Saturday, March 18, 2017

San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti

San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti

Nestled on the hill of S. Donato just outside Urbino, the church complex of San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti (Saint Bernardino of the sandal-wearers) seems to be a monastic village. As the visitor approaches, the individual church emerges on the far right as it stands out in pink brick.

From the front door of the church the town of Urbino can be seen on the neighboring hill through the trees. Not only the town is visible, but specifically the ex-convent of Santa Chiara.

We are reminded that Italian culture of the 15th century still relied upon the beliefs of the Etruscans that when people died in the city on one hill, they went to live in the city of the dead on another nearby hill. San Bernardino provides the cemetery, the city for the dead, for the town of Urbino. But
not everyone was buried outside of town. When Battista Sforza, the wife of the Duke of Urbino, dies
in 1472, her body is carried from Gubbio to Urbino, and following her wishes, is interred in the convent of Santa Chiara in Urbino.
The convent is now deconsacrated and has become an Institute for Artistic Industries, but the site still houses the tomb of Battista, and as we've said, the buildings of the ex-convent are visible from the doorway of the church of San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti.

Since the church of San Bernardino is where the Duke of Urbino, Federico is buried, and since he had the church built specifically for that purpose, the placement of the church directly across the hill from where his wife is buried is a reenactment of the couple's facing each other in Piero della Francesca's double portrait of the Duke and his wife. As this funerary chapel is begun the year that Battista dies, the location of his burial is poignantly apt. He could not be buried next to her in a convent that housed the bodies of women, but he chooses to be buried on the opposite hill as if to look at her in perpetuity as he does in the double portrait. The dome of the San Bernardino church even looks a little like the hat he wears in the portrait.

           Now let us examine the architecture of the church of San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti.
          The splaying out of the bricks to form a wider base for support of the church, as we see in the photo on the left, is similar to the same treatment of the lower sections of the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino designed by Francesco di Giorgio from 1472-80, seen on the right. The widening of the structure at the bottom provides more bricks to hold up the weight of the entire building in both cases.

The articulation of the balconies in the Urbino Palazzo seen on the right, in white marble arches, is carried over in the church of San Bernardino in the white marble arch of the central entrance doorway, seen here on the left:
The round double-ringed silos which shape the dome in the church are just like Francesco di Giorgio's double-silo corners for the fortresses built to his specifications, in this case on the right below, the Fortezza di Sassocorvaro:

Even the bell tower of the church originally had a spire that would have made it look more like the turreted towers of the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino:

No surprise, then, that the church of San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti, the main church structure in this complex, is attributed to Francesco di Giorgio Martini, the Duke of Urbino's main architect, and given the dates 1472-91. 
And no surprise either that the church itself is built as a funerary chapel for the deceased in Federico da Montefeltro's family. The mausoleum underneath the nave of the church still houses the remains of Federico and his son, Guidobaldo, as well as descendants from the family.
A marble plaque on the floor indicates the location under the floor for the body of the duke and his
son and daughter-in-law, Elizabetta Gonzaga.
Federico is considered the second Duke and Guidobaldo the third, and you can see from the
floor inscription that one child named Federico, who died infancy, is also buried here. Nowhere do you see the name MONTEFELTRO, though, and more on that later.
While the tomb monuments to Federico and Guidobaldo on the side walls in the nave of the church are much later (1620) than the construction of the church,


the interior of this Renaissance chapel is a simple, light-filled space in the shape of a Latin cross.


Curious to imagine, then, that for 138 years, from 1482 to 1620, Duke Federico's embalmed body lay in a coffin on the wall to the right of the central altar and was visible to visitors! (It was moved and interred below in 1620.) (For an account of the most recent exhumation that took place in 2000, look online for Antonio Fornaciari, in Archeologia Postmedievale 4:  211-218, 2000.)
How would the Duke have looked in his box on the wall? He was dressed with his characteristic red hat and robe, as in the Uffizi portrait by Piero della Francesca,

and had a sword at his side, according to a 1603 description in Italian by Bernardino Baldi. Baldi says he looked a bit wooden but otherwise lifelike, perhaps like this computer-realized image of recent years except with hat and cloak and sword; the scar from the jousting event that cost him his right eye would have been clearly visible, too, as it is here:
The church interior also originally had an altarpiece painted specifically for this location and for Duke Federico by Piero della Francesca. The altarpiece, dated 1472-74, is now called the Brera Altarpiece and can be found in the Brera Gallery in Milan.
But it was meant to stay inside this church and had a meaning connected to the place. How wonderful it would be to see it in situ, where the light painted as falling from the left and above on the figures and on the shell over the figures would correspond with the actual light of the chapel.
What becomes clear, as we imagine the Duke lying in state after his death in 1482 next to the Piero
altar painting in this church, is the extent of the Duke's longing for visual affirmations of his legitimacy as Duke of Urbino. 
         In the altarpiece, as we have pointed out in another blog entry, the Duke is presented as kneeling in full armor in front of the Virgin, with the red and gold cloak given to him when he became the official  Duke of Urbino in 1474:

He prays to the Virgin in this position, but he also prays to his own child, nearing age 2, who seems to be painted as a sprawled-out baby Jesus on the lap of his deceased wife, Battista, whose portrait can be seen in the Virgin's face. And much has been made of the white ostrich egg hanging above the head of the Virgin and Child in the shell-shaped painted apse in Piero's altarpiece:

We can understand the placement of this egg after having seen the two studioli constructed for Federico in Urbino and Gubbio. In the Gubbio intarsia there appears the figure of a large ostrich
eating a large nail:
with the inscription: IHC ANCOR DAIT EN GROSSO  (I can devour large metal). The ostrich is
taken as Federico's symbol because, as a mercenary soldier, he, like the bird, can devour large armies dressed in metal. If Federico is the large ostrich, then his heir, Guidobaldo, is still an ostrich egg, the next in line to become the large ostrich. The potential ostrich, heir to the dukedom, hangs with all its vulnerablity as a fragile egg above the child asleep in front of his father. The hopes of Federico for his dukedom to continue for eternity through the descendants of Guidobaldo hang in the balance over the Madonna to whom he prays. He kneels in gratitude that his wife was able to give him a male heir before she died. But he also kneels in expectation that the line of the ostrich (visualized as an actual line, string) will be protected by the saints gathered around the Virgin. And Federico had reason to worry. Guidobaldo never produced a male heir to continue Federico's ducal line.

The saints are: left to right:
John Baptist, San Bernardino, St. Jerome, 4 angels, St. Francis, St. Peter Martyr, John the Evangelist

John the Baptist is there because he is the absent wife's saint (Battista.) He points to the Christ Child
because he was Jesus' predecessor, but in this particular case, he points to the child because Battista
gave Federico the male child to carry his line. St. Francis is there because the church is Franciscan.
But what about the other saints?

One oddity in this painting only adds to the secular quality of this votive offering; the name saint of the church is shunted to the back behind John the Baptist and St. Jerome. St. Bernardino of Siena,
a preacher friar whose sainthood had only recently been approved by the church in 1450, (he had died in 1444), is given a back seat in the sacred conversation group standing around the Virgin. He was called Bernardino of the sandal-wearers (zoccolanti) because he travelled all over Italy giving sermons, so his well-worn sandals were imitated by his followers. Since the church is encircled on the interior with an inscription describing St. Bernardino, it is strange that he is relegated to this place in the altarpiece, while St. Francis and John the Baptist are given much more prominent slots. He looks down in thought and with modest piety.
It is as though Federico wishes to hide San Bernardino, even though the church is dedicated to him.
What is the Latin inscription about Bernardino and addressed to him that begins over the altar and continues around the crossing and into the nave of the church, encircling the whole?


Oh, splendor of modesty, zealous promoter of the poor, lover of innocence, cultivator of chastity, displayer of wisdom, protector of truth, send the eternal lightning strike to us before the throne of majesty. We implore you to pray for us, send us divine piety, we pray blessed (Beato) Bernardino.

No prayer to the Virgin painted on the altar in this inscription, no prayer to God, a prayer to the divinity of the specific site, a prayer not even to a saint. The inscription is addressed to the Beato Bernardino, as though he hadn't yet been made a saint (since the title of Beato for beatification was one step before sanctification, the act that meant being given the title of Saint.) Latin inscriptions can be found in other buildings ordered by Federico, so this one seems of his own construction as well. The desire for divine piety in the inscription prayer suggests that Federico's life has been devoted to things other than piety: to the armies that brought him wealth, to the books that brought him wisdom, to the ambition to secure a legitimate place in the world. He is finally a duke in 1474, finally has a legitimate heir in 1472. He prays in Piero's painting to a Madonna who looks like his second wife, the woman who gave him the legitimate heir. By the time he dies in 1482, his heir is still alive and is ten years old; even though the painting was meant for the church, it was painted long before it was placed on the altar.
       But Federico knows he can never force the blood line of family so that he would feel that he and his descendants belong to the title of Duke of Urbino. The anxiety about illegitimacy can only be shored up so much, only assuaged, never eliminated. But what better way to expiate the sin of illegitimacy than through the building of a large funerary chapel.

He chooses to dedicate this church to a person he secretly knows, perhaps had only recently discovered, had had his best interests all along, HIS REAL FATHER, BERNARDINO della CARDA, a condottiere who made sure his first-born son had the best chance at life and career and advantage by allowing him to become adopted by Bernardino's father-in-law, the Duke Guidantonio of Urbino.
The naming of this church for Bernardino, his real father, puts to rest the notion that Federico was born in Petroia to his adopted father, Guidantonio, and a local maid, Elizabetta degli Accomandugi.
He acknowledges his real father here in constructing a large chapel for family burials and by naming
it San Bernardino. The Latin inscription is a way of paying homage to his real father, by praising all the virtues Bernardino had secretly exhibited over the course of Federico's life. He has Piero della Francesca hide the figure of St. Bernardino in the painting because if he acknowledges the truth about his origins, his title of Duke of Urbino will be called into question. The Latin inscription is also a secret way of announcing he knows who his real father is, without Federico having to renounce his Dukedom. Beato Bernardino, blessed Bernardino, is thanked in this inscription for giving up his first-born son in order to promote his well-being in his adoption by the previous Duke of Urbino. The first words of the inscription stand out over the altar in this church:
O SPLENDOR of MODESTY, but what do you notice before the O, just to the left moving around the corner towards the O, four letters, BE Re, which can be read as the beginning three letters of BER NARDINO, the name of Federico's REAL FATHER.
In this left corner of the church the end of the Latin inscription meets the beginning of it, and in so doing, connects the name of Federico's real father to the wonderful praise that follows along the altar
wall. Even here his name is hidden, in a sense, because abbreviated.
         Federico lives ten years after Battista, forty-five years after the death of Bernardino, his real
father. Yet even after thirty-five years he acknowledges his debt of gratitude to the man who gave him up so that Federico could become the Duke of Urbino. By having his own embalmed body placed directly underneath this inscription, Federico hoped to be reunited with his original father in the beautiful church he had designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini on the hill across from his wife.       
Federico's body has been moved, the trees obscure his wife's grave now, but the Latin inscription remains as testament to his original devotion in San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti. O SPLENDOR!


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