Day 31 part 1: Courts of Northern Italy tour

In order to continue my posting streak and because this promises to be a busy day and I may not get around to writing until late in the day, if at all, here’s a description of what I’m going to be doing starting this evening:

This is Martin Randall Travel’s description of the tour:

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Italy gradually fragmented into numerous little territories. The city states became fiercely independent and were governed with some degree of democracy. But a debilitating violence all too often ensued as the leading families fought with fellow citizens for dominance of the city council and the offices of state. A common outcome from the 13th century onwards was the imposition of autocratic rule by a single prince, and the suspension of democratic structures: but such tyranny was not infrequently welcomed with relief and gratitude by a war-weary citizenry.

Their rule may have been tyrannical, and warfare their principal occupation, but the Montefeltro, Malatesta, d’Este and Gonzaga dynasties brought into being through their patronage some of the finest buildings and works of art of the Renaissance. Many of the leading artists in 15th- and 16th-century Italy worked in the service of princely courts.

As for court art of earlier epochs, little survives, though a glimpse of the oriental splendour of the Byzantine court of Emperor Justinian can be had in the mosaic depiction of him, his wife and their retinue in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It is not until the 15th century, in Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi at Mantua, that we are again allowed an unhindered gaze into court life.

I want to visit the cities included on this tour to view art by artists whose works, or at least, many of their most important works are not found in the big centres of Rome, Florence or Venice. We will see paintings and sculptures still located in the churches or chapels or palaces for which they were originally created. And of course, the architecture located in these cities can best be seen by visiting them in person.

The tour goes to 10 places over 7 days. It’s going to be busy.

This book includes six of the cities I will visit: Parma, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, Urbino and Rimini.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, some of the most sophisticated courts of Europe were concentrated in a few small towns in north-eastern Italy. The most significant were at Ferrara, Mantua, Rimini and Urbino, each dominated by a ruling dynasty, respectively the Este, Gonzaga, Malatesta and Montefeltro.

These families included some of the most magnificent patrons of the Renaissance in the visual arts, music, literature and humanist learning: Isabella d’Este and her brother Alfonso, Lodovico Gonzaga and his pleasure-loving descendent Federico, Sigismondo Malatesta and his arch-rival Federico of Montefeltro. They created sophisticated courts gathering learned thinkers (knew Latin), artists, and creating libraries. Their reputations have been immortalised by artists Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian.

Many of the same people had connections among the different courts, such as the architect/writer Alberti, painter della Francesca, writers/humanists/philosophers Luca Pacioli, Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano, Pico della Mirandola, and Pietro Bembo,

Martin Randall Travel describe themselves as providing cultural tours which seek to “deepen your understanding and enhance your appreciation of the achievements of civilisations around the world”. As part of this, they provide a pre-tour suggested reading list. I already had a number of the books on that list.

This pleases me to know that the tour will involve topics of interest to me but perhaps, a bit dismayed to know that my book hoarding continues despite thinking I should be reducing my library.

The history of the area is long and complicated but thanks to those books, here’s some brief points I found interesting about “Princely Courts”:

A notable fact about the princely families that ruled these cities during the Renaissance is that most were founded by self-made men. Many were condottiere, essentially mercenary generals who would lead armies for whomever paid them the most. If offered enough money, some would switch sides.

I described the Ghibelline and Guelph conflict in Florence; it continued for longer, into a later era, and more fiercely in these areas.

The Gonzaga family came to rule Mantua as part of a Ghibelline party, but Ludovico I called himself the people’s captain and only later was the family able to claim noble ties through marriage.

The Montefeltro family came to be lords of Urbino through Federico, a condottiere.

The d’Este family had an elder branch that ruled in areas of what is now Germany. The younger branch established themselves as lords of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio in the late 13th century with the support of the Pope after battling the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. They were elevated to dukes in the 15th century. The duchy lasted until deposed by Napoleon.

The Malatesta family ruled in Rimini from the late 13th century and also parts of Tuscany, Lombardy, Romagna and Marche. The name mala testa translates as bad head possibly because the progenitor of the family was a fighter. Several were condottiere who switched between Ghibellines and Guelphs. Giovanni Malatesta is famous because he murdered his wife and his younger brother when he discovered their adultery. The murder is described in Dante’s Inferno as well as in a story by Giovanni Boccaccio. Sigismondo, who commissioned a church from Alberti, was famous as a condottiere who led Venetian forces against the Ottomans.

The Sforza family came to rule Milan following the extinction of the Visconti family. The first was Francesco who was a condottiere. One of the most famous was Ludovico who hired Leonardo da Vinci. We won’t be going to Milan, but members of the Sforza married into and conducted wars with and against the d’Este and Montefeltro families, and the Republic of Venice.

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