by Roderick Conway Morris

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Uffizi, Florence
Venus of Urbino by Titian, 1538

The art of dynasty, Italian style

By Roderick Conway Morris
URBINO, Italy 24 July 2004


The Della Rovere were upstarts, but they had taste. Their humble origins doubly spurred them on to invest, with a vigor striking even by Renaissance standards of one-upmanship, in the kind of art that would lend grandeur to their newly created dynasty, and the Della Rovere name still basks in the reflected glory of the great artists they inherited and employed.

The story of the Della Rovere dukedom and their lavish architectural and artistic patronage throughout the territory are now the subject of the first exhibition devoted to the subject: 'The Della Rovere: Piero della Francesca, Raphael, Titian.'

It was an unusual feature of the dukedom that successive dukes favored different towns as their principal place of residence, leaving the region with ducal palaces in Senigallia, Urbino, Pesaro and Urbania (then called Casteldurante). Accordingly, the exhibition is housed in all four palaces, which are in themselves major exhibits, with the more than 300 artworks and artifacts on show arranged in 16 sections roughly chronologically, the visitor following the itinerary from town to town. (The four venues remain open until Oct. 3.)

The family gained prominence when Francesco Della Rovere, a Franciscan friar from Liguria in northwestern Italy, who had steadily worked his way up through the Order until becoming its captain in 1446, in 1471 secured for himself the ultimate prize - the papacy.

Many saw in him the long-hoped-for reformer who would restore the church's spiritual values and rid it of corruption. But this latest candidate to step into St. Peter's shoes, who took the name Sixtus IV, had other fish to fry.

Within a few years of his election, he had established new professional standards in the sport of nepotism. Three favorite nephews were elevated to the key bishoprics of Florence, Ferrara and Bologna (the last given to Giuliano Della Rovere, nicely positioning him to begin his own progress toward winning the papal chair as Julius II). Nephews who had not taken holy orders were skillfully paired off in marriage with the daughters of the strategically placed King of Naples, and Dukes of Milan and Urbino.

Within the same short period of frantic ecclesiastical shuffling and matrimonial diplomacy, he found time to streamline Rome's infrastructure in anticipation of the arrival of crowds of pilgrims for the potentially lucrative 1475 Jubilee, by driving a broad street from the Bridge and Castle of Sant'Angelo to the Vatican, and rebuilding a ruined ancient Roman bridge over the Tiber, to create the city's first-ever one-way system for the human traffic. Given that these were just two of many projects calculated to stamp the family's name and oak-tree crest ('rovere' meaning oak in Italian) on the urban fabric of the Eternal City, it was only in the sixth year of his reign that he embarked on the building of the eponymous Sistine Chapel and the summoning of the leading painters of the day - Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio et al - to fresco it.

When Sixtus died in 1484, it was inevitable that the family's fortunes would become uncertain, but such was the extent of the web of clerical and political connections Sixtus had spun that it was only a matter of time before the no less ambitious nephew Giuliano reached the pinnacle of the papal throne, in 1503.

As Julius II, he made extensive additions to the Vatican, had Bramante redesign the new St. Peter's, by sheer force of personality persuaded the reluctant, headstrong Michelangelo to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and called in Raphael to decorate the rooms in the papal palace that still bear the artist's name.

Thus Sixtus and Julius left their marks on Rome. But the pre-eminence of any family there was always going to last only as long as one of their number was pontiff. Accordingly Sixtus surveyed Italy with a view to securing a territory over which the Della Rovere could reign in perpetuity. And his acquisitive gaze fell upon Urbino, then ruled by the famed humanist mercenary general Federico da Montefeltro.

In 1474 Sixtus made Montefeltro a duke, and installed his nephew Giovanni as the lord of the small neighboring papal fiefdom of Senigallia on the Adriatic coast, also granting him the title of duke. Four years later Giovanni was married to Giovanna da Montefeltro, Federico's daughter, the second stage of Sixtus's plan eventually to secure the Duchy of Urbino for the Della Rovere.

Federico's son Guidobaldo I obligingly failed to produce an heir, and so adopted the son of Giovanni and Giovanna, Francesco Maria Della Rovere, as his successor. In 1508, during the papacy of Julius II, the far-sighted Della Rovere scheme came to fruition, when Francesco Maria became Duke of Urbino. The family's rule of the Duchy, amalgamated with the neighboring statelets of Senigallia and Pesaro, was to last until 1631, when a large part of the family's collections were dispersed, with many pieces going to Rome, Florence and elsewhere.

The hilly dukedom was poor in natural resources, so the means by which Federico da Montefeltro bankrolled his spending on art and the construction on his vast palace in Urbino, described in a 16th century translation of Baldassare Castiglione's 'The Book of the Courtier' (set in the palace) as 'the fairest that was to bee found in all Italie,' was by hiring himself and his private army of fierce peasant hill-folk as mercenaries. So feared was Federico that at one point the Venetians offered him 80,000 ducats a year on condition that he stayed at home in his palace doing nothing and undertook not to intervene on behalf of any of the Serenissima's enemies.

The Della Rovere, too, had a strong martial streak - Julius II was much happier in full armor conducting a siege from the front line than in his papal tiara dispensing benedictions - and the Della Rovere dukes followed in Federico's footsteps with considerable success, likewise spending a large proportion of what they earned through war on art. The Della Rovere inherited a stupendous legacy of artworks from Federico, notably in the architecture of Francesco di Giorgio and the paintings of Piero della Francesca, but none of the succeeding dukes rested on their laurels, competing ferociously to retain the best artists and obtain the finest works.

In 1538, to take but one example, Guidobaldo II declared himself prepared to go to any lengths and, despite the parlous state of his finances, by implication to pay almost any price to secure Titian's 'Nude Woman' (now at the Uffizi, and known as 'The Venus of Urbino'). As the chief of Florence's museums, Antonio Paolucci, points out in an amusing essay in the catalogue, this still extremely erotic work was quite devoid the usual mythological references, the Venus epithet being added only later to sanitize its blatant sexuality. (Though providing this text, Paolucci did not, alas, allow this delicious creature to return to Urbino for the duration of the show.)

A unique feature of the courts of the Dukes of Urbino was the dominant role of women. Almost all the duchesses that married into the dynasty were from the great families of Italy - the Sforza, Gonzaga, d'Este, de' Medici - and were well educated. The importance of women here is witnessed on page after page of Castiglione's 'Courtier,' and in many ways the book can be seen as a protofeminist work in its advocacy of the equality of women in intellectual and cultural matters. Already in Federico da Montefeltro's time the women of the household were playing a major part in setting the style there. The ascendancy of women was given a further boost by the fact that the last Montefeltro, Guidobaldo I, was a lifelong invalid who, as Castiglione noted 'on account of his infirmity after supper went very early to bed,' leaving his wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga, to preside alone over the palace's many evening activities.

But throughout the rest of the period women at court were frequently the de facto rulers of the state during their husbands' and menfolk's extended absences on military expeditions. This meant they not only found themselves dealing with diplomatic correspondence and running the dukedom's extensive and complex international relations, but also managing its finances and day-to-day economy. Thus, the influence of women on artistic patronage was also greater and more consistent in the Della Rovere duchy than in any other Renaissance state in Italy.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024