These three painted panels from the Italian Renaissance display architectural views of three different city scenes. They are approximately the same size, Height 131 cm (51.6 in). Width: 233 cm (91.7 in), and they are all three painted with oil on panel. Since the one at the bottom was originally left in the Monastery of Santa Chiara in Urbino (now in the National Gallery of the Marche in Urbino), the other two, one in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin (middle), and one in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland (top) have also been thought to have come from the city of Urbino originally.
As with all paintings of this period, it is important to look carefully at the scenes to gather evidence before deciding on artist or date or function. All three of the scenes are constructed with
the use of one-point perspective, the Renaissance discovery that if you draw all the diagonal lines in
a painting to one point, you give the impression of real space. In the Baltimore panel the diagonal lines come together in the middle of the central arch opening.
building, and the space of the piazza with the two fountains appears to be believable human space. The Baltimore panel is the only one with human figures, but those human figures may have been painted on at a later date, so they must be disregarded:
What could be the purpose of these perspective scenes that are so perfect some have suggested they resemble stage sets? The scenes give us some clues. In the Baltimore panel, two of the buildings in the background of the piazza look like two actual buildings in Rome: a rounded-version of the elliptical Colosseum and a nearly identical version of the Arch of Constantine next to the Colosseum in Rome.
Since the painted buildings look so much like the real ones, it is easy to imagine this panel is meant to represent Rome, with a suggestion of the walls of Rome behind the Arch of Constantine and the hills of Rome beyond that. And the four statues on the columns in the main piazza are worthy subjects for the capital city of the Papal States: from left:
Justice with sword and scales, Temperance with wine and water measuring,
octagonal structure with a cross on top?
If the Baltimore panel is a scene of ROME, what cities are the other two panels meant to
VENICE and FLORENCE.
The panel in Berlin is a scene of a port city. In the distance beyond the piazza are painted several large ships on water, and the perspective lines lead directly to the water, as if the piazza were a walkway out to the sea.
VENICE in the 15th century had a such a walkway in such a piazza, as it does now, leading from the central Basilica to the Grand Canal, with the ducal palace on the left and the major library on the right. The columns of the arcade in the foreground of the Berlin view are reminiscent of the two columns which stood in Venice at the edge of the Bacino, the bay's alignment with the port water. The columns marked the site of executions in the 15th century; in the painting they have been doubled and removed from the water's edge as if to mollify their function. If you imagine standing on the far side of the piazza near the Basilica of Saint Mark, the view toward the water is still similar to that in the Berlin panel:
Pesaro fortress near the sea:
The URBINO panel is a simple remembering of the center of FLORENCE. The main ecclesiastical
building is meant to look like the Florentine Baptistery, and the church facade behind it is a simplified version of the Cathedral in the same piazza in reality. When the perspective of the panel makes the Baptistery loom very large in relation to the Cathedral, one only has to look at the actual
Baptistery and Cathedral together from this angle, a ground view, to see that the Baptistery does look large and the Cathedral smaller in the central piazza of Florence:
The painter has made the octagonal Florentine Baptistery into a rounded building, understandable since from below it almost seems like a round building, with the rounded Romanesque arches accentuating that notion. The two-tiered elevation in the painted Baptistery is remembering the divisions in the original and the sloping roof is much the same in both. The church behind the Baptistery in the painting has just about the same area of its facade showing as it does in the real view of the Florentine Cathedral from this end of the Baptistery and the painted church is simpler than the Cathedral today because the 15th-century Florentine Cathedral facade would have been simpler as it was unfinished.
The buildings on either side of the Baptistery in the painted version lead back towards the church, as they do in reality.
Three remembered views of the most prominent features of three major cities in 15th-century Italy. But why these three? ROME, VENICE, FLORENCE.
In reading a very good new biography of Battista Sforza Montefeltro by Marinella Mazzanti (2009, Urbino, Quattroventi) I came across a text from 1464 that explains it all. (The author of the biography was interested only in how the text described Battista's wedding and did not realize the connection to the panels.) In a long poem written for Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, by the court poet, Ser Gaugello de la Pergola, in 1464, in honor of the occasion of Federico's marriage to Battista Sforza in 1460, the poet says that wedding gifts were sent to the new couple, wedding gifts "DA ROMA da VINEGIA (Venice) e da FIORENCA (Florence)" (from ROME, from VENICE, and from FLORENCE.) Here is his description of the wedding celebration:
"Non dico el peso e l'apparato grande/ De cera,de confecti et la credenca carcha d'argenti per diverse bande...da Roma da Vinegia e da Fiorenca/ Ve forno cose apresentate/ Et da signori grande eccellenca/ monete argenti con molti fiorini/ portaron tucti a donare a la sposa/ con tucti li Urbinati cittadini."
Trans. - "I can't tell you the weight and the huge display/ of candles, almonds, and the dressers filled with silver for different groups, from Rome from Venice and from Florence there were such things represented and from excellent nobles/ silver money with many golden Fiorini (Florentine coins)/ everyone brought to give to the bride/ with all the citizens of Urbino."(p.67)
Those same three cities! Not Naples, not Milano, which you might expect since the bride
was the niece of the Duke of Milan. The wedding presents came from Rome, from Venice, and from
Florence. And how to display the presents and acknowledge those specific city courts as having contributed these gifts? Were these three city scene panels painted for the wedding of Battista and Federico to keep the gifts separated and not mixed up? So that gifts from Rome could be displayed under a painted view of Rome, those from Venice under the view of Venice, and those from Florence under the view of Florence? If so, it would explain why it was not important to include in the scenes more than a couple of buildings by which the city could be identified. Perhaps these panels were painted also so that the bride could remember to thank the appropriate court for the gifts sent on the occasion? With so many gifts, it would be crucial to organize them. The visual clues given in the painted panels would serve to distinguish which gifts came from which city-state when the gifts were displayed below them.
It is also possible that these panels were actually part of a piece of furniture like a cassone, (a 15th-century wedding chest for trousseau gifts,) a decoration to denote where the pieces inside the chest came from.
Here is a cassone from the period:
If the panels were painted for this reason, it would explain why they are the same sizes, why they look so staged, and why they are simplified versions of the cities they represent. The delineation of the location of origin of wedding gifts from three of the most important courts in Italy would explain why these panels were painted once and never again. It would explain why the bare minimum of visual specifics are given, and it would explain why the piazzas in the paintings are empty; if the panels were shoulder height and attached to spallieri (large benches with backs as here below,)
the gifts would have been displayed on the bench below them, gifts from Rome put under the image of Rome. If they were actually large cassone panels, the gifts from Rome would have been inserted into the chest space behind the painted image of Rome. You can hear the girls assisting the bride, "Oh, is that one from Venice? Here, it can be put into the Venice chest." Or, "Are those Fiorini from Florence? Put them beneath the picture of Florence there."
Either as a way for the bride to remember where which gifts came from, which important family should be written to in thanks, so as not to mix them up with other gifts, or as a way to look
over the gifts during their display for the long wedding celebrations (10 days) to see which gifts came from which relatives, the panels served a distinctive function.
Here is a Renaissance wedding scene in which the gifts are displayed on dressers on right and on the floor on the left:
The panels would have been a pretty fancy way to organize wedding gifts for display, but when wedding festivities lasted that long, and the gifts were gold and silver objects that were meant to be shown off, it is understandable that the Duke and his new bride would have asked their closest artist to produce a suitably aesthetic presentation for that display, whether outside of a chest or above it. One can imagine these panels lending a beauty to the gifts from each artistic center, whether they stood above the chest or on it:
We have established a possible date, 1460, for these panels, and a possible function. Though the function seems perhaps mundane, the panels had their own artistic merit to warrant preserving them long after the furniture was destroyed. They would be saved as wedding memories, too. What artist could have produced these in 1460 for the Duke of Urbino and his new wife?
PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA is the only artist in the Duke's employ who combines the
qualities that are necessary for the attribution of these panels:
1) knowledge of one-point perspective. Piero wrote a treatise on perspective, De Prospectiva pingendi, explaining how to use one-point perspective in painting. His knowledge of math would have enabled him to create city scenes to small scale.
2) ability to convey beautiful light; Piero's light is one of the captivating elements in all of his paintings.
3) ability to paint statues on top of columns: Piero shows he could do that in his painting of the
Flagellation from around the same date:
In the left scene of the Flagellation of Christ, Christ is tied to a column on which stands a statue of Apollo, the sun god; the arrangement of the column and statue is similar to that of the statues in the Baltimore panel:
4) observation of urban buildings, the shutters in windows, the prongs set outside of windows for
the hanging of laundry on long rods (see the third building in from the right in the Urbino panel):
5) and Piero had been to ROME and FLORENCE but not to VENICE - perfect for the painter of these panels; his vision of Venice must have been based on what Domenico Veneziano had told him
about his native city and would explain why the discrepancies with the real place are greatest in that panel.
Three beautiful panels of ideal cities, but they are not ideal, they are meant to be real representations of real cities without people or too many specifics because they were meant to just stand for the PARTICULAR CITY - so not IDEAL, but ALMOST.
Da ROMA, VINEGIA, e FIORENCA.
If these wedding display panels were used perhaps for storage afterwards as well, it would explain why they are a bit like a stage set. Once the chests and gifts and guests have left, the beautiful reminders of the best parts of three cities remain. How ironic that these panels have ended up in three separate cities, and none in the cities they represent!
ROMA - is in BALTIMORE
VINEGIA is in BERLIN
FIORENCA is in URBINO
These three panels are all signs of the status of Urbino as a city center. If three of the most important city-states paid homage to the Duke of Urbino for his wedding day, how grand a place Urbino must be! At least one cityscape stayed in URBINO and gave us a hint as to the reason for the existence of all three of the panels. None of them are IDEAL CITIES, then, just enough icons to tell us which CITY they are meant to be, and just enough recognizable buildings in them to tell us who is paying tribute to the power of URBINO. Like scarves with the Eiffel Tower, we know which gifts were sent from Paris. The panels do not represent REAL cities, either, just stand-ins to identify them as that city without using words.
But the city-state that preserved these panels was aware of what these city views really said about the city-state that owned them, URBINO itself. Three cities came to the wedding of one.