Europeans, No 20: Federico da Montefeltro
The Italian lord cut a dash as a fighter, but made his name as a patron of the arts
Federico da Montefeltro was born in 1422, the natural son of Duke Guidantonio da Montefeltro. From the age of 16 he was a condottiero , a military contractor who fought in the service of whichever Italian city would pay him.
In the mid-1440s, he acquired the city and lands of Urbino after his half-brother’s assassination but continued to amass wealth through his successful freelance military career. Having lost his right eye in a tournament he had surgeons remove the bridge of his nose so he could see to the right with his remaining one, a necessary facility for a man who might at any time be standing close to a friend who would suddenly reveal himself to be an enemy.
Federico is most remembered however not for his battles but as a patron of the arts ( mecenate ). At his magnificent palace at Urbino he surrounded himself with scholars and assembled one of Italy’s largest libraries. The city’s great tradition of learning, civility and patronage was continued under Federico’s son, Guidobaldo, and his wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga, immortalised by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier .
The remarkable efflorescence of arts and culture in Renaissance Italy depended greatly on people like the Montefeltros: culture – painting, architecture, music, poetry, scholarship – could not be produced without someone being willing to pay for it.
In a poem published in 1914, WB Yeats excoriated “a Wealthy Man” who was unwilling to make a (second) contribution to the Dublin Municipal Gallery unless it was proven that the people wanted pictures. Consulting the wishes of the common people, those he chose to call “Paudeen” and “Biddy”, seemed to Yeats – not a natural democrat – a doubtful procedure. Would Guidobaldo of Urbino, he asked, have inquired of the shepherds their opinions or invited them in to gawk at his pictures?
It is a natural human instinct to produce art, but one that is constrained by the circumstances of particular humans at particular times. “Time is money; free time is culture,” a modern French historian has observed, and it has chiefly been the wealthy and their families who have had that free time and thus who have sponsored the making of art.
The country house (Waugh’s Brideshead , for example) bears a heavy symbolic weight in English literature: it is the place, sheltered from industrialism and market forces, where old values are maintained and things of beauty appreciated. But there may be some mystification in this. The reality is that English aristocrats have often been more interested in dogs and horses than in beauty, and have mostly tended – as art historian Lord Clark observed – to be “as ignorant as swans”.
If the common people, as Beckett thought, have never given “a fart in their corduroys” for art, should it then just be left to those who do – the “cultivated”, the wealthy? The argument against this proposition has been that while art and culture were not always as immediately accessible as, say, television, people were entitled to be “given the chance” to appreciate them. And this we expected the State to finance.
In tougher times we may well find ourselves returning to that great figure of the past, the patron. This time though, they should send out word to the shepherds.