The quarterly flames (or tongues of fire) are the most controversial emblem of Federico’s heraldry. Despite being heavily represented in the manuscripts and in numerous other forms of artistic expression, deciphering them proved cryptic on account of both components: the flames and the letters.
Urb. lat. 52, f. 1v
It has been noted that, due to its composition, it could be considered a coat of arms (see Nardini, Le imprese, p. 16; Ceccarelli, “Non mai”, pp. 51-53; Fenucci, Notes, pp. 82-83): in the first and last quarters there are some letters in Gothic script presently interpreted as FD; in the second and third quarters there are undulating flames of a variable number – usually three, but five, seven or nine also appear (in some cases the letters may be found in the second and third quarters and the flames in the first and fourth). Giacomo Bascapé offers the following heraldic description: “a quarterly coat of arms: silver with 5 flames of red, and green with the letters F(edericus) D(ux) in silver” (Bascapè – Del Piazzo, Insegne e simboli, p. 65 nt. 8, in reference to the description of Urb. lat. 10, f. 10r; see also Michelini Tocci, Poggio Fiorentino, p. 253).
Various hypotheses of interpretation have been formulated about the symbolic value of the tongues of fire. According to some, it would be an allusion to the virtues that elevate the spirit, to the practice of supreme ideals and vast cultural interests (see Stornajolo, Cod. Urb. lat. 1-500, pp. XIII-XIV; Nardini, Le imprese, p. 16; Cappellini, Araldica Feretrana, p. 83; Ceccarelli, “Non mai”, pp. 51-53; Fenucci, Notes, pp. 82-83). Others have recognized an allusion to the three great honors received by the lord of Urbino in 1474 (Order of the Garter, title of Gonfaloniere of the Church, Order of the Ermine; this hypothesis, subsequently followed by many, was formulated in Nardini, Le imprese, pp. 16-18), but as we have already seen, the flames may also be in a number greater than three.
The thesis formulated by Francesco V. Lombardi is different: according to him, the tongues of fire would be related to the accession of Federico (while still very young, he was in Venice to guarantee the second peace of Ferrara) with the so-called Compagnia della Calza, a society of young aristocrats inspired by courteous ideals known as Accesi, since they took as their symbol flames of love (see Lombardi, I simboli, p. 140). The hypothesis was refuted for chronological reasons by Pier Luigi Bagatin, who observed that the Accesi were established as a Company only after 1533 (Bagatin, Le tarsie, p. 26).
It should be noted that in different contexts the flames also appear as an independent and autonomous element, that is, not quarterly (cfr. Urb. lat. 740, f. 1r, e Urb. lat. 1384, f. 1r). Such is the case for the capitals of the front lesenes of Federico’s alcove or in the vault of the library of Urbino, where they radiate from a central clipeus with the black eagle on a gold background. In this latter case, they were given a value of wisdom, of a “profane Pentecost, one of the strongest affirmations that the Renaissance produced” (original text: Dal Poggetto, Nuova lettura, p. 117; for other examples see also Ceccarelli, “Non mai”, pp. 51-53; Caldari, Emblemi, pp. 106-108; Lombardi, I simboli, p. 140; Critelli, A proposito delle fiammelle inquartate, p. 79 nt. 18).
It ought to be noted, at any rate, that the symbol takes on various manifestations, as well as different numbers of flames, and diverse orientations of flames: sometimes they are ascending, and other times, they are descending. The letters, usually in Gothic script, are also made in various ways, sometimes enriched with calligraphic and ornamental strokes, and other times more simplified.
The letters have proven to be another debatable element. They have always been read FD and interpreted as initials of Federicus Dux, just like the letters that are often placed side by side with the ducal coat of arms (but they are in capital and not in Gothic script; also, they are separated from each other by the coat of arms, not next to each other with lines connecting them). If this were the case, their presence would lead to dating the artistic objects that were present after the conferment of this office, or post 1474. At least in one case it was already pointed out that this dating would pose some problems since the emblem also appears in manuscripts dating back to the period when Federico was still a count, like in Urb. lat. 491, which Luigi Michelini Tocci has dated to before 1474 (see Michelini Tocci, Poggio Fiorentino, pp. 533-536; but see also Urb. lat. 52).
The reading of the letters seems therefore not obvious. As early as 1958, Michelini Tocci pointed out how Augusto Campana, when observing the emblem at the Ducal Palace of Urbino, seemed to see a third letter after FD “and precisely a second F after the D, closely linked with it” (see Michelini Tocci, I due manoscritti urbinati, p. 235 nt. 1). The scholar made the hypothesis his own, and continuing the subject more than twenty years later, advanced three possible readings, all attested to by the epigraphy and in the heraldry of Federico di Montefeltro before the duchy: that is FdF for F(e)d(ericus) F(eltrius), FrF for Fr(idericus) F(eltrius), FdC for F(e)d(ericus) C(omes), FrC for Fr(idericus) C(omes) (see Michelini Tocci, Poggio Fiorentino e Federico da Montefeltro, p. 535).
In fact, the letters, even if they are still in Gothic script, reveal differences in the form. They differ especially in the final part, which is often embellished by ostensibly ornamental calligraphic traits, and not always identical, but at times quite artificial and sometimes more simplified. Unlike what happens with the other emblems of Federico, the artists who depicted the quarterly flames did not always do so in the same way, going beyond the freedom of personal artistic representation and style, but making effectual variations, even substantial ones, perhaps even somewhat unwittingly. In some cases, therefore, it seems possible to actually read FDC (Urb. lat. 2, f. 161r; Urb. lat. 52, f. 2r; Urb. lat. 74, f. 1r; Urb. lat. 324, f. 1r; Urb. lat. 491, ff. 1r e 5r), in other FDF (Urb. lat. 1, f. 207r; Urb. lat. 2, ff. 2r, 31v, 174v e 283r; Urb. lat. 52, f. 2r; Urb. lat. 141, al f. 1r; Urb. lat. 365, f. 12r), elsewhere FDE (Urb. lat. 2, f. 2r; Urb. lat. 400, f. 2r; Urb. lat. 427, f. 2r). For the most part, the emblem is inserted into a clipeus, but sometimes it is represented within a square frame (see Urb. lat. 1, f. 207r or Urb. lat. 2, f. 31v) or in a coat of arms in the shape of a horse’s head (see Urb. lat. 325, f. 1r).
Urb. lat. 2, f. 161r - Urb. lat. 74, f. 1r
Urb. lat. 1, f. 207r - Urb. lat. 365, f. 12r
Urb. lat. 400, f. 2r - Urb. lat. 427, f. 2r
There are also cases in which the D is completely absent, as in Urb. lat. 441, where two letters are clearly present: FE on f. 2r, FE (in the first quarter) and FC (in the last quarter) on f. 8r (see also Urb. lat. 740, f. 1r). The antiporta of Urb. lat. 357, on f. IIv, presents a completely anomalous variant on f. IIv, in which F is not even detectable anymore, and which seems to suggest the illuminator’s lack of understanding of what was reproduced inside the clipeus. Urb. lat. 129 shows a very particular representation of the emblem on an incipit page, f. 12r, which is in turn quartered with the badge of the inverted bombard, inside an irregular, gilded frame. In the second quarter, the letters seem to correspond to FDC, but in the third quarter – where the little stroke goes over instead of under the letters – there seems to be a visible E with a similar but not identical tracing of strokes. Basically the letters FD are almost always recognizable, whereas there is a certain fluctuation about the last letter, which sometimes seems to be missing, other times it seems to be a C, and other times an F or an E (depending on whether the horizontal hyphen at the center is there or not.
Urb. lat. 441, f. 2r - Urb. lat. 357, f. IIv
Urb. lat. 129, f. 12r
Michelini Tocci had already indicated the use of irons in the decoration of two original Urbino bindings, which display the two heraldic themes of Federico, flames and a monogram with Gothic letters, which is exactly what is present in the emblem of the quarterly flames. The scholar had read as FDF, but in our opinion, FDE is to be read (with D and E in nexus), which has also been interpreted with the aid of new numismatic comparisons (see Critelli, A proposito delle fiammelle inquartate, pp. 73-97). The two volumes referenced are the only registry of the chancery of Urbino which has reached us. They contain a collection of privileges granted to the Montefeltro family at different times (Arm. LX, 21), and a calligraphic copy of it (AA. Arm. E. 123), currently kept in the Vatican Secret Archives (see Michelini Tocci, I due manoscritti urbinati cit., pp. 206-238; De Marinis, La legatura artistica, p. 86 nr. 959 bis e ter).
The monogram (that is, a single graphic sign consisting of the set of joined or overlapping letters connected together) imprinted on the bindings is very similar to the one present in the quarterly flames represented in the wooden inlays of the Studiolo of Urbino, as well as in that of Gubbio. Here the letters (to which the eye is already accustomed) FD are distinguished in a preponderant way, but on a closer look you will also notice the horizontal strokes of the final E (see Cheles, Lo Studiolo di Urbino, figg. 49, 66, 90; Raggio, Lo Studiolo, p. 119 fig. 5-69; Wilmering, Le tarsie rinascimentali, p. 109 fig. 2-67).
During the research conducted for making this thematic pathway, it was possible to identify a new witness concerning the monogram, which, as is known, is often present on coins. It is a picciolo coined in Urbino certainly before 1474, since the legend on the back reads “FEDERICVS CO(mes)”. On the coin, the FDE monogram is clearly legible (see CNI, XIII, p. 500 n. 2), in a form that is quite similar to the one present on the Urbino binding of the ms. Arm. LX, 21, as well as in some miniatures of manuscripts from Urbino (see Critelli, A proposito delle “fiammelle inquartate con le lettere FD”, pp. 73-97, in particular pp. 84-97). The coin therefore has a probative value. It has the title of Federico and the letters FDE in the Gothic script: they cannot therefore refer to the ducal title obtained in 1474, i.e., they are not initials of the word (for Federicus Dux); rather, they constitute a monogram in which the letters, linked in nexus, signify Federicus. Its presence in an official document such as a numismatic one, coined by the mint at Urbino, is also incontrovertible proof of the fact that the form in which it appears in the coin was controlled and authorized by the issuing authority. Furthermore, the fact that the letters FDE printed on the binding of the volume that come from the Urbino chancery are so similar to those on the coin seems to reinforce the idea that the monogram illuminated in the manuscripts could be conditioned by the style and perhaps by the interpretation of the artist’s models.
Finally, it can be stated that the monogram illuminated within the emblem of the quarterly flames is not connected to the coveted ducal dignity and therefore its presence in the manuscripts does not constitute a terminus post quem with respect to the year of its conferral.