A Noble’s Notebooks

Federico da Montefeltro has one of the most memorable noses in Western art. Thanks to the Renaissance master Piero della Francesca, whose portrait of Federico is a prize of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the abrupt crook of the duke’s profile is a staple of art-history texts the world over. Only the disfigured nose of the grandfather in Ghirlandaio’s Old Man with a Young Boy (ca. 1490) and, perhaps, Rembrandt’s tuberous proboscis can vie with that of Federico.

A different side view of the duke can be seen in Federico da Montefeltro and His Library, an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Double Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo (ca. 1475) is the show’s centerpiece. There’s still no definitive attribution for the painting, but whoever created the picture did justice to the nobleman’s nose, making it part and parcel of Federico’s regal bearing. Sitting upright in his armor, he reads a tome by Pope Gregory and wears an expression that is equal parts erudition, refinement and arrogant power. The painting may be adulatory, but it does expose the conscious contrivance behind Federico’s image.

The illegitimate son of Count Guidantonio of Urbino, Federico grew up with the benefits conferred upon the aristocracy. He attended the Casa Gioiosa, an elite school that based its teachings on the lessons of antiquity, the sciences and Christian ethics. Federico also received instruction in horseback riding and martial arts—the latter being most useful, presumably, in Federico’s later exploits as a condottiere, or captain of a mercenary army.

Upon the assassination of his stepbrother Oddantonio, a tyrant who followed the rule of his father, the 22-year-old Federico assumed power. He would gain renown as a warrior-for-hire adept at negotiating the balance of power between political factions and principalities. As a military strategist and keeper of the (relative) peace, he earned the respect and friendship of Pope Pius II, though his duties as a condottiere at times necessitated the use of unrelenting violence.

At the time of Federico’s ascension, Urbino was the farthest thing from a cultural capital—certainly in comparison to Florence or Mantua. Spurred by the humanist teachings he received at Casa Gioiosa, Federico aspired to turn his city-state into an enlightened enclave and, in the process, establish himself as a collector of note. He and his nephew, Ottaviano Ubaldini della Carda, put together his library with the aid and expertise of book dealers and librarians. Federico wasn’t above “collecting” the spoils of war: The library’s Hebrew manuscripts were war booty from Federico’s plunder of Volterra, one the most horrific massacres of 15th-century Italy.

The exhibition at the Morgan attempts to pay homage to Federico’s legacy. It’s a tough job given that many of Federico’s prized possessions are now either in the Vatican Library or in public collections around the world. The intricate wood inlays of the Gubbio Studiolo, one of the Met’s greatest treasures, once graced the walls of Federico’s ducal palace. Half of the 28 commissioned portraits in Federico’s library—an array of historical figures including Dante, Euclid, Homer and Moses—are at the Louvre.

What we get, then, merely suggests the splendor of the library. Expansive photographs of it festoon the walls of the diminutive Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery. The installation backfires: The reproductions overwhelm the articles on display—12 in total. The tone of the show is, in fact, established prior to entering the gallery. A facsimile of The Bible of Federico da Montefeltro is displayed to the right of the doors. As a copy, it’s pretty good, but it’s a fake all the same. Is this the Morgan’s foray into postmodernism—you know, simulacra and all that?

Inasmuch as an exhibition this size can, the show balances aesthetics and history, which in this case correspond to the accomplishments and failings of mankind. Chief among the documentary items is Federico’s letter to Piero Felici and Agostino Staccoli, a cagey and coded message worthy of Tony Soprano. In it, Federico writes of the “main business”—that business being the overthrow and murder of the Medicis. Federico’s “cold, calculating voice,” writes Dr. Marcello Simonetta, assistant professor of Romance languages and literature and medieval studies at Wesleyan University, “represented the triumph of Machiavellianism before Machiavelli.” Further along in the missive, Federico grumbles about the Pope’s laggardness in the funding of his adventures.

Three manuscripts on display constitute the exhibition’s real glories. The man himself is seen in Poggio Bracciolini’s Federico da Montefeltro on Horseback (ca. 1472). Both Aeneas Saving His Father, Anchises, and Son, Iulus (ca. 1450-1475) and Saint John (ca. 1480), with its luxuriant palette, revel in the kind of meticulous rendering that will, one feels, only become more astonishing as virtual reality’s blandly anonymous perfection further engulfs us. The immaculate handicraft of these illuminations puts to shame the otherwise impressive Montefeltro’s Lectern (ca. 1470s), a bronze plinth topped off with a streamlined eagle-like bird.

Overall, it’s interesting to see how the custodians of an industrial-age financier’s library have tried to honor a quattrocento nobleman’s own collection of manuscripts and art objects. That the exhibition can’t provide a full reckoning of Federico’s complicated achievement is no reason to skip out on its handful of treasures.

Federico da Montefeltro and His Library is at the Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, until Sept. 30.

A Noble’s Notebooks