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

Some examples of original bindings

Among the manuscripts of Federico that were selected for this pathway, four still have the original 15th-century cover: Urb. lat. 326, 328, 419, 427. A brief analysis to provide a historical framework relative to the context in which the manuscripts were produced will be explained below.

This study, which is not intended to be a systematic examination of the entire collection, relates mainly to the decoration rather than to the structural parts of the bindings. This is both due to the fact that two of the four manuscripts have been subject to non-conservative restoration treatments in the past, and also to the fact that research on the structural aspects of Federico’s binding production have not yet been able to offer us very precise chronological and geographical coordinates.

The most outer frame of the cover of Urb. lat. 328 displays a phytomorphic motif, obtained with a tool likewise used for Vat. lat. 3005 and for Urb. lat. 203. The manufacture of these manuscripts was attributed by De La Mare to the Florentine setting (see de la Mare New Research, pp. 436, 487, 524), in which many volumes for Federico da Montefeltro’s collection were made, especially those given in commission to Vespasiano da Bisticci. The decoration of the cover proves this origin, because the tools and the compositional plan are typical of alla fiorentina bindings, which were mostly bound in leather, with blind tooling decorations and, later, also with gilded ones. Alla fiorentina bindings adopted moresque motifs, such as knots and cordage elaborated with small rings, «in a style qualified by a Renaissance sense of proportion» (original text: Macchi - Macchi, Dizionario illustrato della legatura, p. 184). The small rings, sometimes gilded or decorated with colored wax paste, are arranged in such a way as to form circular and triangular patterns, instead of being scattered like in the late-Gothic use; in Urb. lat. 328 they form a radial pattern around the central rosettes. The knots are built on straight or curved, decorated or simple, short bars, generally joined together to form numerous and assorted interlaced combinations (see Macchi - Macchi, Dizionario Illustrato della legatura, p. 38); in Urb. lat. 328 the knots decorate the two central rosettes.
Urb. lat. 328

The presence of moresque motifs testifies to the great vitality of political, cultural and commercial relations between the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria and the Italian peninsula, particularly dynamic in the second half of the 15th century, especially with the cities of Venice, Naples, and Florence. In this regard, Piccarda Quilici remarks that «in the great melting pot of the Italian civilization that has never been exclusive, the most diverse cultures have always interacted freely; the success lies in having absorbed and transformed the exotic inspirations in something new and refined with imagination and creativity» (original text: Quilici, Legature di corte italiane, p. 242). In the field of binding production, over the course of the 15th century, Italy adopted techniques and motifs that had been used for centuries by Islamic peoples, such as, for example, the use of Moroccan leather, boards made out of cardboard (instead of wood), tools with a new range of Middle Eastern patterns, and finally, gilding. This took place because these practices gave the possibility of obtaining results of great artistic value. The new techniques and motifs were therefore very welcome to the patrons of the Italian courts in the early Renaissance, because they satisfied their wish to distinguish themselves and dissociate themselves from the previous production (late Gothic).

Besides the common moresque tools, the covers of Urb. lat. 419 and Urb. lat. 427 present the same three-pointed sickle-shaped tool, arranged in such a way as to form a succession of lozenges in the first case and a succession of three-lobed arches in the second case. The shape of the tool recalls the one used in contemporary bindings in Germany (see Macchi, Biblioteca Teresiana di Mantova, pp. 127, 128). In addition, in Urb. lat. 419, there is a leather panel inlay in the middle, that displays a double frame tooled with multiple fillets. The outer frame encloses a carpet of gilded Toulouse crosses; the inner one encloses a carpet of gilded lozenges with concave edges and a small flower inside. Both tools are present in some contemporary bindings produced in Northern Italy (see Macchi, Biblioteca Teresiana di Mantova, pp. 127, 176).
Urb. lat. 419
Urb. lat. 427

It is therefore possible to observe how some volumes belonging to Federico da Montefeltro show the influence of the Northern Italy design in the cover decoration. Moreover, relations between the Federico’s court, the Gonzaga’s court and the Sforza’s court are documented. Just to give an example, Matteo Contugi, who had copied Urb. lat. 427, had also worked as a scribe for the lords of Mantua for a long time; he began to work for Federico from around 1470, hence becoming one of his most important scribes.

On the other hand, it is not possible to establish whether the bindings were made in Urbino or in the Po Valley region, and therefore if there was a transfer of manuscripts or of workers at the final phase of the binding manufacture.

However, many aspects suggest that alongside the Urbino scriptorium there was an active bookbindery. The well-known Indice vecchio seems to offer proof of it: on f. 126r-v, it reports a brief inventory of materials related to the art of bookbinding, such as «quinterni di charta rasa», «cavretti rasi», «capretti non rasi», «cavretti rinquadrati», «azulli de octone da Antiphonarii», «azulli de octone da altri libri zoè quelli de sotto tra piccoli mezani et grandi», «cantoni de libri de octone duzinali per libri» (see De Marinis, La legatura artistica, p. 82).

The interest that Federico expressed in the creation of his book collection is also evidenced by the attention shown by the bookbinders for the acquisition of new techniques. It is indeed important to consider, for example, that the bindings of Urb. lat. 419 and Urb. lat. 427 represent one of the first indications of the use of gold to decorate covers and edges in Italy. The first examples of gilding probably arrived from Venice in the mid-fifteenth century, where an unbroken tradition of bookbinding, carried out by Saracen or Persian artisans, lasted for at least one century, that is from 1465 to 1560.

Several techniques for applying gold, which had been used in the Islamic world since the 13th century, were slowly introduced in Italy, especially via Venice and Naples. In particular, one technique involved the use of liquid gold, while another the use of gold powder, in both cases brushing over the previously stamped leather. A third technique featured the use of gold leaf applied by heat, but it was seldom used until 1480 (see Hobson, Humanists and Bookbinders, p. 21; Quilici, Legature di corte italiane, pp. 241-245).

It is difficult to understand which technique was used for the gold application in the two bindings under consideration. In the instance of Urb. lat. 419, as a matter of fact, it could be glued gold powder, the excess of which was then removed with a brush. In fact, by microscope it is possible to see a sort of foam which could be related to the glue; moreover the gold borders are very unclear. The case of Urb. lat. 427 seems to be the opposite, it could be gold leaf applied by heat, due to the definition of the borders. The gold shows much deterioration, however, perhaps due to the impurities of the gold leaf or to the misfortune that the manuscript underwent in the past.

The decoration on the cover of Urb. lat. 427 contains another innovative aspect: a frame of leaves called «palmette» by de Marinis (see De Marinis, La legatura artistica, p. 88). We may thus see one of the first elements of the revival of the classical tradition, of antiquarian taste, which will bear more and more influence on Italian artistic production, representing a central aspect of the Renaissance culture.

Finally, the cover of Urb. lat. 326 represents a triumph of rich decoration: golden frames alternate with silver ones and green and blue colored sections, obtained from mineral pigments. The silver frames appear black today due to oxidation, but have been identified thanks to the XRF [X-Ray Fluorescence] technique, executed by the Bundesanstalf für Materialforschung und -prüfung of Berlin. There is also a very strong blend of elements coming from different traditions: the fourth frame is built on Toulouse crosses tools, characteristic of some contemporary bindings produced in Northern Italy. The last frame is a blind tooled twisted ribbon with small colored rings; this type of decoration can be found in the late Lombard 15th-century handworks (see Macchi, Biblioteca Teresiana di Mantova, pp. 127, 150); the second and the sixth frames are made of phytomorphic ornaments that are strongly reminiscent of the ancient style, just as the «palmette» tools that come out of an amphora and just as the central clypeus.
Urb. lat. 326

These cover-decoration features match what Luigi Michelini Tocci writes about the artistic production of Urbino; he states that in the last twenty years of the 15th century «in Urbino, something new is felt, almost a progress in taste [...]. New artists arrive in Urbino: Francesco di Giorgio, an architect, and Giusto di Gand, a painter. The Palace is characterized by a more intense decorative commitment. Federico is at the top of his military and political glory [...]; for the first time he can take breaks of many months to spend at home [...], probably beginning to guide the home policy more directly. It is perhaps because of his presence that the need for a celebratory spirit, which gradually became such an important attribute, is felt almost everywhere. An uncommon and outstanding taste - to use Castiglione’s words - but also one that is heraldic and magnificent, partially replaces the severity and essentiality of the previous phases. The austerity, that had until then characterized the state-level demonstrations, was replaced by a less controlled pride of power and personal success» (original text: Michelini Tocci, Federico di Montefeltro e Ottaviano Ubaldini della Carda, pp. 333-334).

The peculiarity of the cover under consideration suggests an original product of local manufacture. De Marinis says: «a characteristic binding that makes a clear break with the tradition in Italy that prevailed between 1475 and 1480. For many reasons we believed to be first Neapolitan, then Veronese, and finally we had to recognize that it was from Urbino» (original text: De Marinis, Di alcune legature, p. 317).

Unfortunately, the artist/craftsman who knew how to interpret this new artistic phase in bookbinding is unknown. He was described by De Marinis as a «delicate artist» (see De Marinis, Di alcune legature, p. 319), mature in his expression of art and a perfect master in the necessary skills of the craft. He was able to combine a strong eclecticism, due to the combination of many cultural contributions at the Court, and the taste for antiquarians; these elements were all so smartly harmonized and plentiful with richness and abundance that they proved to be in perfect syntony with the purpose of his customer Duke Federico.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find information on the identity of the bookbinders, although they were distinguished by their creativity, great skill and perfect mastery in performing complex ornaments. «We are dealing with obscure and almost always anonymous craftsmen, who closely depend on leather workers, cartolai, booksellers, and who, in order to survive, often do not limit themselves to sewing and covering books» (original text: Quilici, Legature di corte italiane, p. 251).

Comparing the tools used and the compositional structure of the decoration it is possible to attribute two other twin bindings to the same craftsman, as De Marinis had already supposed. First, the Petrarch copied by Matteo Contugi, today kept at the Biblioteca Nacional de España di Madrid Vitr. 22-1, has been associated by De Marinis with n. 552 of the Indice vecchio, thanks to the heraldic symbols on the incipit page and to some handwritten notes (see De Marinis, Di alcune legature, p. 319).

Second, the Historia Augusta illuminated by Bartolomeo Sanvito, which instead is held by the National Library of Rome (Vitt. Em. 1004). The conviction that it may have belonged to Francesco Gonzaga should not surprise. In fact, we are already aware of the continual contacts between the Gonzaga and the Montefeltro families. As an illustration of such relations we have a volume belonging to Francesco Gonzaga which today is in the Urbino collection (Urb. lat. 681), just as we have proof that «the Urbino copyist Pietro Paolo di Coronata signed Urb. lat. 643 in Mantova» (original text: Moranti, Organizzazione della Biblioteca di Federico da Montefeltro, p. 34). We also are aware that in at least two cases the scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito, for Francesco Gonzaga, copied manuscripts in Rome which then were bound in Padua (Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli, IV G 65, Cicero, De Officiis; Bibliothèque Inguimbertine Municipale di Carpentras, ms. 618, Plutarco, Vita Camilli; see Hobson, Sanvito’s Bindings, p. 89). It should therefore be noted that the place where a manuscript is copied should not necessarily be identified with the place where the cover is manufactured.

Four other bindings were attributed to the same artist/craftsman by De Marinis: ms. lat. 99 of the Bibliotèque de Genève; ms. 4.A.II.15 of the Biblioteca Gambalunga of Rimini; De Marinis 7 of the Vatican Apostolic Library (olim l.d.m. 77); ms. 356 of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (see De Marinis, Di alcune legature, p. 321; The History of Bookbinding, p. 90 nr. 201). But the history of these volumes is still to be developed.