The Duke and Duchess of Urbino Piero della Francesca Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca is one of the most famous works of art from the Italian Renaissance period.

It is a tempera on wood diptych (a painting in two parts, the same size, displayed side by side), of the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, and his wife, Battista Sforza. Painted between 1465 and 1472, the paintings were previously hinged together, in order that the Duke and Duchess were entirely in each others gaze. The hinges are now no longer present, and the paintings are instead displayed in an elaborate double gold frame.

Federico da Montefeltro commissioned Piero della Francesca to paint the portraits around 1465. Having made his fortune as a leader of mercenaries, Montefeltro used his riches to transform the hill-town of Urbino into a grand court and renowned cultural centre. Tragically, before the painting could be finished, the 26 year old Duchess died from complications of childbirth on July 7th 1472. Critics suggest that the Duchess's unusually pale colouring in the portrait is suggestive of death. Her status as a fashionable noblewoman is illustrated by her rich garments and abnormally high hairline, clearly visible in her profile.

The Duke is painted in profile facing left towards his wife, in contrast to the tradition of portrait subject facing to the right. This is probably because the Duke had suffered injuries and as left with battle scars following his combative past. Notably, he had lost his right eye and a chunk of his nose in a jousting tournament, so painting his left side was a matter of necessity.

Behind the couple, the background is a birds-eye view of Urbino and it's sprawling outskirts. The scale of the background is in stark relief to the Duke and Duchess in the foreground, symbolising the lofty position and esteem in which the couple are held by the town of Urbino. In common with many diptychs, the portraits are also painted on the reverse side. The rear painting depicts the Duke and Duchess approaching each other, carried on antique wagons. He is dressed in glorious armour and pulled by a team of white horses, she in fine garments attended by unicorns, a symbol of her chastity and pious nature. This work of art is currently on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The Duke and Duchess of Urbino in Detail Piero della Francesca