mother’s left arm, with a coral around his neck (a symbol of protection but also a reminder of the blood shed on the cross) and clutching a white rose in one hand (a reference to the rosary), addresses the gesture of blessing toward the viewer. All figures are shown as half-length, bringing them very close to us. The Madonna has a more intimate character: she has been represented as a contemporary of the painter, rather than a woman of Biblical times.

It is a work that is only apparently simple: in fact, all the objects that appear in it, even those related to the most mundane everyday life, are loaded with meanings that refer to themes related to faith and religion. The objects we observe are few in number, but they all have their own well-defined role. Thus, the decoration on the niche behind the figures would depict an Easter candle, at the same time a symbol of death and rebirth, since Christ sacrificed himself to redeem humanity and, on Easter Day, by rising again defeated death. The box that appears on the top shelf would be a Pyxis, the container for the consecrated host – a clear reference to the sacrament of the Eucharist, instituted by Jesus the day before he was crucified. On the lowest shelf we see a wicker basket containing some veils: they would allude to Jesus’ burial. The door that opens onto the room in which we see the window through which light penetrates (one of the most striking pieces in the work) would be a reference to Our Lady: one of her attributes was in factPorta Coeli, or “gate of heaven.” And the light itself alludes to the virginal conception of Jesus.

On either side of the two main protagonists appear two figures identified by some as portraits of the lord of Senigallia Giovanni delle Rovere of the last member of the dynasty of the dukes of Urbino, Giovanna da Montefeltro, who, by marrying Giovanni, had guaranteed dynastic continuity to the duchy of Urbino, which after the death of her brother Guidobaldo da Montefeltro passed to Francesco I Maria della Rovere, the couple’s son. In this scenario, the work was commissioned as a gift from Federico to his daughter Giovanna on the occasion of her marriage to Giovanni della Rovere, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, confirmed in 1474 and celebrated in 1478. Others argue that the figures are simply two angels without more specific connotations, as they are quite similar to those who had already appeared in the Montefeltro Altarpiece.

The work was painted some time around 1474, probably as a work of private devotion, and was placed in the church of the Observant Franciscan convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, built in 1491 to a design by Baccio Pontelli. Forgotten and neglected for many years, the painting was noticed in 1822, still in the church just outside Senigallia, a town wrested from Sigismondo Malatesta by Federico da Montefeltro. Following its rediscovery the painting was taken to the Ducal Palace, Urbino. At that time, the painting was in a decidedly precarious condition of legibility: probably the dirt that had accumulated on the pictorial surface over the centuries had dulled its quality, to the point that little attention was paid to the work. It took a further thirty years, until 1854, before anyone postulated the name of Piero della Francesca as artist. The studies that ascribed the work to Piero della Francesca multiplied after further cleaning in 1892. Following restoration conducted in 1953 by the Central Institute for Restoration in Rome, the Madonna of Senigallia unanimously assigned to Piero’s catalogue.

The Madonna of Senigallia has been stolen twice. On the night of October 27-28, 1873, a citizen of Senigallia, Antonio Pesaresi, and a citizen of Jesi, Antonio Bincio, stole the work in order to sell it to an English collector who was evidently unscrupulous. The plan was foiled and the work was recovered a few days later in Rome. A hundred years later, between February 5 and 6, 1975, the masterpiece (which in the meantime, in 1917, had been moved for security reasons to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, where it is still located today) was stolen, along with Raphael’s Flagellation and Muta one of the most sensational art thefts in recent history (the works were fortunately found the following year in Locarno).

The work again demonstrates Piero’s Flemish influences. The luministic effects (such as the light that admirably brings out the dust near the window), the minutely described interior with its objects of daily use, the research into the technique of oil painting (the softness of the veil, the shining curves of the pearls, the sculptural highlights on folds of material); all these elements show that Piero was familiar with Flemish painting. The Madonna of Senigallia has been repeatedly likened to Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of the Arnolfini couple, for all the qualities mentioned above, and – according to Giorgio Vasari – there was a painting by Jan van Eyck at the court of Urbino. It is equally likely that Piero’s familiarity with Flemish art should not have come to him only from his stay in Urbino: a passion for Northern European art was spreading throughout several Italian courts in the mid-15th century, and it is therefore safe to assume that the occasions Piero had to frequent Flemish art were not so sporadic.

Jan van Eyck ‘Portrof the Arnolfini Couple’ (1434), National Gallery, London

But several touches are signature to Piero: the light that glides over the jambs and rummages through the basket of clothes, the splendid display of the four angelic figures aligned in the foreground and almost frontal, the mathematics of perspective used to achieve an effect of suspended atmosphere.

The Flagellation of Christ


I thought it would be interesting to take an in depth look at one piece of art in this article. Previous articles have considered the oeuvre of individual artists on a broad basis, but studying Piero’s ‘Flagellation’ in detail allows us to gain an insight into the extraordinary lengths to which art historians will go when unraveling the mysteries of a work of art. Because, no doubt this is a painting shrouded in mystery; perhaps unsurprisingly for centuries those looking at and writing about this enigmatic small painting have been quick to fill the lacunae of knowledge which exist – dating, provenance, meaning – with theories of their own.

The ‘Flagellation’ continues to foment a stream of interpretations, at least forty-five on a moderately thorough search. They focus mainly on the identity of the three figures in the foreground, who seem detached from the Flagellation in the background, but there are many ways to divine possibilities into this painting. I am not intending to give weight to any of the interpretations that follow. My aim is to illustrate just how fascinating and detailed art history can be and also, as is a running theme of these articles, to show how studying art and history in parallel can widen and deepen the enjoyment of each discipline.

The study of this painting is not a new phenomenon. Kept in the old sacristy of the cathedral of Urbino, the panel is recorded as attracting the attention of the Vicar Capitular, Canon Simon Francesco Ciccarini in the mid eighteenth century; he apparently treasured it above all other works in his keep. The frame that Ciccarini had made for the painting was probably the third in the history of the Flagellation, possibly have been the fully gilt frame (‘cornige tutta dorata’) with which the painting was listed in an inventory of the sacristy in 1753.

This dual theme of fascination and application of merit continues to this day; the art historian Kenneth Clark in the 1950s named it ‘the greatest small painting in the world’. This personalising view continues to colour interpretations of the ‘Flagellation’ and probably explains the myriad of interpretations which have been applied. While some have pointed out that it is too easy to disregard the recurrent facial types in Piero’s œuvre and the conventions of pictorial narrative in the fifteenth century, others insist that the key to unlocking the ‘meaning’ is in seeing the ‘Flagellation’ as a mirror of fifteenth-century historical events and a portrayal of specific people.

Leaving the esteemed Baron Clark aside, I shall not name each adherent alongside their theory. I seek rather to illustrate the extraordinary breadth of interpretations available and, where my interest was piqued, to explore the rationale in a little more depth.


One of the most immediate pieces of information normally given to a work of art is the date of its production. The ‘Flagellation’ has been dated, with admirable certainty, at various points between the mid-1450s and the mid-1470s.

Reasons for the uncertainty include the fact that it remains unclear who commissioned the work (more later) and, despite the fact that it is widely accepted that Piero painted it in Urbino, the exact dates when he was active in the region are uncertain. It is, however, possible to use a few generally accepted historical facts to narrow down this twenty year window.

We shall look at the representation of architecture in the painting in detail, but for now suffice to say it utilises Albertian principles . Leon Battista Alberti published his seminal work De Re Aedificatoria in 1452. The preceding year saw both Alberti and Piero employed on the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, when they presumably discussed each other’s ideas. This makes 1451 the earliest possible date for work on the ‘Flagellation’ to have begun.

The most widely held belief is that the work was commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro when Piero was working in Urbino. Two dates are possible for this transaction  – when Piero was resident and employed in Urbino in 1469 or when Federico visited Sansepolcro in 1470.

Previous representation of the theme

The ‘Flagellation’ is an uncommon thematic choice in quattrocento art; the only other time it formed the main part of a painting was in a work by Luca Signorelli, a pupil of Piero’s (1475-80, Pinacoteca, Milan).

Images of the scouring were seen prior to this, in the trecento and early quattrocento, examples being:

Duccio di Buoninsegna (on back of Maesta) – Siena, 1308-11

Pietro Lorenzetti (lower basilica of San Francesco) – Assisi, circa 1320

Ghiberti (the north doors of baptistery of San Giovanni) – Florence, 1403-1424

Description of the work

What we see

Sometimes when we get involved in trying to understand a work of art, we can forget to look at it and appreciate its aesthetic qualities. Take a moment now to study the painting, either from the reproduction here or, more satisfyingly, on a large screen or high quality art book.

Now, let’s describe what we actually see. The work clearly falls into left and right halves and is divided between the foreground and the background. Although this might see obvious, as I shall describe it is central to understanding the work.

Look first at the ‘Flagellation’ taking part to the left in the background, in the Praetorium of Pilate. Christ is tied against the column, his hands bound behind him; despite being whipped he appears unblemished. The column to which he is bound is Ionic, compared with the others which are Corinthian, is freestanding and has a gold statue on top. Pilate, seated at the left, takes no active role, sitting in silence, his hands in his lap. Piero has signed the work on Pilate’s throne. The floor has an elaborate geometric marble inlay.

Now look at the figures in the right foreground, a piazza in front of buildings. These larger figures in theory could be either a demonstration of the newly discovered principles of perspective, a method of highlighting their importance, or indeed both. Often at this period in art, figures in the foreground served the role of commentators, witnesses and mediators between the viewer and the events in the background, something we will consider in more detail shortly.

Piero’s work differs from previous representations of the subject in its use of perspectival space, reflecting the principles of contemporary and Vitruvian architecture, architecture which functions to give a scale to the proportions. Again there is a clear left-right divide; the architecture in the Praetorium is Albertian, whilst the buildings on the right are typical of existing contemporary urban domestic dwellings.

I have looked at this painting many times, most recently when writing this article, and have also seen it in Urbino, but there is one fascinating and important detail which I had never noticed before reading about it in an article. Each of the three figures in the foreground stands in front of a distinct and different section of the background. As I shall show, this is unlikely to be a coincidence and is therefore, likely to play a role in interpreting the work’s meaning.

One final request for your perusal if I may. The manner in which light is handled in this painting is complex; indeed it occupies several pages of one detailed discussion of the work. To summarise and simplify, if one assumes that the light in the piazza to the right is ‘of our world’, its flow from left to right indicates that left is south as we look. The light in the Praetorium is coming from the opposite side, is therefore unnatural and is intended to create the effect of a mystical radiance emanating from Christ.

Perhaps you might think of this work now as combining two spaces, as a Praetorium, being a mystical space and a right sided piazza representing the ‘real world’. The evidence is there in the way Piero painted the work and it places us in a useful position from which to consider possible meanings.

Perspective and mathematics

Much complex mathematics and geometry has been applied to the painting by minds much better suited than mine to the task. Roberto Longhi wrote of Piero: “the perfect union between architecture and painting that emerges should be understood as a mysterious combination of mathematics and painting”. Piero is a great painter, but Piero was also a great mathematician, recognised as such in his own lifetime.

Spatial analysis of the painting is both lengthy and complex, requiring considerable knowledge of and interest in mathematics and geometry. It includes analysis of scale, line and angles of light. I don’t intend to include this aspect here but recommend that those of you who are interested can find the details with a simple Google search.

Role of architecture

As established, the architecture of the Praetorium is completely Albertian, distinguishing it from the contemporary buildings on the right. The Praetorium resembles Alberti’s San Pancrazio Capella Rucellai, in Florence, which was based on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Essentially, Piero has used Alberti’s structures to get as close as possible to the architecture of the Biblical Praetorium and has succeeded with some style. He also has established a distinction between the ancient world of Pilate’s time and the present day inhabitants and buildings to the right of the painting.

Rucellai chapel, San Pancrazio, Florence

Interpreting the whole work

How to interpret this painting? Having established the basis of the pictorial narrative and acknowledged the technical brilliance of the artist, with particular regard to his use of architecture in establishing perspective, it is time to attempt to unravel the possible meaning behind the work.

I shall offer two possible scenarios which treat the picture in its entirety as the source of its intended meaning. Then we shall take a closer look at the three figures front right and their relationship to the scene back left, asking if there is a connection and, if so, what that may be.

Church suffering at the hands of the Turks

Constantinople had finally, after a long siege, been taken by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. It has been suggested that this painting is a reference to a holy crusade with the Flagellation as an allegory of the church’s suffering at the hands of the Turks.

According to another variant of this view, the figure in the centre foreground would represent an angel, flanked by the Latin (Catholic) and the Greek (Orthodox) Churches, whose division created strife in the whole of Christendom. The seated man on the far left watching the flagellation would be the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palailogos, as identified by his clothing, particularly the unusual red hat with upturned brims. In the variant of this interpretation, the painting would be in fact an invitation by Cardinal Bessarionpo and the humanist Giovanni Bacci to Federico da Montefeltro to take part in the crusade.

Pope Nicholas

Another interpretation examines an aspect of Jerusalem imagery in the years surrounding Pope Nicholas V’s jubilee in 1450 and considers the picture in the context of contemporary papal ideology.

The Roman Emperor Titus is recorded as bringing the scouring whip and the door of Pilate’s palace from Jerusalem to Rome following his conquest of the city. The door appeared for the first time in contemporary art this work, seen hanging in the Praetorium. The steps rising to Christ’s left, behind Pilate, represent the Scala Sancta Christi, at the time of painting, as it remains today, near the church of San Giovanni in Laterano, and recorded as being brought from Jerusalem to Rome in the eight century.

Pope Nicholas V used these ‘Spoils’ as an argument for papal primacy, conveying upon the papacy Old Testament authority emanating from the Holy Land during the Petrine period. Thus the painting can be interpreted as a statement of papal authority.

Nicholas’s main claim to fame during his reign was uniting previously warring Italian city states in an ‘Italic league’, with the five regional states of Venice, Milan, Florence, Papal Rome and Naples joined by the smaller city states, including Urbino, as secondary members. As part of this drive for unity, Flávio Biondo wrote his Italia illustrata in which he set out legal and archaeological bases for unity and established typologies for town planning and for civic and ecclesiastical architecture which Federico utilised in developing Urbino.

Interpreting the three foreground figures

Interpreting the foreground figures as historical figures

Convenerunt in unum

In 1839 the painter and art historian Johann David Passavant (1787–1861) first recorded a text inscribed on the work as ‘convenerunt in unum’. Around the same time, a friend of Passavant, the artist and collector Johann Anton Ramboux (1790–1866), made a tracing of the three foreground figures, in the margin of which he transcribed the inscription as ‘tres convenerunt in unum’. Since the text was recorded as being close to the scene at the right, and since there is no technical evidence that it was inscribed on the painting’s surface, which is intact, it was presumably on the frame. By 1864 it had disappeared. The record of the early eighteenth-century reframing confirms that the inscription as it appeared in the nineteenth century was not Piero’s doing.

The words of the inscription can be translated as ‘the rulers take counsel together’ orthree met together as one’ and refer to Psalm 2:2, repeated in Acts of the Apostles 4:26. They represent a passage that occurs in the Book of Hours and in the Good Friday liturgy and is related to the conspiracy against Christ. The significance of this inscription hinges on whether or not it was deliberately placed near the three figures of the foreground as a method of identifying and explaining them. Not all historians subscribe to this theory, but let us play out the various scenarios tenable if this was indeed the intention and consider the three figures in this context.

Firstly, let us return to the possible reference to the Turkish invasion of Constantinople. Under this theory, the three figures become the princes of Italy, gathered in order to oppose the threat to Christianity posed by the Turks. By 1470, the princes had indeed ‘taken counsel’ and formed a new league of alliances; using this interpretation, the picture probably dates to around this time.

Among possible biblical meanings are that the figures represent Herod, Pilate and the prophet David, third king of Israel, that they are three High Priests who have gathered for the trial of Christ but who are unwilling or afraid to enter the Praetorium, or that the group is part of the disputation recorded in the liturgy of Holy Week. In a quattrocento play by the Benedictine monk Eustache Marcadé the three figures are cast as Jewish elders conspiring against Jesus and one interpretation of the painting has been that it reminds us that Christ’s enemies are never far away.

Another postulated meaning for the group is that it is a representation of a second biblical scene, such as a Roman official releasing Barabbas to a Jew, or the betrayal of Christ by Judas. Here the glaringly obvious omission is the thirty pieces of silver, almost always included in pictorial representations of this event.

These interpretations are perhaps rather vague and simplistic when one considers, as we shall now do, the much more detailed possibilities postulated. It seems likely that Piero extended his very precise and purposeful technical approach to the composition of this painting to the area of its meaning.

Interpreting the foreground figures as contemporary portraits

Thus far we have assumed that the figures are representations of historical figures who belong to the time at which the events of the Flagellation were occurring. But it is equally possible that Piero was representing people who existed at the time of the work’s production, as many art historians believe and have set out to prove.

Some, with a disappointing lack of imagination, believe the three are simply ‘contemporaries of Piero’. Again, I believe that the idea that he constructed such a thoroughly worked out physical environment to then populate it with people who have no significance is untenable.

Moving to the next level of specificity, from 1839 with the discovery of conventum in unum the figures were identified as three ‘princely enemies’ of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, but were not more clearly identified. One could imagine this as a warning to potential opponents to Federico’s rule or even a sort of medieval ‘wanted’ poster!

The figures are Montefeltros

From the rediscovery of the painting until the mid twentieth century the three figures were considered to be portraits. Some historians maintain that the figures represent members or friends of the Montefeltro family, and that they relate to the assassination or early death of one of them. The most widely encountered interpretation is that the central foreground figure is Oddantonio da Montefeltro.

By 1717 Ciccarini thought that the whole foreground group represented unspecified rulers of Urbino. In 1725 Giovanni Tommaso Maria Marelli, Archbishop of Urbino from 1716 to 1739, gave them the names of Guidobaldo, Federico and Oddantonio da Montefeltro; when the chronological impossibility of this was acknowledged, some substituted Guidantonio, father of Federico and Oddantonio, for Guidobaldo. The interpretation was taken from a biographical to a topical level when Passavant in 1839 and James Dennistoun in 1851 related the foreground scene to the conspiracy leading up to the murder in 1444 of Oddantonio together with his two counsellors, Manfredo dei Pio and Tommaso di Guido dell’Agnello, who were taken to be the figures with which Piero represented him. Another possibility is that they are Serafini and Ricciarelli, citizens of Urbino, who allegedly murdered Oddantonio together with his two bad advisors. 

There are two obvious problems with these ideas. Firstly, none of the figures resemble Federico da Montefeltro, whose famous (and instantly recognisable) profile we have already encountered.

Secondly, the right sided three figures are not painted in any manner alluding to intrigue, violence or political machinations, devices which Piero might reasonably been expected to include in the symbolism of his composition were this their intended purpose.

Figures are Ludovico Gonzaga and Ottaviano Ubaldini

Another interpretation is that the two lateral figures are contemporary persons, the left one involved in explaining to the right the meaning of a shared experience. This requires that the central figure be an allegorical representation, pertinent to this experience. But what is this foreground ‘experience’, the answer to which would lie in identifying the figures?

The most complex of all the theories about this painting that I encountered employs the following logic. Personally, I consider it stretches credibility to its limits and makes one too many leaps of faith, but it is, at the same time, a fascinating insight into the processes which art historians utilise when seeking meaning within a work of art.

The right figure, an aristocrat by his dress, resembles Ludovico III Gonzaga, Marquis of Manua, based upon a bust, medals by Pisanello and by Pietto da Fana and a portrait by Andrea Mantegna. The background against which he is placed, that of a domestic palace, identifies him as a wealthy citizen.

Ludovico was a close friend of Federico’s nephew and close companion Ottaviano Ubaldini, postulated as the bearded figure standing in the left foreground. Ottaviano was counsellor, treasurer and occasional stand in governor (in Federico’s absence) of Urbino and also stood regent between Federico’s death in 1482 and Guidobaldo’s coming of age in 1487. He met Ludovico when he and Federico were schooled in Mantua and again whilst studying military arts under Filippo Maria Visconti in Milan.

 Ottaviano was both patron of the arts and an astrologer. In the ‘Flagellation’, he is likened to his only portrait, a marble relief medallion in the church of San Francesco in Mercatello sul Metauro. His background in Piero’s painting is the corner column between the piazza and Praetorium, suggesting that he has some access to the inner sanctum. Both men lost sons to illness, the plague in Ottaviano’s case, an undefined illness in that of Ludovico. This theory has them discussing this shared experience across a representation of the ‘ideal son’, the blond haired youth depicted centre left. His background is foliage, akin to laurel, which is symbolic of eternal glory and making the theme of the painting the triumph of Christian Glory over the tribulations of this world.

This theory leads to a conclusion that the work was commissioned by Ottaviano, rather than by Federico.


I sincerely hope you have enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. This is, for me, a perfect example of how art and history combine to enrich the study of the sister discipline. A return to Urbino is now included in my travel wish list!

Published by alastairstravels

Hi. Having taken part retirement from work I am fulfilling a long standing ambition to travel and share my experiences

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