Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino

July 31, 2018
Duke and Duchess of Urbino

Federico III da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and his wife Battista Sforza, by Piero della Francesca

So much praise has been heaped on Florence as the cradle of the Italian Renaissance that it is sometimes easy to forget that there were other glorious centers of art and literature outside of Tuscany. Urbino, a city in the Marche region of Italy, about 115 miles east of Florence, was one such example.

Urbino flourished most under the House of Montefeltro, which wrested control of the town from the Papacy in the 13th Century and eventually turned it into a dukedom. It reached its apex under the rule of Duke Federico III da Montefeltro (1422-1482), a true Renaissance man whose interest in the arts, and whose fortune, made Urbino into a mecca for culture.

One of the best accounts of Urbino’s legacy was written by a Scotsman, James Dennistoun of Dennistoun. His three-volume history, Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino, originally published in 1851, covers “the arms, arts and literature of Italy” during Urbino’s golden years, from 1440 to 1630. As the subtitle suggests, however, Dennistoun’s work is also a wide-ranging review of “arms, arts and literature” that extends beyond the borders of the duchy to great Renaissance works throughout Italy.

Dennistoun rightly lavishes a great deal of attention on Federico III, a devoted humanist whose court was well known for its atmosphere of learning. Federico formed one of the greatest manuscript libraries in Italy, employing the finest scribes and illuminators to hand-produce, on the highest-quality parchment, nearly a thousand bound manuscripts for his collection. (Movable-type printing was still an innovation in Europe at that time, but there were also some printed books in Federico’s original collection.) The Florentine librarian and bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who provided Federico with many of the original works for copying, and who supervised the binding of the final products, estimated that Federico spent more than 30,000 ducats on the library — over $5 million (USD) in today’s money. Later Dukes added many items to the collection over the next two centuries.

The Project Gutenberg e-book of the Memoirs is based on an enhanced edition published in 1909 and edited by Edward Hutton. In his Introduction, Hutton notes:

The book, which has long been almost unprocurable, is full, as it were, of a great leisure, crammed with all sorts of out-of-the-way learning and curious tales and adventures. Sometimes failing in art, and often we may think in judgment, Dennistoun never fails in this, that he is always interested in the people he writes of, interested in their quarrels and love affairs, their hair-breadth escapes and good fortunes…. Full of digressions, a little long-drawn-out, sometimes short-sighted, sometimes pedantic, it is written with a whole-hearted devotion to the truth and to the country which he loved.

Among the enhancements in the second edition of the Memoirs are numerous black-and-white photographs of Renaissance portraits, medals, paintings, sculptures, artifacts, and buildings, many taken by the famed Florentine photography house of Alinari. Hutton added his own footnotes expanding on, and occasionally correcting, Dennistoun’s text. And the first volume contains an interesting catalogue of the sale of Dennistoun’s own collection of Italian and other artworks after his death in 1855.

After over four centuries of rule by the Montefeltro and della Rovere families (with a brief stint under Cesare Borgia), the Duchy of Urbino fell back into papal hands in 1626. The great library Federico had founded was sold to the Vatican for a pittance in 1657, and it remains there today. But Urbino’s contributions to the “arms, arts and literature” of Italy, and to the Renaissance, are indelible. Through Dennistoun’s scholarly labor of love, we have a rich portrait of its former greatness.


Renaissance in Italy: Italian Literature, by John Addington Symonds

May 26, 2011

The Renaissance — French for “rebirth” — was a period of re-flowering for art and literature after the gloom of the Dark Ages. From the 14th through the 16th Centuries, artists and writers all over Europe created an amazing body of masterworks whose beauty and intensity still bring joy to us today. And Italy — though not yet a unified nation — was the birthplace of this re-flowering.

Renaissance in Italy is a monumental series of treatises by English literary critic John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), covering virtually all aspects of the subject. The first three volumes cover the fragmented political landscape of the time; the rise of Humanism; and a detailed study of the great Italian architects, sculptors, and painters.

The fourth and fifth volumes, Italian Literature (Part I, Part II), brilliantly examine Italian literary masters, from Dante to Machiavelli. For Symonds, the Golden Age of Italian literature took place between 1300 and 1530, when poets and essayists moved away from Latin and composed their best works in their native Italian dialects — particularly Tuscan, which became the basis for modern Italian. Sicilian and Provençal troubadours of the 13th Century, writing in their own languages, led to the “dolce stil novo” (sweet new style) of Dante and other poets writing in the Tuscan dialect. The highest expression of this style was, of course, Dante’s Divine Comedy.

From this linguistic and literary transition sprang all that followed: Boccaccio and his Decameron, Ariosto and his Orlando Furioso, Machiavelli and his Prince, and many other masterpieces by many other masters in between. Symonds recognized that Italy’s greatest literature was also born of the artistic ideals of ancient Rome:

When all her deities were decayed or broken, Italy still worshiped beauty in fine art and literary form. When all her energies seemed paralyzed, she still pursued her intellectual development with unremitting ardor… They wrought, thought, painted, carved and built with the antique ideal as a guiding and illuminative principle in view. This principle enabled them to elevate and harmonize, to humanize and beautify the coarser elements existing in the world around them. What they sought and clung to in the heritage of the ancients, was the divinity of form — the form that gives grace, loveliness, sublimity to common flesh and blood in art; style to poetry and prose; urbanity to social manners; richness and elegance to reflections upon history and statecraft and the problems of still infantine science.

Renaissance in Italy: Italian Literature (Part I) was part of DP’s 20,000 titles celebration. The entire Renaissance in Italy series is available at Project Gutenberg: The Age of the Despots, The Revival of Learning, The Fine Arts, Italian Literature (Part I), Italian Literature (Part II), and The Catholic Reaction (Parts I and II).

Banner for DP's 20k celebration


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