My favourite painting: Robert Winston

'Perhaps Montefeltro was a bruiser, but Francesca ensured that Urbino was noted for courtesy, refined manners and civilisation.'

Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, 1472, by Piero della Francesca (about 1415–92), 181⁄2in by 13in, Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Robert Winston says:
‘Great paintings are often enigmatic; I celebrate this one because the evocative, brutal, spotty face surrounded by the colour red (the first wavelength perceived by our central nervous system) dominates an enchanting rural landscape. Historians suggest that Federico was always painted from the left side because of losing his right eye in combat. The missing bridge of his nose is mysterious—after the injury, did he have it removed surgically, to retain peripheral vision from his left eye? The puzzling hump-back deformity depicted in various portraits is hardly ever mentioned. Dr Antoni, the New York osteologist, argues this resulted from the weight of his armour. Some neuro-scientists opine that left-dominant portraits are often of individuals unconsciously wishing to show their sensitive side (controlled by the right cranial hemisphere). Perhaps Montefeltro was a bruiser, but he ensured that Urbino was noted for courtesy, refined manners and civilisation.’

Lord Winston, who pioneered IVF, is Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College London.

John McEwen comments:
At the time of this portrait, Federico da Montefeltro (1422–82) was the highest paid of condottieri, the professional Italian warlords of that chaotic age. As a scholar, soldier and patron of the arts, he exemplifies the good condottiere and, for all the violence and scheming inseparable from his success, the legacy of his patronage, typified by his sublime palace at Urbino, makes that a reasonable assessment.

Kenneth Clark described the Palazzo Ducale as ‘the only palace in the world I can go round without feeling oppressed and exhausted’. In this, it embodied Federico’s stated priority for a ruler: essere umano, ‘to be human’. Federico’s gentler side can be seen in Pedro Berruguete’s 1481 portrait, which shows him in armour, the garter (from Edward IV of England) on his leg, reading a book, his young son and heir holding on to his father’s knee.

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Piero was in his fifties when he first worked for Federico. this portrait, one half of a hinged diptych of the Duke and his Duchess, Battista, mimics the Classical profile of coins and medals. Such profiles conventionally face right, but Federico faces left, possibly to lessen the disfigurement from the jousting injury that cost him his right eye and, most likely, the bridge of his nose.

The picture is painted in oils, a Flemish introduction affording the naturalistic details of the background landscape, its greens today discoloured brown. It may have acted as a portable private memorial to Battista, recently dead, and their marriage. On the reverse of the diptych, they face each other in triumphal chariots.

This article was originally published in Country Life, January 28, 2015

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