Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino
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The Duke and Duchess of Urbino went all out for these his and her portraits.

Having to work so hard for their glamor shots made them hyper aware of how to get it right the first time. Federico da Montefeltro did it up for his Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, painted by Piero della Francesca, arguably one of the more famous pieces in the Uffizi after The Birth of Venus, obviously. 

He had the best of both worlds waaaay before Hannah Montana. Federico had a brilliant get rich quick scheme— he fought as a condottiere, or Italian mercenary soldier, which were basically tough guys who would be hired to fight on behalf of various 15th century Italian city-states or the Pope. He also had a soft side, however. After he seized power as Duke of Urbino, he was nicknamed “the Light of Italy” for his contributions as a patron of literature and the arts, he built a gigantic palace for himself and his wife, Battista Sforza, complete with a painstakingly decorated study. He also surrounded himself with creatives like Raphael who actually got his start painting in the court of the Duke (basically a group of fancy people who would sit around, chat, and drink booze).

The Mr. and Mrs. are dressed to the nines. Federico obviously wanted to play up his dedication to religion, as his vibrant red costume is reminiscent of what was worn by cardinals. Similarly, Battista is wearing the most expensive items in her closet, including pearls and a headpiece that garnishes her high fashion hairdo. Yes that’s right, it was all the rage during this time for women to delicately pluck the hair from the front of their heads. Who says receding hairlines have to be bad news?

Believe it or not, Federico had a “good side” and this is it. He sacrificed his right eye in an unfortunate jousting accident, which is why he is usually posed in profile for his portraits. This loss of sight made it necessary to have part of his large schnozz surgically removed so that he could still see from his lone functioning eye. This is considered to be the first surgical alteration of a nose ever, and it was even done before anesthesia. Ouch!

Battista on the other hand may be sporting corpse chic. Historians saw this portrait and asked themselves why she is so ghostly pale. After tons of research, they concluded that this may be in reference to the fact that she died in childbirth, before the painting’s completion. Always the romantic, Federico had this portrait done in remembrance. Gross out moment: Piero really took one for the team by using her “death mask” as reference for the portrait. It was typical for royalty to have these wax or plaster casts of their faces made after they’ve passed on.

This portrait is the subject of many jokes and maaany memes. A quick search reveals the work of photoshop enthusiasts who love to swap out the faces of the two subjects with other human and animal faces. Although I’m glad that these renditions are around for our enjoyment, it’s interesting to think about why this painting draws so much attention. Maybe it’s the prestigious profile pose, or how they’re dressed, or the composition. Whatever it is, I’m sure Federico would be ecstatic to see that he’s still the center of attention after all this time. Modesty was never his strong suit, but they do say that you need to step on some people to get ahead. And boy did he get ahead.



  1. Harris, Beth , and Steven Zucker. "Piero della Francesca, Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino." Khan Academy. Accessed May 28, 2017.
  2. Jones, Jonathan. "Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino, Piero della Francesca (c1472)." The Guardian. October 25, 2002. Accessed May 28, 2017.
  3. Osborne, June, and Joe Cornish. Urbino: the story of a Renaissance city. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  4. Paoletti, John T., and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2012.
  5. Prince, S.J. "Snapshots of Death: 20 Death Masks of Famous Historical Figures." September 16, 2014. Accessed May 29, 2017.
  6. Puchko, Kristy. "15 Facts About 'Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino'" Mental Floss. January 24, 2017. Accessed May 29, 2017.