If you go to Florence and travel east until you climb the high hills that approach the Adriatic You will find, buried in the desolate and barren rises, a grand palace. One to rival anything in Italy. And around that palace you’ll find a town with a mighty cathedral and an ancient university. And you may ask yourself, “why does all of this grandeur. this celebration of the Spirit and Mind of Man exist in such a remote and untravelled place?” Well, it’s because 550 years ago Through the will of one man, this town, Urbino, served as one of the origins and the strongholds of the Renaissance.
Federico da Montefeltro was a man of vision and ambition. A warrior, he saw past the strife of his time and imagined a world governed by the Humanist principles he grew up with. Born illegitimately, he was legitimized into the family of the Montefeltro by the Pope himself. While still a child, he was sent to Venice to serve as a hostage for his family’s part in the wars in Lombardy. At the age of 15, he was knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and by 16 he had begun the occupation that he would follow the rest of his life: Condottiere. For though he was a noble of the Montefeltro, the small province they ruled in the hills around Urbino was not rich. They had no fertile fields. Nor were they located along any major route of trade. And so, for some time, the Men of Urbino, the Montefeltro included, had become Condottiere: mercenaries. Because wars in Italy weren’t fought with citizen armies as we think of them today. or even with the chivalric medieval knights, summoned by their feudal duty. Instead, they were fought by great companies of mercenary soldiers hired by the city-states to conduct their contests of arms. These were wars of maneuver and tactics as much as they were hard fought battles of steel and shot. After all, for a mercenary captain, losing men was expensive. An act to be avoided. And Frederico was a master of this type of war. From a young age he showed both his courage and his cunning and would never once in his entire life be bested on the field. But more than that, he showed something that almost every other mercenary captain lacked — something that put him in high demand: a sense of honor. As Italian wars were fought by mercenaries, these were as much economic conflicts as military ones. Often, battles and even wars were won when one side would bribe the other’s mercenaries into switching allegiances. But Frederico refused to ever betray a contract. In fact once, when fighting for Venice, the Venitians got word that their adversaries were going to bribe Frederico and pooled money to offer him a higher rate preemptively. But he sent them back their money, saying that his honor was worth more than all their gold. But, he was a savvy guy too. and while he probably really did believe in honoring his contract, this is Renaissance Italy. It didn’t mean he wasn’t gonna get something out of that moral stance. So, because of his reputation for winning and his complete incorruptibility, he started charging enormous fees to states — not to fight FOR them– but to not fight against them. Yup, because nobody could bribe him once he signed up with their enemies, countries started paying him a retainer for doing nothing. Just for not signing up against them. But, though he was a Mercenary, he never lost his love for his home: Urbino. He saw what war did to the land it rolled over And even if Italian war didn’t have a high cost for the soldiers that fought it, it definitely did for the peasants and artisans whose fields and towns those soldiers trampled. And so, as he fought, he bent the wars of Italy to make sure of one thing: War would never come to Urbino. Nothing. No tactical consideration. No contract, no strategic goal would make him bend on this. And, as many of his men came form Urbino, when somebody was injured in his service, he would care for the wounded and the families of the dead. Reaching into his own profits to make sure that they didn’t suffer yet more gravely for the service they or their loved ones had done for him. But he wasn’t just a captain and a Mercenary. He was a prince. And he ruled Urbino they way his Humanist beliefs guided him. Every morning, unarmed and unguarded he would walk the town, stopping in all the shops, asking after the economy letting the merchants and artisans tell him if there were facilities that needed improving. Or if supplies they needed were getting through. Then he would spend his afternoons in the garden. Available to all citizens to act as judge and to settle their disputes. It didn’t matter if these were matters of the utmost urgency to the state, or simple quarrels about where somebody’s yard ended. He listened to all of them attentively. And it didn’t matter if the claimants were Nobles, with strong ties to his government, or commoners scratching out a living in the dirt on the borders of his land. He was famous for treating everybody equally. All were equal under the law. Once, after finding out that he had forgotten to pay a merchant he demanded that the merchant sue him. He even served the writ himself. He also had a love of learning. He had gotten the latest in modern humanist education. He loved history and philosophy. He believed they drove men to be better. And so he commissioned one of the greatest libraries in Italy. Perhaps second only to the Pope’s. And he hired countless scribes to copy out works from all over. They would hunt down and find works of the classical world that he hadn’t acquired yet, copied them down, and bring them back to the small hill city of Urbino. In fact, some of the works we have today, we only have because of his scribes and his love of learning. The coffers of war turned back into the legacy of mankind. But the legacy of mankind wasn’t just in recapturing the past. It was a living thing, and he wanted Urbino to embody that legacy. And so he erected one of the greatest palaces in Italy. Not only for his library, but for the court he assembled. Because as he collected books, he collected minds. Bringing together thinkers from all over and from every field. Painters, mathematicians, writers, not only from Italy but from all over Europe came to his court. And the manners and style of his court radiated out and spread over Europe. This idea of a court of intellectuals and refinement began to vogue not only as their words and work spread but as the young people of noble houses across the continent came to spend time at the court of Urbino. But this Urbino was not his work alone. It was also that of his wives. Especially that of his second wife: Battista Sforza. An oddity for Italy at the time. He was known not only to love Sforza, but to trust her. When he was away on campaign, she ruled Urbino in his name She was by all accounts brilliant, talented, and bold. She had received the same sort of Humanist education that Frederico had when he was young. And he often sought her council on matters of politics. The one great lament of Frederico’s life was his lack of a son. His wife bore him only daughters, and at the young age of 26, his second wife died from complications bearing him his only son. But this son, Guidobaldo was sickly. And, though intelligent and dedicated for fighting for Urbino he couldn’t match his father. So, at last when Frederico passed, war came to Urbino. And the Borgia came to Urbino. And the Light of Italy that had, for a brief moment burned in those hills was snuffed out. But by then, the ideas of Urbino burned across Europe. The intellectuals and nobles who had spent a season in that glittering court brought the tradition of something more, something greater than the medieval world with them. And another torch was lain on the Renaissance fire.