It's tempting when we think of Renaissance Italy to fall into the frame of mind that the whole world revolved around Rome and Florence. This is only natural for many of the best artists, architects, sculptors, and thinkers did tend to gravitate toward one or the other of these poles--the Catholic Church in Rome and the humanism of the de Medici family in Florence. And strangely enough, though it was Rome where many of the greatest works of the time were created, it was Florence who fed the church's insatiable appetite for artists, and even POPES. A few well-informed students of Renaissance art might recall that Milan was where the Florentine, Leonardo, did much of his work, rather than Rome, and that Venice was also an important center of Renaissance art.
But what about Urbino? Ever heard of Mantua? Could you even find Ferrara on a map of Italy? It's quite likely most might be hard-pressed to find ANY of the cities I've mentioned (with the possible exception of Rome) on a map of the Italian "boot." Okay, a little art/geography lesson. Let's start with Urbino. It's almost due north of Rome on the opposite side of the boot, near the Adriatic Sea. It was a small, hilltop town in which the massive ducal palace of the Montefeltro family was almost bigger than the town itself, and indeed from a distance, it all appeared to be one structure. If you've ever seen a picture of the Duke, he's the one always shown in profile with a sort of notch in the bridge of his nose. He earned that facial characteristic (and a missing eye) in battle as a heroic mercenary soldier for the church which was how he got his title and land.
From 1444 to 1482, he and his family presided over one of the most enlightened courts in Italy, his patronage being responsible for much of the artistic "research" responsible for the development of the rules of perspective, proportions, foreshortening, and anatomical studies. A brilliant scholar himself, Federico Montefeltro, was one of the most cultured, well-educated men of his time with a personal library of over 1,100 books. His court sheltered such artists as the painter Piero della Francesca, the architects, Georgi Martini and Leon Battista Alberti, as well as their student Donato Bramante, the man responsible for the initial plans and construction of St. Peter's in Rome. During the coming days and weeks, we'll be looking at some of the other "lesser known" cities which shared in the reawakening of Italy and Europe in general during this fascinating period.