Piero della Francesca: Federigo da Montefeltro and his Wife Battista Sforza
In choosing the diptych as a suitable form for the portrait, the artist adapts a conventional means of eliciting sympathy that can be traced back to Classical antiquity. Roman consuls would often present double portraits, painted on hinged leaves of wood, metal or ivory, to emperors, senators or influential friends. This painting may have been a present, too, but nothing is actually known of its early history. The painting was first recorded in 1631, when the Duchy of Urbino, along with the property of the ruling Rovere family, was annexed by the Papacy. At the time, the painting was taken to Florence, thus finding its way into the Uffizi.
Formally speaking, the work is a portrait of a man and his wife. However, its subject, unlike that of van Eyck’s Arnolfini-portrait of 1434 (see Jan van Eyck Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife), is not contamed on a single panel. Nor does the painting record an event of importance to the couple — like an act of betrothal, or a wedding ceremony.
The partners are posed separately, facing each other m a deliberately archaic manner: the Duke on the right, mirrored, as it were, by his wife. Both arc shown in sharply defined, bust profile, a type of portrait reminiscent of Pisanello’s medals.
The portrait avoids contact between the gaze of the sitters and the spectator. Despite their proximity, Federigo da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza seem distant from one another, their relationship abstract. Their robes display dignity and wealth. The Duke’s red cylindrical biretta with its slightly wider crown and matching plain topcoat emphasise his powerful presence, his might and majesty. His stern simplicity anticipates an ideal formulated a quarter of a century later by Baldassare Castiglionc , also from Urbino, in his book on the «gentiluomo», or courtly gentleman.
Federigo da Montefeltro’s wife, of pale complexion, is wearing a white veil elaborately plaited into her snail-shaped, chequered braids. Her rich pearls and finely cut jewels demonstrate her considerable wealth. However, her pearls are allusions to Marian virtues, too. At the time, the Virgin was often portrayed wearing rich pearl jewellery to illustrate her status as «regina coeli» (Queen of Heaven) — by van Eyck, for example, on the altarpiece at Ghent.
The Duke and Duchess are placed so far forward against the picture-plane that they act as a repoussoir, directing the eye into an infinitely receding, undulating landscape with scattered pine-trees. The panoramic view is reminiscent of Antonio Pollaiuolo’s landscapes of the Arno valley; it shows the countryside around the court of Urbino, twenty miles inland from the Adriatic coastline between Loreto and Rimini. The Apennme foothills are just visible in the blurred, «sfumato» background. The fortifications and ships at the coast are intended to demonstrate the military prowess of this mercenary commander, whose army had fought under the flags of Naples, Milan and the Papacy. Fortifications — a chain of fortresses gleaming in the sunshine — are also visible in the landscape behind Battista Sforza.
The landscape motif is repeated on the reverse of the panels, only here it is translated into mythological allegory. A pair of white horses and a pair of tawny unicorns are shown pulling triumphal chariots, carrying the Virtues and the Duke and Ducljess, across a flat rock — the symbol of conjugal fidelity. Federigo is depicted wearing knightly armour, crowned by Glory and surrounded by the cardinal virtues of Justice, Wisdom, Valour and Moderation.
Battista, reading a prayer-book, is assisted by the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, as well as by Pudicitia: matronly chastity. Holding onto the reins, cupids (symbols of conjugal love) stand on cornucopia-style pedestals above the shaft of each chariot. The stilted Latin inscriptions on the architrave-like «parapets» below the landscapes pompously celebrate the fame of this «illustrious sovereign», who, as prince and bearer of the sceptre, apparently was a match for the greatest of kings. His lady’s qualities, meanwhile, are praised as a credit to her husband.
Iconographically, the motifs are related to Petrarch’s «Trionfi», which were written in about 1352 and appeared in Venice in 1470, only a few years after Piero della Francesco painted the portraits. Petrarch’s didactic allegories, of which Fedcrigo, a collector of rare books and manuscripts, probably possessed a copy — his famous collection was later acquired by the Vatican Library -, describe the triumph of six allegorical figures. Among them is the «Triumphus pudicitiae», here associated with Battista Sforza, and the «Triumphus famae», shown on the reverse of Federigo’s portrait.
Despite their small format, the panels are an impressive testimony to the thirst for glory of a Duke who had himself confidently portrayed as «fortis sapiensque», courageous and wise, an expert both in war and in science — qualities demanded of the ideal ruler by medieval and Renaissance «princely codes».
It is possible that the portraits were not painted until after 1474, when Federigo, still only Signore da Urbino, was crowned Duke. The emphasis on the sceptre as a sign of newly acquired rank would seem to support this. At the same time, this would mean that the portrait of Battista was executed posthumously, since she is known to have died in 1472. The perfect tense («tenuit») in the inscription under Battista’s allegory is thus probably used in a commemorative sense. In this case, her face would not have been seen as an authentic life study, but as the copy of an earlier portrait. Federigo, on the other hand, appears to be roughly the same age here as in his likeness by Pedro Berruguete, painted in 1477, which shows him reading a valuable codex.
The reverse of the panels shows the Duke and Duchess surrounded by the Virtues attributed to them.
Federigo is depicted with the cardinal virtues: Justice, Wisdom, Valour and Moderation.
Battista is assisted by the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity.