The Library of a 'Humanist Prince' Federico da Montefeltro and His Manuscripts [by M.G. Critelli]


One of the main sources for reconstructing the profile of Federico da Montefeltro’s collection is the description of the library offered by Vespasiano da Bisticci in the Commentario de la vita del signore Federico duca d’Urbino.

The text provides interesting information that gives a synthetic review of the facultates (subjects) and authors, which reveal the linguistic dimension and a paradigm as to the content, which are in turn confirmed by the Indice vecchio, the ancient inventory compiled shortly after Federico’s death.

Vespasiano also offers a portrait of the lord of Urbino and his interests: Federico is described as the perfect Renaissance prince, a protagonist of the politics of his time, skilled leader and illustrious patron of the arts, as diligent in arms as he is devoted to cultural enterprises.
Urb. lat. 883, f. 1v


Hitherto I have written concerning some of the Duke’s military exploits, leaving his greater deeds to be dealt with by those who will write his history; and now it seems meet to say something of his knowledge of the Latin tongue, taken in connection with military affairs, for it is difficult for a leader to excel in arms unless he be, like the Duke, a man of letters, seeing that the past is a mirror of the present. A military leader who knows Latin has a great advantage over one who does not. The Duke wrought the greater part of his martial deeds by ancient and modern example; from the ancients by the study of history, and from the moderns through nurture in warlike practices from early infancy under the discipline of Nicolo Piccinino, one of the worthiest captains of his age. But to return to letters, the Duke of Urbino was well versed therein, not only in history and in the Holy Scriptures, but also in philosophy, which he studied many years under a distinguished teacher, Maestro Lazzaro, afterwards for his merits made Bishop of Urbino [Lazzaro Racanelli, who was bishop of Urbino from 1478 to 1484].

He was instructed by Maestro Lazzaro in the Ethics of Aristotle, with and without comments, and he would also dispute over the difficult passages. He began to study logic with the keenest understanding, and he argued with the most nimble wit that was ever seen. After he had heard the Ethics many times, comprehending them so thoroughly that his teachers found him hard to cope with in disputation, he studied the Politics assiduously, and during his stay in Florence, after the capture of Volterra, he requested Donato Acciaiuoli, who had already commented on the Ethics, to write comments also on the Politics. This he did and sent him work to the Duke who, having read these, wished next to read the Natural History and the Physics. Indeed, it may be said of him that he was the first of the Signori who took up philosophy an had knowledge of the same. He was ever careful to keep intellect and virtue to the front and to learn some new thing every day.

After philosophy he was fain to study theology; that learning on which every Christian ought to frame his life. He read the first part of S. Thomas, and certain other works of his, thus acquiring a strong predilection for S Thomas’ doctrine, which seemed to him very clear and able to defend itself. He rated S. Thomas as clearer than Scotus though less subtle. Nevertheless he wished to know the works of Scotus, and he read the first of them. He knew the Scriptures well and the early Doctors, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory, whose works he desired to possess; likewise the works of the Greek Doctors Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, Athanasius, Cyril and Ephrem, done into Latin, and works in poetry and history which he read and re-read; also Livy, Sallust, Quintus Curtius, Justin, the Commentaries of Caesar, which he praised beyond measure; all the forty-eight lives of Plutarch, translated by various hands, Aelius Spartianus, together with certain other writers of the decadence of the Roman power. Aemilius Probus, Cornelius Tacitus, Suetonius, his lives of the Emperors, beginning with Caesar and going on to other times, He read also Eusebius’ De Temporius with the additions of Girolamo Prospero and Matteo Palmieri.

As to architecture it may be said that no one of his age, high or low, knew it so thoroughly. We may see in the buildings he constructed, the grand style and the due measurement and proportion, especially in his palace, which has no superior amongst the buildings of the time, none so well considered, or so full of fine things, Though he had his architects about him, he always first realised the design and then explained the proportions and all else; indeed, to hear him discourse thereanent, it would seem that his chief talent lay in this art; so well he knew how to expound and carry out its principles. He built not only palaces and the like, but many fortresses in his dominions of construction much stronger than those of old time; for some, which were built too high, the Duke made much lower, knowing that the fire of the bombards would not then hurt them. He was a skilled geometrician and arithmetician, and a German, Master Paul, a great philosopher and astrologer, with whom, just before his death, he read books on mathematics, discoursing thereon like one learned in them. He delighted greatly in music, understanding vocal and instrumental alike, and maintained a fine choir with skilled musicians and many singing boys. He had every sort of instrument in his palace and delighted in their sound, also the most skilful players. He preferred delicate to loud instruments, caring little for trombones and the like.

As to sculpture he had great knowledge, and he took much thought as to the work which he had made for his palace, employing the first masters of the time. To hear him talk of sculpture you would deem it was his own art. He was much interested in painting, and because he could not find in Italy painters in oil to suit his taste he sent to Flanders and brought thence a master who did at Urbino many very stately pictures, especially in Federigo’s study, where were represented philosophers, poets, and doctors of the Church, rendered with wondrous art. He painted from life a portrait of the Duke which only wanted breath. He also brought in Flemish tapestry weavers who wrought a noble se for an apartment, worked with gold and silk mixed with woollen thread in such fashion as no brush could have rendered. He also caused other decorations to be wrought by these masters, and all the doors were enriched with works as fine as those within. One of his cabinets was adorned in a fashion so wonderful that no one could say whether it was one with a brush or in silver or in relief.

Reverting to the study of letters, from the times of Pope Nicolas and King Alfonso onward, letters and learned men were never better honoured and rewarded than by the Duke of Urbino, who spared no expense. There were few literati of that age who did not receive from him generous gifts. He gave Campano, a learned man fallen into poverty, a thousand ducats or more. Many fine works were sent to him, and when he was in Florence he bestowed upon men of letters more than fifteen hundred ducats, and I can say naught of his gifts in Rome, Naples, and other places, for they are unknown to me. No one ever was such a defender of learned men, and when Pope Sixtus persecuted the Bishop of Sipontino the bishop would have fared badly if the Duke had not protected him. He was always fain to have in his palace some learned man, and none ever came to Urbino who was not honoured or received at the palace (Vespasiano, Lives, pp. 99-102).

These characteristics can also be found in the miniatures that sometimes depict him within the manuscripts that were made for him (see Stornajolo, I ritratti e le gesta; Sangiorgi, Iconografia federiciana; Conti, L'Ordine napoletano dell'Ermellino, pp. 199-220). It was thus decided to accompany biographical text with some of these portraits, which are also present in the manuscripts that were not made in the shop of the Florentine cartolaio.