by Roderick Conway Morris

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Vatican Library
Parallel-text Psalter in Latin, Greek and Hebrew
from Federico da Montefeltro's Library in Urbino

The Library of Federico

By Roderick Conway Morris
URBINO 6 June 2008


On April 6, 1658, the noted bibliophile Fabio Chigi, enthroned as Pope Alexander VII three years before, descended from his private apartments in white-caped cassock and red hat to pay his first official visit to the library of illuminated codices that had been brought, by mule, on a hazardous journey through tempestuous winter weather from the Ducal Palace in Urbino to the Vatican.

Accompanied by the librarian, Monsignor Lucas Holstein, Alexander 'took up here a Greek book, one on Mathematics or on War Machines there', examined an Apicius of Roman recipes, a grammar, a Juvenal and a Hebrew Bible. He passed over 'the famous miniatures' of the Latin bible, the Aragon Breviary and the Dante, having already studied them 'with much pleasure in his own rooms'.

After praising the 'exquisite precision of the calligraphy' in other editions, Alexander paused to turn the pages of a Ptolemy atlas. He finally departed over two hours later.

The 350th anniversary of the transfer to Rome of this near-mythical collection is being marked by the temporary return of a score of breathtakingly beautiful Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Italian codices to Urbino for the exhibition Ornatissimo Codice: La Biblioteca di Federico di Montefeltro, with a catalogue which includes a DVD with images of the title pages of all the codices and selected pages with illuminations and miniatures: 1,420 images in all (Skira).

The exhibition opens with the eloquent portrait, attributed to Pedro Berruguete, of Federico di Montefeltro in full armour, with ermine-trimmed robes, wearing the Order of the Garter conferred on him by Edward IV, intent on reading a hefty codex. He is shown in profile from the left side, having lost an eye in a jousting accident in 1450. Leaning against his knee is his sickly infant heir, Guidobaldo.

As Giovanna Perini has recently observed, the reflection in the helmet resting on the floor appears to mirror the colonnades of the Ducal Palace's celebrated first court. Thus Federico seems deliberately posed as though near the door of his library, to which he gave unusual prominence in the overall architectural scheme of the Palazzo, 'the fairest that was to bee found in all Italie', in the words of the 1561 translation of The Booke of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, who set his narrative in Urbino, in his view the ideal Italian court.

Born illegitimate in 1422, Federico had scant prospects of ever becoming Urbino's ruler, but his precocious intelligence and military flair won him rapid recognition. By the age of sixteen he was Captain of the state's mercenary army, the hiring out of which was this small, hilly, agriculturally poor papal fiefdom's prime source of income. Following the murder of Federico's stepbrother Oddantonio in 1444, Federico was raised to the Signory by popular acclamation. But it was to be three years before Nicholas V (founder of the Vatican Library) legitimized his position. Within two decades, Federico had turned his obscure corner of the Marches into one of the most civilized states in Europe.

At the age of eleven, Federico had been sent to Venice as a hostage during peace negotiations between the Pope and the Visconti, with whom Oddantonio was allied. An outbreak of plague led to Federico's transfer to the safety of Mantua, where for two years he attended the humanist Vittorino da Feltre's educationally advanced palace school, where boys from poor families were also admitted free, and the Classics and an early form of muscular Christianity were the order of the day.

Between 1444 and the mid-1470s, the single greatest source of codices for Federico's library was the Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who not only traded in books but commissioned scribes and illuminators to create them. In the second half of the 1470s, production began to shift to Federico's own workshops in Urbino, a process apparently accelerated by the failure of the Pazzi Conspiracy, aimed at overthrowing the Medici - in which Federico was involved - in 1478.

As Vespasiano, who wrote a biography of Federico, recorded, his client and friend was extraordinarily systematic. He sought out catalogues from the major libraries in Italy and beyond, including Oxford, and set about amassing a collection to equal them. He spent a high proportion of the earnings from his mercenary activities on the Library; and that income, thanks to his reputation as a commander and the fierce loyalty of his locally recruited and well-rewarded forces, was substantial. At one point, Venice offered him 80,000 ducats a year simply to stay at home in Urbino and not to serve any other state.

Federico expressed his reverence for the contents of his codices by spending large sums on embellishments, their title pages often emphasizing this by beginning: 'IN HOC ORNATISSIMO CODICE CONTINETUR/CONTINENTUR . . .', followed by titles and authors' names. In a characteristic display of decorative sophistication a parallel-text Psalter on show here, in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, commissioned by Federico after his acquisition of a sizeable collection of Hebrew manuscripts, has initial letters illuminated to reflect respectively the styles of Western, Byzantine and Jewish art.

By the time of Federico's death, the Library contained over 900 codices: 600 in Latin, 168 in Greek, eighty-two in Hebrew, two in Arabic and about seventy in the vernacular. Only 2 per cent were sacred Christian texts, although the two-volume Latin bible was one of the most magnificent ever produced. There were many extremely rare codices, such as a work by Archimedes, Piero della Francesca's treatises on perspective and geometrical forms, a tenth-century manuscript containing all eleven of the plays of Aristophanes, and collections of Euripides, Sophocles, Pindar and Theocritus.

In her essay in the catalogue, Marinella Bonvini Mazzanti highlights the underestimated role of Federico's second wife, Battista Sforza, in forming the Library. This lively prodigy began learning Latin at three - soon amazing visitors to the Sforza court with her extempore Latin orations - and went on to study Greek (which Federico never mastered), philosophy, history and the sciences. At fourteen, she was betrothed to Federico in what was surely a marriage made in a humanist heaven. Four days after the wedding Federico had to absent himself to visit the Pope, before going away to war for two years, during which time Battista ran the state with such authority and prudence that she won the admiration of all.

It was during the twelve years of Battista's marriage to Federico that the Library, which retains its original decorations, was built and there was the largest influx of new works. In Piero della Francesca's wonderful double portrait of the couple (now at the Uffizi) Battista is depicted on her triumphal carriage drawn by unicorns absorbed in reading a book.

The Montefeltro line came to an end when Federico's invalid heir, Guidobaldo, died without issue in 1508. The della Rovere Pope Sixtus IV, who had made Federico a Duke, had previously married his nephew to Federico's daughter, and it was through this alliance that the Duchy passed to the della Rovere. They continued to collect codices, even to have printed books copied by hand (a Borgesian touch), since only codices could enter this hallowed hall, and by the time the Library went to Rome there were 1,760 volumes.

Pope Alexander VII's purchase of the collection was hastened by Queen Christina of Sweden's interest in buying it. When the Swedes conquered Prague in 1648, she sent special instructions to her cousin Karl Gustav to secure the famous library and send it to Stockholm. The Urbino collection and Christina's library were in fact brought together in the same place when Christina's books went to the Vatican after her death in 1689.

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024