Signore of Urbino 1444-74, Duke 1474-82 was a bastard, and succeeded on the assassination of his half-brother. He has deservedly become the paradigm of the man as adept in letters as in arms. The point was made in the Life by his contemporary, Vespasiano da Bisticci, who said that 'he was the first of the Signori who took up philosophy and had knowledge of the same'. The same point is made in the portrait by Justus of Ghent of c. 1475, which shows him studying a manuscript while in armour. His grounding in letters was provided at the Mantuan school of Vittorino da Feltre, that in arms in the even more famous 'school' of the condottiere Niccolò Piccinino. His military career was indeed an impressive one, at first followed as a conventional employment for a younger brother, then pursued as a means of enlarging his duchy (to 3 times its size when he succeeded) and of obtaining the money for his expensive tastes as a builder and a collector of manuscripts. With warlike peasant subjects to follow him, his services were in steady demand. Though a prince, he fought simply for cash and on short-term contract, never as an ally. Thus he served Venice, the Papacy, the Aragonese in Naples; now Florence against the Papacy (1469), now the Papacy against Florence (1479). Similarly, from fighting with Piccinino he could find himself on the other side. For a while he was a comrade in arms of Francesco Sforza. Among his rivals he had had to face Colleoni.
This immersion in the confused world of condottiere values, together with the forceful illegality with which at times he extended his territory (especially at the expense of his bitter rival Sigismondo Malatesta), makes all the more remarkable the use to which he turned periods of peace, and perhaps more under- standable his pious dependence on astrological forecasts when returning to the hazards of war. He was an effective, paternalistic ruler. His interest in the full range of the humanist curriculum never faltered. Latin was a delight to him. His library of manuscripts (he deplored the printing of books) was probably larger than that of any European university. Above all it was judgment, not just a lucky use of available talent, that made of the proportions, the spaces and the decorations of his palace the purest and most harmonious expression of Quattrocento aesthetic ideals, and as a result of which he is remembered as the patron of Luciano Laurana, Francesco di Giorgio, Pontelli, Melozzo da Forli, and his portraitist, Piero della Francesca.
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