Battista Sforza: Countess of Urbino: An Illustrious Woman Part 2

As part two of the post on Battista Sforza, the reverse of Piero della Francesca’s striking Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza will be discussed. Don’t forget to check out part one! Dedicated to Lady, my faithful companion for the last 11 years.

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The reverse of the diptych celebrates the personal achievements of Battista and her husband and it is within these panels that the prescribed roles of the ruler and his consort are most clearly adhered to. [Fig. Five] Piero’s work is the earliest example of a diptych with scenes on the reverse.[1] Image and text work together here to provide the viewer with an insight into the accomplishments of the sitters. The theme of unity is underlined in a similar manner to the front panels by the placement of the figures facing one another before a continuous landscape and the presence of the parapet underneath carrying Latin inscriptions proclaiming the virtues of the sitters. In these scenes, Federico regains the position of honour with Battista assuming the place traditionally assigned to women.

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Both figures are represented seated on a triumphal cart surrounded by women who personify qualities possessed by the couple. Federico, in the scene of the Triumph of Fame, dressed in his suit of armour is reminiscent of a Roman general seated upon the field stool used on the battlefield, and is about to be crowned with a wreath of laurels by the winged female personification of Victory. He is accompanied by four women symbolically representing the Cardinal Virtues of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance, essential qualities vital for a Renaissance ruler to possess.[2]

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The representation of Battista in the scene depicting the Triumph of Modesty (Pudicità) opposite that of her husband portrays a complementary image of a loyal and capable consort, accompanied by four female figures, including the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Charity and Hope.[3] Battista, mirroring the pose of her husband, is seated upon a chair holding a small book. The chariot is driven by Cupid and drawn by two unicorns, mythical creatures renowned for permitting themselves only to be caught by a chaste woman. Their presence emphasises the purity of the deceased, vital for the preservation of the Montefeltro lineage. Paola Tinagli argues that the virtues associated with the countess within this work were seen as the indispensable requirements for the model Renaissance woman and consort. These were also mentioned in all of the panegyrics and orations written in her honour both before and after her death.[4] The inscription located in the parapet below emphasises these qualities further:

               ‘QVE MODVM REBVS TENVIT SECVNDIS/

               CONIVGIS MAGNI DECORATA RERVM/

               LAVDE GESTARVM VOLITAT PER ORA/

 CVNCTA VIRORVM’

[She that kept her modesty in favourable circumstances/ flies on the mouths of all men/ adorned with the praise of her great husband’s exploits][5]

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The inclusion of the mysterious fourth figure located directly behind the countess and facing away from the viewer adds a further level of meaning to the two panels. Woods-Marsden suggests that the figure is intended to be interpreted here as a Clarissan nun with whom the countess had a very close relationship throughout her life as a consort, reflected in her choice of burial place in the nuns’ common tomb in Santa Chiara.[6] Dressed in a grey costume and headdress, the traditional colour of Time, she may also be interpreted as the symbol of Eternity.[7] When the two Triumphs of Fame and Modesty are read together, they can be interpreted as a Triumph over Death, signifying the eternal fame the couple have successfully achieved. Influenced by Petrarch’s Trionfi, Piero’s images follow the sequence of Triumphs Petrarch established in his poem in an symbolic manner.[8] Erwin Panofsky strengthens this thesis by remarking that in the work of Piero as well as that of Petrarch: ‘Chastity triumphs over Love, Death over Chastity, Fame over Death, Time over Fame, to be conquered only by Eternity.’[9] The decision to represent these specific Triumphs reflects the overall image Federico carefully constructed of his court and of his family.  The ruling couple are represented as conforming to societal ideals regarding their prescribed positions, leading to the success of the court under their rule. The balance and symmetry created by these two scenes replicates the central theme of unity and harmony on the front panels of the diptych, in this case a product of their respective achievements in their socially defined roles.

Although the representation of a pelican has been found on the reverse of posthumous medals created during this period, the inclusion of the bird accompanying Charity in a diptych scene is unique to this work. The pelican was believed to nourish her chicks with her own blood. The bird, in keeping with contemporary thought, is shown here tearing at its own breast to draw the blood to feed its young. Its appearance may be read as a reference to Battista’s self-sacrifice, reinforcing the myth written to explain her demise.[10] This subtle allusion reinforces the central theme of the scene celebrating the chaste and virtuous nature of the countess, her ability as a wife and mother and a statement regarding the legitimacy of the heir she bore.

An explanation for the incorporation of the triumphal scenes on the reverse of the diptych may be found in the proposed locations and functions for the work. The intended audience was contingent upon the original site for the work.[11] A precise location has not been established, although a number of hypotheses have been made. Some scholars argue that it was likely to have occupied a prominent position within the palace such as the Throne Room so that it could be put on display not only for the immediate family’s viewing but also so that it could be seen by esteemed visitors.[12] It has also been suggested that the work was either placed upon a table in order for both sides to be visible or put on permanent exhibition in a space in the wall between the audience room and another space made into a chapel.[13] Woods-Marsden asserts that the work was only produced in special circumstances but was probably stored within the private space of Federico’s studiolo.[14] Aronberg Lavin also argues that, as the work was hinged and relatively small (each panel measures 47 x 33cm), it was to be opened to its different sides on various occasions and therefore functioned as a keepsake for private reflection.[15] When closed, the allegorical representations of the couple’s virtues depicted on the reverse acted as a ‘shield’, protecting the ruler portraits within.[16] The diptych was therefore designed so that the visualisation of the sitters’ values was visible when portable, promoting the ideal behaviour expected of the ruler and his consort. The front panels represented a more authentic view of the couple as co-rulers of their domain. In this capacity, the diptych was a highly valued object to Federico and would have been in the count’s personal possession along with his other treasured items such as his medals and gems.[17]

[1] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 108.

[2] Grazia Pernis and Schneider Adams, Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta, 102. Justice holds a scale in one hand and keeps Federico’s sword upright in the other and  is seated facing the viewer, nearest to the picture plane. Prudence carries a snake and a mirror, objects traditionally ascribed to her. Fortitude holds a broken column and Temperance is depicted on the opposite side facing away from the viewer and surveying the land around Urbino.

Clearly this scene of the Triumph of Fame is intended to exhibit Federico’s prowess as a condottiere, attested to by his recent victory at the Battle of Volterra on the behalf of Florence, the premise for the commissioning of the scene on the reverse.[2] Federico is portrayed here as possessing each of the crucial qualities necessary to govern his court effectively and successfully as reiterated in the inscription beneath, heralding him as a powerful and capable ruler:

‘CLARVS INSIGNI VEHITVR TRIVMPHO/

QVEM PAREM SVMMIS DVCIBVS PERHENNIS/

FAMA VIRTVTVM CELEBRAT DECENTER/

SCEPTRA TENENTEM.’

[He is borne into triumph/ fame celebrates him/ he holds a sceptre]

[3] Charity and Faith are seated at the front of the chariot. Faith is depicted holding a chalice, the host, a cross and accompanied by a faithful dog at her side. Charity is unusually dressed in black rather than red in this image and exceptionally is shown here holding a pelican. Hope stands behind Battista, and looks out of the pictorial space as if addressing the viewer.

[4] P. Tinagli, Women in Italian Renaissance Art, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1997, 58-59.

[5] Ibid. Her translation.

[6] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca,  110.

[7] Grazia Pernis and Schneider Adams, Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta,101.

[8] Ibid, 103.

[9] E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, Harper & Row, London, 1972, 79.

[10] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 109.

[11] Ibid, 112.

[12] Osborne, Urbino: The Story of A Renaissance City, 116.

[13] Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, 265.

[14] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 113.

[15] Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, 265.

[16] A. Cecchi in L. Bellosi (ed.), Una Scuola per Piero: Luce, colore e prospettiva nella formazione fiorentina di Piero della Francesca, Venice, 1992, 144. This is confirmed by the varying levels of damage on the two sides.

[17] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 113.

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