Cognoscenti 68 : Reading the Renaissance City

We have been trying to think of reading which those who will be joining us on The Renaissance City tour in September might like to browse at leisure over the summer.   And I’m sorry to say we were rather stumped.

First, there are a few perfectly reasonable books about both Ferrara and Urbino, but sold as tourist guides only in the cities themselves (and there used to be some poor ones too, especially in Urbino; I illustrate two useful current Ferrara ones below).

Second, at the other end, there is quite a clutch of highly specific academic studies on aspects of the Renaissance in both cities. Of the 40 or so titles in my research notes on Ferrara, for example, two which stand out are C. M. Rosenberg (editor)’s The Court Cities of Northern Italy : Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, Urbino, Pesaro, and Rimini, (2010) and T. Tuohy’s Herculean Ferrara: Ercole d’Este (1471–1505) and the Invention of a Ducal Capital (1996). For these, Amazon charges £140 and £105 respectively – though the latter has a paperback version, a snip at £50. Specialist interest – or university library – only!

And third, of course, for general background reading the standard tourist guide books are probably as good as any – we use the Michelin and Lonely Planet guides, and often more interestingly, the Blue Guides.

But, for the general and enquiring reader, there is very little in between. As the exception, therefore, we particularly commend June Osborne on Urbino (illustrated above left) which is not cheap, but still in print; fascinating, intelligent and beautifully illustrated.

General reading about the Italian renaissance is always relevant and there are many books around thereon – browsing the library and bookshops is probably a good way to start.

Let’s move quickly to fiction: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2010) is set entirely in one closed Ferrara convent, which the Sisters will open for us to see their unique, Giotto-esque frescoes. (It is also in Italian but, if you’d rather read that, perhaps you should be leading this tour!) Leslie Forbes’ Waking Raphael (2004) is an intriguing thriller set in Urbino between the tempestuous 1930s and the Renaissance – its cover image is of Raphael’s La Muta, silence being a theme of the book. And Ali Smithi’s 2014 Booker-short-listed How to Be Both is interwoven with fluid subtlety with Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. The back cover of her book – a figure from the amazing Hall of the Months in Palazzo Schifanoia – is the first image below.

Introducing Ferrara in the Guardian, Dunant wrote in 2009 and Smith, quite differently in the same paper five years later, . I would particularly recommend Smith’s article (and do look at the little essay in Frieze by Jan Verwoert on Schifanoia, to which her piece easily hyperlinks); I recommend it not least for her enthusiasm for Giorgio Bassani, Ferrara’s great 20th Century writer, whose most famous book, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, was recreated by De Sica as a memorable Oscar winner in 1970. Sadly his Five Stories of Ferrara is less easy to find these days.

Finally, an unusual tale, The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded by Marcello Simonetta (2008), although built around the famous Pazzi Conspiracy in Florence, accuses the man on the cover of being the arch-criminal.

He is Duke Federigo da Montefeltro, his ear, curly black hair and red cap being cropped from Piero della Francesca’s famous portrait (now in the Uffizi).   Piero was at Federigo’s Urbino court just as, some years later, Raphael met Baldesar Castiglione there, making the inimitable portrait (now in the Louvre) used on the cover (below right). Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (Penguin Classics, trs George Bull 1976) is a unique and wonderfully readable panegyric on court life at Urbino.

The central image above, a ghostly view of the Urbino Ducal Palace, is cropped from a religious painting by Urbino’s great Counter-Reformation painter, Federico Barocci, who was introduced to an astonished British public by a National Gallery exhibition in 2013.

I end with a tiny, famous quotation from Castiglione’s Il Cortigiano:

Well maybe after all there is quite a lot of potential reading, to suit all tastes, around these remarkable cities!

A quarter of a century ago, the magazine Architecture Today, which had and still has a monthly column entitled “My kind of Town,” invited me to contribute. I wrote about Urbino.   I would write rather differently today, but I still like that piece. (Click here to download). I worked, in the last quarter of the 20th Century with Giancarlo De Carlo who, as author of Urbino’s town plan, was more than anyone else responsible for the husbanding of its Renaissance heritage, but also with his friend Carlo Bo, rector of the Free University of Urbino, responsible for the construction of its unique 20th Century Renaissance.

De Carlo’s 1960s study of Urbino’s past, present and proposals for its conservation into the future was Urbino The History of a City and Plans for its Development, MIT Press (1970) ; my study of De Carlo, his approach to the historic city and his new works was Giancarlo De Carlo: Layered Places, Axel Menges (2004, pages 52 to 113 are specifically about Urbino). Both of these are rather specialised. But a sample of how the new and old are interthought in Urbino, through one De Carlo university project, is described (click here) and can also be downloaded as a pdf.


12 July 2015


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