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.


%d bloggers like this: