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Europe 1300 - 1800

Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 3

Lesson 3: Painting in central Italy

Piero della Francesca, Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino

Piero della Francesca, Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, 1467-72, tempera on panel, 47 x 33 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

We're in the Ufizzi looking at two portraits that were once joined as a diptych. So they would have been connected by a hinge. This is the Duke and Duchess of Urbino – Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza. She had just died and this was a commemorative portrait this is a way that he could remember his his wife. We think it was actually painted by Piero della Francesca, possibly from a death mask that had been made of her. Look at how dressed-up she is. They are both very formal. It reminds me of the fact that we're so used to photographs being taken of us from the time we're very little. It's true, this was a very privileged thing. Only the extremely wealthy could have an image that could outlast them . I'm also reminded that women used to pluck their foreheads. It was considered to be especially beautiful to have a very high forehead. You often see this in northern painting. It's important to remember that Federico da Montefeltro actually brought northern painters, that is Flemish painters down to his court. In fact Piero who is an Italian painter seems to have borowed that northern interest perhaps not only in the high forehead but also in the great intricacy and specificity of the landscape. We have this wonderful atmospheric perspecive. One of the other characteristics that I also think is so interesting here is the very strict profile on which both figures are rendered. The formality that you were talking about comes through because of the profile. This is based on a coinage from Ancient Rome which, by the way, the humanists of Montefeltro's court and other humanist courts at this time were actively collecting. When you think about a rendering of Caesar or even on modern coinage, you generally have a perfect profile, and you see that here. The one interesting detail is that the portraits are almost always facing right and here the duke is facing his wife, facing left. Actually we know that he had suffered wounds on the right side of his face, he was missing an eye. That's right and part of his nose was missing. That may be another reason why we only see the left side of his face. But there is that formality and power that comes from the profile pose but also from the bird-eyes view of the landscape so that the figures tower over the landskape So there really is symbolism in this painting. And there is also symbolism outside of this painting as well. You had mentioned that this was a diptych. When this painting was closed you would actually only see the exterior. The exteriors are painted as well. Let's go have a look. There is a lot of symbolism on the outside of this painting. It's covers, you could say. You have two triumphal chariots which is an image that comes from Ancient Rome as well. On both of them we can see the people that are portrayed on the inside of the painting. That's right. On the back of Battista Sforza's portrait we see her borne in a triumphal chariot surrounded by figures who represent her virtues. And the same with the duke. Also below that we have these inscriptions in latin. Now, the classical inscription refers specifically to the vitues that are represented on those triumphal chariots. One example can be seen on the duke's chariot which shows facing us, sitting, but full-frontal a personification of justice. You can she she is holding the scales of justice in her hand as well as a sword. On the female portrait the cart is beeing drawn not by horses but by unicorns. It's really a fanciful landscape that they are in as well there is this real sense of imagination an attempt to invent a kind of iconography, that ennobles the figures represented. And we have that typical Piero della Francesca sense of geometry and formality which, I think, complements the portraits themselves.