The latest from the court of Urbino is that the 14 uomini illustri are back! It’s their first visit to their true home since 1633.
14 portraits of illustrious men, from Duke Federico’s studiolo, have been returned temporarily from the Louvre to the Palazzo Ducale and reunited with the other 14, which have been in the Palazzo Ducale since 1952, accompanied by rather depressing black and white photographs of the portraits of their erstwhile companions.
The story of these portraits is typical of the despoliation of Federico’s collections after Montefeltro came under direct papal rule in 1631. In 1633 the papal legate Cardinal Antonio Barberini helped himself to the 28 portraits. 14 of them underwent numerous vicissitudes until Napoleon III bought them in 1861 and sent them to the Louvre, where they have remained. The Italian state bought the other 14 in 1934 and eventually returned them to the Palazzo Ducale.
Scientific examinations of the paintings and a comparison with Justus’s “Communion of the Apostles” has shown that the portraits are the work of Justus and another artist, conjectured to be Pedro Berruguete. For me, their interest is in what the portraits tell us about Federico, bearing in mind that this was a private room which reflected his personal taste. Here is the Renaissance man, student as well as warrior, learned in pagan and Christian culture, respecting “philosophers, poets and all the doctors of the Church both Greek and Latin”, as Vespasiano da Bisticci, Federico’s bookseller, put it in his biography of the Duke.
Among the portraits is the one of King Solomon (above), whom presumably Federico wanted to emulate. I like to imagine him reading Solomon’s prayer on his accession, when God said “Ask what I shall give thee”. Solomon responded: “And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king … and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in … 9 Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad…”(1 Kings 3 vv 7-9).
Federico also included portraits of men who had been important in his life.
For two years Federico had been a boy hostage at the Gonzaga court of Mantua, where he studied under Feltre, humanist and tutor to the Gonzaga children.
For a virtual visit to the studiolo, go to my fellow blogger Accurimbono’s blog, where you will find a link to the virtual gallery which he has compiled of the intarsie (trompe-l’oeil wood inlays) and the portraits of illustrious men.
Included in the exhibition organised to celebrate the return of the uomini illustri is this portrait of Federico’s son Guidubaldo, who has also temporarily returned to his true home from the Colonna Gallery in Rome. (The Colonna family inherited half of the Barberini estate.)
What has dear old Mr Santi to do with the uomini illustri, and what news do we have of him? His news is that he has painted a picture you didn’t know about, which is included in the current exhibition alongside the studiolo. In other words, the exhibition curators have taken the opportunity to hang a work which has been re-attributed to Giovanni Santi. The suggestion is that it is a copy by Santi of part of Justus’ larger work, The Communion of the Apostles.If this attribution is correct, it was a shame Santi wasted his time copying from an artist who was no better than him.
In any case, a good number of his paintings are on display in the Palazzo Ducale and I had already decided to visit the gallery and have a look at them even before I knew about the studiolo exhibition.
These pictures were at one time in Urbino’s Duomo. Agnese Vastano in Rafaello e Urbino, the catalogue of the eponymous 2009 exhibition (Electa, 2009), points out Piero della Francesca’s influence in the shell-shaped niches behind the saints, surmounted by scallop-shells, a reference to the so-called Brera altarpiece, or Pala Montefeltro,
which used to hang in San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti, the Montefeltro mausoleum, until Napoleon had the painting removed.
Also in the Palazzo Ducale is the Pala Buffi, or Buffi altarpiece from the altar of St Sebastian in the church of St Francis in Urbino.
I love the Buffi child in the bottom right corner, and the stone elegantly perched on St Sebastian’s halo. The other saints are, from left, St John the Baptist, declaring baby Jesus to be the Lamb of God, St Francis, displaying his stigmata, and St Jerome with a stylus, resting his hand on two books to show that he is a learned sort of chap, a Doctor of the Church and translator of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate). Where is Jerome’s lion? If you can see it lurking somewhere, please comment. As I pointed out in an earlier post, Santi’s son Raphael re-used the crown in his Baronci altarpiece, The Coronation of St Nicholas of Tolentino.
This was the last painting we had time for before the gallery closed.
One of the custodians was starting to get a bit worried. He told us that he could see we were serious, and he didn’t want us to miss the rest of the collection, because it was nearly closing time. We thanked him for his kind concern and assured him we’d be back. There’s always something new to see in Urbino!