by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery of the Marche, Urbino
'The Ideal City', attributed to Luciano Laurana, circa 1470

The Renaissance Utopia at Urbino between Piero della Francesca and Raphael

By Roderick Conway Morris
URBINO, ITALY 9 May 2012


When Baldassare Castiglione described Urbino in 1506 as a 'city in the form of a palace' he would probably have expected his more cultivated readers to catch the allusion to Leon Battista Alberti's assertion in his 'De re aedificatoria' (On the Art of Building) that 'the city is like a great house, and the house in its turn a small city.'

During his reign between 1444 and 1482, Federico da Montefeltro's marvelous edifice played host to as much intellectual and artistic activity as entire cities many times Urbino's size. And Alberti, along with Luciano Laurana, Piero della Francesca and Francesco di Giorgio Martini, at various stages contributed to the palace's harmonious design and shape.

Urbino's palace culture also gave rise to the first-ever painted images of utopian cities in the form of a trio of intriguing panels, all now known as 'The Ideal City,' one of which remained in Urbino, the other two now being in Baltimore and Berlin.

The dream of the organizers of 'The Ideal City: The Renaissance Utopia at Urbino between Piero della Francesca and Raphael,' to bring all three of these works together for this stimulating exhibition, curated by Alessandro Marchi and Maria Rosaria Valazzi, was thwarted by the fragile state of the Berlin version. But the one from the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore is here, along with more than 50 works from 40 collections, displayed in rooms round the beautiful first courtyard of Federico's Ducal Palace.

There are a number of unsolved mysteries surrounding the 'Ideal City' panels, all of which are now generally agreed to date to the 1480s. All three are carefully contrived perspective scenes, their rigorous mathematical construction emphasized by the converging lines of receding patterned marble pavings, flanked by palazzos with classical architectural features and more conventional urban houses reminiscent of those of Florence.

The Urbino version has at the center of its piazza a splendid Roman-inspired rotunda. The Baltimore version has a futuristic octagonal building of similar proportions, as well as a Colosseum-like amphitheater and a triumphal arch. In the Berlin version, illustrated in the catalog, the piazza is viewed through a pillared portico with a coffered ceiling, against a distant backdrop of a stretch of sea on which float ships with billowing sails.

The Urbino and Baltimore works offer glimpses of hilly countryside in gaps between the buildings furthest away. All three scenes are characterized by an atmosphere of serene, people-less silence under calm azure skies. (The few tiny figures in the Baltimore version, as the late Federico Zeri convincingly argued, were added at some later date.)

While the Baltimore and Berlin versions have one of two Roman and Florentine edifices that recall actual built structures, all three 'Ideal Cities' are essentially works of the imagination, depicting cities that never existed and the like of which were never realized during the Renaissance or after, although there are some significant echoes in them of architectural features of Federico's palace.

Who commissioned these works and what they were for is still unknown. Judging by their size and shape they were almost certainly decorative panels on pieces of furniture, most likely beds or divans of the contemporary type.

When the Urbino panel was first documented in the 18th century, it was thought to be by the locally born Donato Bramante. Other candidates for the various panels have been proposed since then, including Piero della Francesca, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Paolo Uccello and Sangallo and his circle. The first of the architects of Federico's palace Luciano Laurana was mooted as the paintings' author in 1902, an attribution that endured not least because no other suitable alternative could be found. But Laurana left Urbino in 1472 and died in 1479, several years before the works were executed according to today's dating.

In more recent times it has been suggested that Alberti might have at least done the expert perspective underdrawing, but architectural historians have pointed out that the panels have elements of building design that post-date Alberti's death in 1472. The exhibition follows the current trend of attributing all three works simply to a 'Central Italian Painter.'

While being unable to resolve the persistent conundrums associated with the panels, the exhibition does a commendable job in putting them in the broader context of their time and place.

In 1472 Federico visited Florence where he clearly saw the latest examples of intarsia, or marquetry, employing the new rules of mathematical perspective, to create highly sophisticated figurative images. Two years later Federico summoned some of these artist-craftsmen to adorn his 'studiolo,' or study, with masterful trompe l'oeil intarsia pictures.

Federico commissioned an additional series of exquisite intarsia doors with perspective 'ideal city' views closely related to the painted panels of the same theme. These were given prominent positions in the palace's architectural scheme, clear evidence of the importance Federico and his circle attached to this subject matter. Whether the intarsia views directly inspired the probably slightly later paintings, or whether they were both drawing on common 'Albertian' sources is unclear.

Intarsia city scenes also won favor elsewhere. In the hands of the brothers Lorenzo and Cristoforo Canozi da Lendinara and Pierantonio degli Abbati, the skillful manipulation of perspective and stylized arrangement of the buildings lend them a startling modern look, as can be seen in four examples in the exhibition from Padua and Lucca.

The application of mathematics to the visual arts and architecture played a major role in raising their status from manual and mechanical crafts to activities on a par with the liberal arts and sciences. During this period Urbino became a leading center of the mathematical Renaissance, attracting the greatest mathematical minds of the era, some of whom, notably Alberti and Piero della Francesca, were both mathematicians and artists.

The extent to which mathematics lay behind developments in Urbino's arts and architecture, not least the ideal city images, is the focus of the last sections of the exhibition.

The Franciscan friar and mathematician Luca Pacioli dedicated his 'Summa de arithmetica, geometrica, proportioni et proportionalita' to Federico's successor Guidobaldo da Montefeltro. The eloquent portrait of him here by Jacopo de' Barbari, on loan from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, depicts him demonstrating a Euclidian geometrical figure, a copy of his 'Summa' opened at the relevant page on the table in front of him, his left finger marking the appropriate place in the book.

Suspended in midair to the friar's right is a crystalline polyhedron, with 18 sides composed of 18 equilateral triangles, in three of which can be discerned miniscule reflections of a building resembling Urbino's Ducal Palace.

This transparent polyhedron at the same time offers a kind of mystical mathematical equivalent of the religiously symbolic white egg that appears suspended in the vault above the Virgin in Piero della Francesca's 'Sacred Conversation,' now at the Brera in Milan, commissioned by Federico and in which he appears kneeling in full armor before the Mary.

Among the rare manuscripts and codices also on display are Piero della Francesca's 'De Prospectiva Pingendi' (On Painting Perspective), Francesco di Giorgio Martini's 'Treatise on Civil and Military Architecture' and Federico da Montefeltro's illuminated codex of Alberti's 'De re aedificatoria,' the copying of which was not completed until the year after the duke's death.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023