133 – Cleanliness next to Godliness

Luciano Laurana, La Facciata dei Torricini, 1464-72. Palazzo Ducale, Urbino.

It’s a long time since I’ve talked about a building, but as today’s façade has a brief mention in the first of my new series of talks about Raphael, (A Boy from Urbino, this Monday 5 July at 6pm) – I thought I’d look at what a sophisticated piece of design it is. Monday’s a busy day, as it happens. I will also start a new course for the National Gallery – Women Artists – which covers women in Western European Art from medieval to modern, focussing especially on those whose work is included in the Gallery’s own collection. It will fill the gap between coffee and lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays for three weeks – there are more details in the link above. But today we will talk about architecture. The Palazzo Ducale in Urbino is sometimes described as the greatest Renaissance palace. It was built for Federigo da Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino from 1444, who was promoted to Duke in 1474. There is a lot of discussion still about who was responsible for the design of different sections of the palace: Luciano Laurana incorporated a slightly earlier building, but did not complete the palace by the time he left Urbino in 1472. However, I won’t be discussing the whole building: it is simply too large and too complex for one post. Instead, I will just look at one side, known as the Facciata dei Torricini – the ‘Façade of the Little Towers’ – which most authorities seem to be happy to attribute to Laurana himself.

Most of the palace is far grander and more austere in appearance. The palace is undoubtedly the largest structure in the city – with the exception of the encompassing defensive walls, I suppose – and most of it is far grander and more austere than this façade – both more simple and imposing. This section is more elaborate as a result of its function – or functions – as the apartments of the Duke himself. The façade looks out over the countryside, rather than in towards the city, and so is designed to demonstrate Federigo’s wealth and good taste to anyone approaching from this direction. But it also expresses, subtly, a whole system of beliefs and convictions concerning the character of a good ruler. The façade is elaborated by a vertical series of three arches. The bottom two are labelled with the letters ‘F’ and ‘C’, standing for Federico Comes – ‘Count Federigo’ in Latin –  reminding us that this structure was completed before he became Duke in 1474.

The top two arches are supported by marble columns, and are also faced in marble – implying the high status of the rooms which are behind them. The lowest is framed by brickwork – it is more down to earth, like the palace as a whole. By picking out these details in marble, it becomes clear that this part of the palace must the Duke’s (or Count’s) personal domain. Both of the upper two arches have two doorways leading from the balconies, whereas the lowest has only one. Nevertheless, in all three cases, the balconies allowed Federico to survey his realm. Access from one to another was via the spiral staircase in the torricino to the left. In between this and the upper balcony is a window which illuminates Federico’s famed studiolo – or ‘little study’ – decorated with paintings of ‘famous men’ by Justus of Ghent and Pedro Berruguete. Some – those in colour – are still in situ, whereas the remainder, represented by the reproductions in black and white, have been scattered around the world.

More famous, perhaps, is the intarsia work by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano, showing off their skill with perspective and other forms of illusionistic representation, using intricate inlaid woods. The imagery displays Federico’s military prowess and artistic interests, including music and the arts, science, weaponry, a display of his honours (among others he held the Orders of the Ermine, the Golden Fleece, and the Garter – the last of these bestowed by Edward IV of England), not to mention personifications the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, which we must assume Federigo was supposed to embody.

From the next balcony down the two doors lead into two small rooms, known as the Chapel of Absolution, and the Temple of the Muses. The entrance to the two is topped by a couplet in Latin, which translates as,

You see a pair of chapels, joined together with a small separation:
the one part is sacred to the Muses, the other sacred to God.

It has been suggested that Piero della Francesca’s painting of The Flagellation once stood on the altar of the Chapel of Absolution – although this is by no means certain. However, we do know that the Temple was decorated with paintings of the nine muses by none other than Giovanni Santi. Now, this name might not be familiar to you, but don’t worry, he wasn’t the most famous of artists. However, he did create some rather charming works, and did two things for which he has been considered especially important. For one thing, he wrote a rhyming epic in honour of his patron Federigo. This isn’t in itself remarkable, but Giovanni followed the encomium with a list of 27 recent and living artists who he considered to be important, praising their work and explaining what he thought were their chief qualities – one of the first and one of very few such statements from the Renaissance, and therefore an invaluable measure of how people in the 15th Century actually talked about art. Perhaps more important than this, though, he was the father of Raphael (one of those artists we tend to refer to by one name only, thus effectively denying his parentage any relevance). Even though he died when Raphael was only eleven, it seems likely that Giovanni had already taught his young son most of the technique he would need for a successful career.

This beautifully delicate drawing in the Royal Collection was used by Giovanni as the model for various works, but most directly for Clio, the Muse of History. The painting itself is one of several surviving Muses (not all nine have been preserved), and is probably the one in the best condition.

So Federigo’s apartments – including his bedroom, the antechambers, and audience rooms – and most specifically, his study – are above a Christian chapel and a humanistic temple to the Muses. What would be the function of the rooms down below? In moving from the study to the chapel and temple, we have moved down from head to heart, suggesting that the lowest level of the three could be related to the rest of the body, or, perhaps, to more lowly functions. And indeed, behind the lowest balcony are Federigo’s bathrooms, across the corridor from the stables. I would imagine that this allowed him, on getting home from one of his military campaigns (he earned much of his fame and wealth as a Condottiero, a leader of mercenary soldiers) to wash off the cares of the world before returning to the cares of the court, and having cleansed his body he could head up the spiral staircase to cleanse his soul, thanking God for his safe return and praying for forgiveness for any misdeeds. He could also consult the Muses for inspiration before heading up to his private study and other apartments.

When seen from above, we realise that one of the walls does not shelter a room, but acts as a screen for a ‘hanging garden’, which sits on the roof directly above the stables. There used to be a walkway above this wall, which led directly from Federigo’s apartments to those of his wife, the beautiful Battista Sforza. Sadly, she died in childbirth at the age of 26, but was immortalised posthumously by Piero della Francesco as one of the paired portraits in the Uffizi.

Piero della Francesca, Battista Sforza and Federigo da Montefeltro, about 1473-75. Uffizi, Florence.

The Duke had everything at hand. His own rooms, on a level, and within easy reach of his wife along a short corridor (passing between garden and countryside), worked along a horizontal axis, while, on the vertical axis, his study was supported by a foundation of God and the arts – the health of his soul and his mind. These in turn were supported by the wellbeing of his body in the bathrooms below (not to mention the kitchens, which are on the same level). This clarity of thought and the elegant disposition of spaces are just a couple of the features which mark the sophistication of the court to which Raphael belonged: this is where he grew up, and where he made his first steps in the world of art. It was undoubtedly an important foundation for the future development of his career, which is precisely why it seems an ideal place to start the series on Monday. I look forward to talking to some of you then.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “133 – Cleanliness next to Godliness

  1. Fascinating Richard; the understanding of the space in which art originally sat and its sequencing is so relevant to a full appreciation particularly when so many paintings etc have been dispersed and seen out of context as one offs in galleries thus missing the big reveal and impact of architecture, purpose , space, lighting and “ lead up”. I suspect your theatrical career adds to and complements your insights here as you consider the full wrapper . I am no expert but this seems to be something frequently overlooked or at best glossed over or misconstrued if we just look at a single painting. It is akin to visiting a Cathedral or Mosque and trying to guess blind from the building’s skeleton what type of faith/ institution / liturgy/ purpose/ awe it was created to enhance and the personality and outlook of its religion’s founder, patrons and followers. You did this brilliantly at the Scrovegni chapel with the insights into the typology of the sequence and back story of the Payton’s usurer dad. Thank you so much for stretching our grey cells over the past 18 months and opening a door into a different world.

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    1. Thank you, Ashley – the ‘holistic’ approach to the understanding of a work of art – putting it in its context, both in terms of time and place – is quite common in academic art history, but it gets harder to talk about in a more general context. The explanation of space is quite difficult without actually moving through the spaces themselves – which is why architecture is relatively hard to talk about, I think, in print or in lectures: it is better to visit in person! However, you are right – the tendency to talk about individual works of art in the context of a museum, means that we quite often do the same when we visit the original locations. And we also still get obsessed with biography – and I am doing the same with the series of chronological lectures on Caravaggio and Raphael! But I try to talk more about the art itself rather than the biography when I do this… It varies!


    2. Thank you, Ashley – I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you! I think it was a friend, Timothy Verdon, who first led me to understand the theatrical nature of so much religious art. Following his PhD on the life-size terracotta sculptures of Guido Manzoni he was moved to become a monk, but the abbot thought his gifts as an art historian were not being realised. He returned to academic teaching, before then re-training as a priest – he is now the director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, and an advisor to the church on the appropriate way to display the its wealth of religious art… Him, and the fact that all art was created for a reason, I suppose.
      I certainly enjoy visiting the places for which art I know was made, and even more so, visiting art in the place for which is was made. It makes it come alive.
      All best wishes,


      1. Thank you so much Richard; you had actually sent a reply so I am doubly grateful. Good luck with the theatre production and looking forward to seeing you in Peterborough, Ash

        Liked by 1 person

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