In September of 1474, after having obtained the coveted title of duke and that of gonfaloniere of the Church, as well as the honour of the Order of the Garter, Federico was awarded the most important Aragonese honorary title by receiving “il Collare dell’Ermellino” (the Collar of the Ermine) from the king of Naples, Ferdinand I of Aragon (1424-1494), who had established it in 1465.
The emblem is found in the ornamentation of numerous manuscripts as well as in the decorative elements of the Ducal Palace, and in particular in the intarsia of Federico’s Studiolo (see Cheles, Lo Studiolo di Urbino, pp. 71, 72, 75, 91; Arbizzoni, «Un nodo di parole e di cose», p. 29-33; Raggio, Lo Studiolo, p. 118 fig. 5-66, p. 121 fig. 5-76; Wilmering, Le tarsie, p. 108 fig. 2-65, p. 19 fig. 2-67). Its representation however is not only linked to the granting of the honour, but is in fact one of the oldest badges of the heraldic repertoire of Federico, also attested to in decorations prior to the granting of the honorary title. For example, dating back to the mid-fifteenth century, it is carved in one of the rooms of the so-called “Jole” apartment within the Ducal Palace, and is even found on one of Federico’s medals that dates back to the early fifties (see Michelini Tocci, Poggio fiorentino e Federico di Montefeltro, pp. 535-536; Conti, L’ordine napoletanno dell’ermellino, p. 205). The figure of the ermine that embellishes the Urbino manuscripts does not therefore constitute a safe criterion for dating (post 1474), like the one established by the representation of the Garter.
Urb. lat. 1, f. 2r - Urb. lat. 2, f. 2r
Urb. lat. 10, f. 10r - Urb. lat. 151, f. 5v
The ermine has a double significance, as decoration and as badge, as a symbol of purity and incorruptibility. Surrounded by a circle of filth, it prefers to die rather than spoil the whiteness of his fur, just as the honest man who maintains the steadfast desire to keep his purity intact even at the price of death. Many wanted to link the adoption of this emblem to the attempt by the Count of Urbino to exculpate himself on the charge of having wished for the murder of his half-brother Oddantonio, who died in 1444 (Conti, L’ordine napoletano dell’ermellino, p. 205 nt. 25).
The motto that accompanies the allegorical figure, non mai or numquam (never) alludes precisely to the impossibility of neglecting the pursuit of honesty and virtue. The emblem is also accompanied by another motto, decorum, placed within the statute of the Order of the Ermine (I Capitoli dell'Ordine dell'Armellino, pp. 17, 33, 34; De Marinis, La biblioteca napoletana, I, p. 134; Conti, L’ordine napoletano dell’ermellino, pp. 205, 212-213). Both mottoes, which are deliberately concise, refer to the more explicit Malo mori quam foedari (“I prefer to die than to be soiled”) quoted by one of the codifiers of the badges, Paolo Giovio (Giovio, Dialogo dell’imprese militari et amorose, p. 56). The badge of the Order consisted of a collar with a pendant, also depicted in the famous portrait of Federico and his son Guidobaldo housed in the Palace of Urbino and attributed to Justus van Gent or Pedro Berruguete (Simonetta, Double Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, pp. 215-219; Marchi, Pedro Berruguete, pp. 120-121).
Urb. lat. 324, f. 87r - Urb. lat. 427, f. 2r