Monday, October 5, 2015



The famous Italian Renaissance condottiere, Federico da Montefeltro, was born in 1422
in the small fortified castle of Petroia, up on a hill halfway between Gubbio and Perugia.
(Died in 1482).

                                                   Castello di Petroia                              

Federico was born out of wedlock and is promptly adopted by the Lord of Urbino, Guidantonio da Montefeltro.  Many suggestions have been given as to the identity of his birth-mother. One of those is that she was Elizabetta degli Accomandugi, a local Petroia woman with whom Guidantonio had a liaison. Because of new archival material that has surfaced recently, that suggestion has been questioned, and a new theory about the identity of his birth mother offered. (See the Italian blog at The new theory is that his mother was really Guidantonio's daughter, Aura di Montefeltro, his father the condottiere Bernardino Ubaldini. They, as a couple, are persuaded by Federico's grandfather, Guidantonio, to let him be adopted so that the Lord of Urbino could have a male heir. This second suggestion may mean that Elizabetta degli Accomandugi, who was an attendant to the Duchess, Guidantonio's barren wife, was Federico's wetnurse at Petroia. Since Federico's father's wife remained barren, Federico was adopted by the duchess and educated as one of the noble family members until she died and his adopted father remarried and had a legitimate son. At that point Federico was shunted off to the home of his own future first wife, Gentile Brancaleoni.  He did not become the de facto Duke of Urbino until 1444, when his legitimate half-brother, Oddantonio, was assassinated. This new theory helps to explain why, when Federico himself has a son, he names him not Guidantonio but Guidobaldo, incorporating part of his real father's name into his own son's name.
          The original castle of Federico's birth has been renovated and turned into a luxury hotel, the Relais Castello di Petroia, by an owner who has continued to promote the ducal history of the castle, including the story of the secret liaison with Elizabetta.

13th-century Tower of the Castle of Petroia
View of Mount Cucco from a window in the tower:
Winding road within the castle walls, with 15th-century palace rooms on either side:
Tower of the Castle of Petroia

View towards Perugia from castle terrace:
The 13th century tower still remains from the original site as well as two of the 15th-century
residential structures. Even the Gubbio documents say that Federico was born in the castle at Petroia. The place is so evocative that one can imagine hearing still the childbirth cries of Elisabetta or Aura in the stone rooms on the high hill overlooking the landscape beyond. If Elisabetta is just even his wetnurse, Federico remembers her and pays her homage in later naming one of his children by Battista Sforza after her, Isabetta da Montefeltro, born in 1464.
         It is possible to imagine Federico spending much of his childhood in this isolated place, protected from the outside world and free to roam the woods around the complex to gather knowledge about
the natural history of Umbria.
At age 11 he is swooped off to Venice as a hostage in the wars his birth father was engaged in, so he
soon learns diplomacy in spite of his illegitimacy, a diplomacy that served him well later as Duke.
                The most impressive part of the site of his birth is the 360-degree view of the
surrounding countryside from the top of the tower. To the East is Monte Cucco, with its massive
height and rising countenance just above Gubbio:
To the south a smaller mount
 protecting the road near Assisi:
 To the west hidden beyond valleys and other hills, the large hill-town of Perugia.
It is impossible to stay in this location and not be reminded of the birds'-eye views captured for the Duke by Piero della Francesca in the many paintings he carried out for Federico. In Battista Sforza's portrait by Piero, for example, we see the walled-town of Gubbio, where she died, painted in the year she died, 1472, and perhaps a reference to the Monte Cucco behind her set of pearls. The mountain in the background rising up from her necklace in front appears to turn in space, as if collapsing in on itself, a view that is consistent with a view of Monte Cucco itself from an angle behind it:

 Behind the Duke in his portrait is a lake very reminiscent of nearby Lago di Trasimeno with its islands.

What is most apparent from the spectacular view from the tower, however, is that it gave the young
condottiere a sense of control over the world. From that vantage point, he could imagine leading a
private army from one city-state to another and conquering the hills and valleys, subduing the armed foes he would encounter in his years as a private commander. The knowledge of what the space looks like from above gave him an instant advantage as a controller of troops.  The space he saw from the tower is walkable, manageable, human space, not overwhelming, and although it might hide the larger urban strongholds like Gubbio and Perugia, it is a space that is limited in scope and time and is a space that can be figured out from studying it from above. It is worth mentioning here that cartography as an art is in its initial stages during his lifetime, with the sublime birds'-eye view maps in the Vatican map gallery carried out within a hundred years of Federico's death. (Ignazio Danti, 1580-83). The birds'-eye views of Italy and Umbria from that series here:

Federico's own inclusion of birds'-eye views in his portrait and in other paintings commissioned by him shows his having understood this comprehensive view of the landscape around him. The tower's view may have also contributed to his ability as a condottiere, and though it is is not the only reason for his success, his loyalty to contracts being the prime reason, it is certainly an aid in his defense of other castles and towns. The requirement of a birds'-eye view is rendered beautifully in the way that the landscape from Battista's portrait elides with the background landscape in Federico's own portrait to create a comprehensive image of the world beyond and below them both:
So a visit to Federico's birthplace yields insights into his world, the Umbrian hills and valleys he
ultimately controlled. His own insistence on cutting down the bridge of his nose so that he could see
better with his one eye, after a jousting accident cost him the use of his right eye, speaks of his need
to be able to have a wider view, a need prompted by his early knowledge that if you are born in the right place, you have access to the wider view that allows you to rule the world from above. 

Elisabetta degli Accomandugi
Elisabetta degli Accomandugi

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