Painted between 1465 and 1472, Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino is both one of Piero della Francesca's greatest works and one of the most famous portraits from the Italian Renaissance. But it's not just impressive to look at—beneath its brushstrokes lie secrets and the tragedy of the Italian couple.
1. IT IS A DIPTYCH.
The profile portraits, displayed today as a pair of paintings, are tempera works painted on wooden panels. However, in the past, they were connected by hinges, which locked the Duke and Duchess's gazes. Today, the hinge has been abandoned, and the paintings share an elaborate gold frame at Florence's Uffizi Gallery.
2. PORTRAITS OF THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF URBINO DEPICTS A MERCENARY DUKE.
The work captures the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro. He was the commander of a band of mercenaries who would be hired out by Italian city-states to battle on their behalf. The fortune Montefeltro made from this bloody line of work was used to transform the hill town of Urbino into a grand court as well as to finance works of art that would assure his legacy. Art historians believe Piero began the Duke's commissioned portrait as early as 1465.
3. THE DUCHESS'S PORTRAIT WAS PAINTED IN MEMORIAL.
Before Piero could complete the matching panel, the 26-year-old Duchess Battista Sforza died of acute pneumonia brought on by childbirth on July 7, 1472. Some have suggested her pale skin is not a sign of status—women of privilege didn't toil in the sun—but more the pallor of death. The artist likely used Sforza's death mask for reference.
4. THE PROFILES FAVORED THE DUKE'S GOOD SIDE...
Though a proud warrior, Montefeltro preferred that his battle scars not be preserved for posterity. A brutal bout of jousting at a tournament cost him his right eye and a chunk of his nose. So, this regal portrait favors his left side.
5. ... BUT THAT WASN'T THE ONLY REASON HE FACED THAT WAY.
Traditionally the subjects of profile portraits face the right. Because of Montefeltro's deformities, this wasn't an option. But the effect of him facing left is that it locks his eyes with his lady, suggesting they share a bond that transcends death.
6. THE PROFILE APPROACH WAS ALSO RELEVANT TO A HOBBY OF THE DUKE'S COURT.
Humanist courts of the 15th century were very fond of collecting coins of ancient Rome. On these, great men were rendered in stark profile, a tradition that has carried through to currency all over the world.
7. THE STAGING REFLECTS THE COUPLE'S POWER.
The Duke and Duchess are poised high above the landscape in the background, as if they are atop a tower. Thus, they have a bird's eye view over their sprawling domain, speaking not only to Urbino's hilltop position, but also to the pair's high status.
8. THE DUCHESS'S HAIRDO SHOWS SHE WAS THE HEIGHT OF FASHION.
When these paintings were made, high foreheads were all the rage. Ladies would dedicatedly pluck away at their hairlines to achieve this coveted look.
9. THE BACK OF THE PANELS ARE PAINTED AS WELL.
That's a diptych standard. The specially crafted frame at the Uffizi allows for visitors to walk around and see both sides of Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino. On the back lies an elaborate scene that depicts the Duke and Duchess approaching each other, each riding an antique wagon. Gleaming in glorious armor, he is pulled by a team of white horses. Dressed in finery, she is pulled by unicorns.
10. THIS BACK PANEL NONE TOO SUBTLY PRAISES THEIR VIRTUES.
Joining the Duke and Duchess on their carts are characters meant as the physical embodiments of Virtues. Justice, Wisdom, Valor and Moderation flank the Duke, while Faith, Hope and Charity ride with the Duchess.
11. THE LATIN INSCRIPTION ON THE BACK SPELLS OUT ITS MEANING.
Roughly translated, it reads: "He rides illustrious in glorious triumph, as he wields the scepter in moderation. The eternal fame of his virtues celebrates [him] as equal to the greatest dukes. She who observed modesty in success flies on all men’s lips, honoured by the praise of her great husband’s exploits.”
12. IT WAS NOT THE FIRST PAINTING PIERO DID FOR THE DUKE.
The dates are hazy, but it's believed the painter took commissions from Montefeltro for nearly 20 years, resulting in works like The Flagellation and Brera Madonna, which presented the 50-year-old Duke in armor kneeling before the Virgin Mary.
13. THE DUKE MAY HAVE BEEN A HUNCHBACK.
A 2008 medical study argued that Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino and Brera Madonna presented substantial enough evidence to prove that Montefeltro could have been diagnosed with thoracic hyperkyphosis.
14. PIERO EMPLOYED GEOMETRY IN HIS COMPOSITIONS.
The works of this Early Renaissance artist have fascinated art enthusiasts for centuries, in part because he used his mathematics background to work out the pleasing shapes and staging of his scenes.
15. THESE WORKS MAY HAVE INFLUENCED GEORGES SEURAT.
Art historians who've studied Seurat's masterpieces A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 and Bathers at Asnières argue there is a connection between the painter and Piero. They believe the 19th century French painter's predilection for profile subjects and simple forms shaped by use of light was inspired by Piero's signature style.