Piero della Francesca at the Uffizi

It is one of the most famous double portraits in history: that of Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482) and his second wife Battista Sforza (1446-1472), painted by Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-1492). Federico ruled over Urbino from 1444 until his death in 1482. He was the illegitimate son of Guidantonio da Montefeltro, lord of Urbino. His father decided to legitimise him, as his marriage had failed to produce offspring. However, after the death of his first wife Guidantonio married again, and his second marriage proved to be more fruitful. Several children were born, among them his son Oddantonio da Montefeltro. It was Oddantonio who succeeded Guidantonio in 1443 and immediately saw himself promoted to Duke by Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447). Oddantonio was some five years younger than his half-brother. His excessive taxes (intended for financing his parties) and sexual misconduct made him immensely unpopular. In 1444 he was murdered, just seventeen years old. His body was found with the severed penis of the deceased in his mouth.[1] Federico was now the new ruler of Urbino. De facto he was also Duke, although he would only be formally granted the title thirty years later.

Battista Sforza and Federico III da Montefeltro – Piero della Francesca.

Federico da Montefeltro was first and foremost a condottiero, a mercenary captain. He had learned the trade from another famous warrior, Niccolò Piccinino (1386-1444), but had quickly surpassed his master in knowledge and skill. As a mercenary captain, he always fought for the one who paid him best. And since his services were in high demand, he soon became very wealthy. But Federico was not just a soldier. He was also a very civilised man, a man of the Renaissance, a protector of arts and sciences, and the founder of an immense library. Unfortunately the face of the Duke was badly mutilated. During a jousting tournament in 1450 he had refused to wear a helmet with a visor. His opponent had subsequently struck him in the face with his lance, which had led to a broken nose and the loss of an eye. Because of his injuries Federico had himself depicted exclusively in profile, so that only the side of his face with his remaining left eye would be visible. And that is how Piero della Francesca painted him in the double portrait that we can nowadays admire in the Uffizi. The story that Federico had ordered a surgeon to remove the bridge of his nose so that he could look the other way with his remaining eye is probably a myth.

Battista Sforza was the second wife of Federico. She had been born in 1446 as the daughter of the Lord of Pesaro, Alessandro Sforza. He was the younger brother of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan between 1450 and 1466 and also a famous condottiero. Federico and Battista married in 1460. In spite of the age difference between the two of almost a quarter of a century their marriage was a success. Unfortunately Battista passed away at the tender age of 25 or 26. In 1472 she gave birth to Federico’s son and successor Guidobaldo. It was a difficult birth, and Battista never fully recovered. Just a few months later she died, leaving behind a grief-stricken husband. It is not entirely clear when Piero della Francesca painted the double portrait. It is sometimes dated to 1470, but it is not inconceivable that it in fact dates from after 1474. The later date is based on the text on the reverse side of the portraits, where Federico is described as PAREM SVMMIS DVCIBVS, on par with the greatest dukes. As was already mentioned, Federico was not formally recognised as Duke until 1474. On the other hand, it is quite possible that only the reverse side was painted later, or that the text was added later or altered.[2]

Reverse side of the double portrait.

If the double portrait does indeed date from 1474 or later, Battista was already dead when it was made. Some authors believe her very pale complexion is evidence that she was portrayed posthumously. The contrast with the bronzed face of her husband is indeed striking, but then again Federico spent a lot of time in the field with his army, while Battista lived a life mostly spent indoors. Apart from her pale complexion, her elaborate hairstyle with ram’s horns and ribbons also catches the eye. The pearl necklace she is wearing looks expensive. The frame into which the portraits have been set dates from the nineteenth century. It is very likely that the portraits were once directly attached to each other, as the beautiful backgrounds match perfectly. This is especially true for the reverse side, which is sadly ignored by many visitors. Here we see the two spouses on triumphal wagons. Federico is depicted in the armour of a professional soldier, while Battista is accompanied by the three theological virtues.

Montefeltro altarpiece – Piero della Francesca.

The loyalty of a condottiero such as Federico da Montefeltro was always rather fluid. Federico was the godfather of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492), who ruled over Florence from 1469 onwards. In 1467 he had come to the aid of Lorenzo’s father Piero the Gouty when a large army commanded by the condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni threatened Florence. Ironically, one of the officers serving in that army was Alessandro Sforza, Federico’s father-in-law. Federico nevertheless chose to fight on Piero’s side and clashed with Colleoni at the battle of Molinella, forcing the latter to retreat. In 1472 Federico aided his godson in a war against the town of Volterra. Federico’s troops took the town and Federico himself confiscated 71 precious Hebrew manuscripts, including an exceptionally heavy thirteenth-century copy of the Old Testament. The manuscripts were taken to the Duke’s magnificent new library in Urbino.[3] Federico ultimately did not remain loyal to Florence. He was involved in the Pazzi conspiracy – an attempt by a number of noble families in Florence to cause the fall of the Medici dynasty – and fought against Lorenzo in the ensuing war (1478-1479). By that time the Duke’s health was already failing, after a fall from a balcony had left him crippled. During his last campaign for Ferrara against Venice – a campaign that was part of the so-called Salt War – the Duke developed a high fever, to which he succumbed on 10 September 1482 at the age of sixty.

Piero della Francesca, the painter who made the double portrait of Federico and Battista, was born in Sansepolcro in Eastern Tuscany. His father was already dead at the time of his birth, so he named himself after his mother. Piero became famous for his fresco cycle of the History of the True Cross, which can be admired in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. He also painted people’s portraits, though not very often.[4] But since the painter had been associated with the court of Urbino for some time, he would not have refused a commission to paint the portrait of the Duke and his (dead?) wife. Piero painted Federico da Montefeltro again as one of the protagonists of the famous San Bernardino or Montefeltro altarpiece, which is currently on display at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. Of course we again see the Duke exclusively in profile.


[1] Ross King, The Bookseller of Florence, p. 237.

[2] James H. Beck, Italiaanse Renaissanceschilderkunst, p. 159.

[3] Ross King, The Bookseller of Florence, p. 238.

[4] James H. Beck, Italiaanse Renaissanceschilderkunst, p. 160.

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