There is a chamber in the ducal palace of Urbino in central Italy with a most impressive ceiling: the insignia of a black eagle sits in the middle of a sun, with painted flames and cherubs’ heads dancing all around. The rest of the chamber is now so painfully bare that it takes a considerable leap of imagination to go back in time to the 1460s and 1470s, when it housed one of the newest and most valuable humanist libraries of the time.
Indeed, the whole ducal palace – then a recently built confection of Venetian Gothic soaring out of the rock face – was stuffed with all manner of treasures. But history is a careless mistress when patronage becomes uncoupled from power, and over the following centuries Urbino, once a Renaissance gem of a city, crumbled gently into neglect and decay. Elements of its former beauty have been recovered now, but in order to appreciate its full glory, we have to resort to the words of historians. In the case of Jane Stevenson’s biography of Federico da Montefeltro, the man largely responsible for creating these wonders, we are also much aided by a host of sumptuous full-page and double-page illustrations.
Federico is a figure well worthy of attention. Born on the wrongish side of the blanket in 1420s (it was a crowded part of the bed at that time in Italy), he became ruler of Urbino in his early twenties after the assassination of his unpopular half-brother. While there