Portraits from Umbria

A bold red hat. A most unusual nose. A commanding man. A ghostly woman. In perfect profile, Federico Montefeltro and Battista Sforza stare at one another, held together forever in a framed diptych painted in 1473 by Piero della Francesca. Federico was born in the castle where we will be staying during my travel art workshop in Italy next May, so I decided to copy the portraits as a starting point for learning more about our destination.

The longer I looked at these faces, the more I wondered about Federico and Battista. What were their lives like? What did they love? What did they fear?

A daring and well-regarded war general in command of his own troops for hire during the 15th century, Federico lost his right eye during a jousting tournament at age 28. Afraid of assassination, he asked surgeons to remove part of his nose to improve peripheral vision in his remaining eye. Can you imagine? Federico went on to become Duke of Urbino, a champion of humanist education, and a patron of the arts.

At age 38, Federico married the lovely, educated 14-year-old maiden Battista Sforza. The marriage was arranged by Battista’s uncle and I have to set aside all modern perceptions of being a woman to fathom what this young girl might have thought about wedding a one-eyed man twice her age. Still, several accounts suggest that the pair had affection for one another and that Federico was grief stricken upon Battista untimely death in 1472 at age 26, three months after giving birth to her seventh child. Can you imagine?

The rest of these pages capture other things I’m learning—the transition from Gothic to Renaissance writing scripts, another bird, the challenge of mastering feminine and masculine Italian grammar (who decided that beef (il manzo) is masculine, but steak (la bistecca) is feminine?). This is not the stuff of travel guides but is nonetheless an intriguing way to begin.

Tips and Techniques– Most of you know that I am not a painter of portraits. I participated in #oneweek100people in 2017 and that may have been the last time I painted a face. Apparently, the style of the day was to paint people in perfect profile, revealing no emotion. Both Federico and Battista are more severe in the original oil paintings than in mine. I found it challenging enough just getting proportions right and trying for a decent likeness. But what I mostly learned is that painting something completely different opens new doors that lead to interesting places. I should be brave enough to try it more often. There are a few spots left in the Italy travel workshop– find out more here >

27 Comments on “Portraits from Umbria

  1. Wow Jean! So much here…love the small landscape and the lettering! So much fun to compare next to the originals and their stories, again WOW!

    • Thank you! Every time I write a few words of Italian on the page I later see that I’ve spelled things wrong. Alas, I will learn what I can before I go– every bit helps, right? You will have to come along virtually.

      • Yes! And it doesn’t matter about the spelling, you should try to speak with the locals, they love it even if you make lots of mistakes. I remember a waiter laughing with delight when I ordered ‘affettato’ (sliced cured meat) instead of ‘affogato’ (vanilla ice cream with espresso poured over🤣🤣

  2. So beautiful.. it makes me long to go…when I need to put my head (and hand) in a different space, I always turn to the Renaissance. (note my wordpress icon – Bronzino eye 👁) I am so looking forward to following your trip!

  3. Such fun Jean – what a great way to learn about your surroundings there.
    these portraits are wonderful and that nose..!

  4. Hi Jean,
    You’ve done a marvelous job with these portraits! I’m familiar with the portraits but didn’t know anything about them til now. Thank you! I also love the landscape and the beautiful Italian feel to the illuminated capital letter “C”, and the Florentine lily emblem. Beautiful blues and red!! Oh you’ve put a lot of time and thought into this!!

    • Thanks for commenting Tricia! Yes, there are many different elements coming together here and I’m glad you noticed and enjoyed them. The stories behind the portraits are fascinating. I look forward to seeing where my curiosity leads next.

  5. Thrilled to be joining you in Italy for the Nature sketching workshop. Also taking an Italian language immersion course at Il Sasso in Montepulciano April 18-29. Anyone else want to come?

    • Hi Cathleen- So glad you reached out and nice to know that you have been to Italy several times. There is a group site for the trip set up on Winslow Art Center’s website, so you should post your plans there too. Looking forward to meeting you! — Jean

  6. What a brilliant way to get to know Italy, or any destination. And isn’t it nice that your studies are happening while it’s getting colder and darker outside? Perfect weather for what you’re doing. I see a travel advice book on the horizon….

  7. what a great post. so informative. I was lucky enough to view the original artwork when visiting Florence back in 2014. and whilst i was told of the woman’s passing already when the portrait was painted, i did not know much more than that. Your background info was fascinating. thanks.

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