IN about 1460, long before Columbus traveled to America, these portraits were painted by Piero della Francesca. They present the Duke of Urbino, Federico Montefeltro, and his wife, Battista Sforza. All were actors in the drama of the Italian Renaissance, the rebirth of learning after the long darkness of the Middle Ages. Piero della Francesca is an artist to whom our modern sensibility readily responds. These profiles, with their large harmonious rhythms and the distantly focused eyes evoke a certain mystery. Simplicity and monumentality confer a sense of grandeur, the sober grace of solemn poetry.
The subjects are clear-cut as medallions in front of (and not swallowed within) an immense background. Piero, without expressing a particular emotion, has transmitted the intensity of his feelings to everything -- to the broad-based cones of the distant hills and the luminous transparent sky as well as the two people.
Battista, blonde, beauteous, cultured, was the daughter of Alessandro, lord of Pesaro, brother of the founder of the Sforza dynasty of Milan. The painter's lingering ties to medieval art can be seen in his precise rendering of the gorgeous jewelry and headdress, the brocade sleeve, and in the tender coloring.
The Duke, a sturdy, somewhat swarthy brunet who is cleanshaven and has wiry black hair, is dressed simply in dark red. A general praised for valor, prudence, and loyalty, he was also a ruler well versed in the arts of peace. He was fluent in Latin, familiar with both sacred and worldly writings, knowledgeable about aesthetics, philosophy, science.
He and Battista created a court that was the center of culture and society. Princes from all over Europe sent their sons to Urbino to learn manners and the skills of war.
The magnificent Ducal Palace, which still has lost none of its beauty, was built and decorated by great artists, among them the Duke's lifelong friend, Piero. Erected on the very edge of an abyss on the hilly eastern slope of the Apennine Mountains, the castle overlooks a region of austere grandeur.
The castle library, probably the richest in all Europe at that time, was always filled with scholars. Federico kept 30 to 40 men busy for some 14 years, translating Latin and Greek manuscripts to add to those already available.
Well-known as a scientist, Piero wrote several treatises, mostly applications of the theories of the Greek geometer Euclid. Some were placed in the Duke's collection.
Piero did not paint to show how to make full use of already established rules; rather, his pictures obey laws he was proving as he worked onward.
Later artists followed his findings; however, their paintings often lack the appearance, so severely noble in Piero's, of difficulties overcome.
Piero della Francesca, born in Borgo San Sepolcro in eastern Tuscany, is considered a Florentine artist. The diptych containing the portraits of Federico and Battista is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Today, Urbino is again a center of learning. The university is attended by numbers of foreign students, many of them Americans.