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The House of Montefeltro

At the foothills of the Apennines lies Urbino. In 755, Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, presented the city to the papacy where it remained under the Pope’s care as an independent state until the year 1200 when a line of Carpegna Lords took over. The family was founded by Antonio I in the 11th century and took their name from the Montefeltro region in northern Italy. In the 208 years they held Urbino, the city thrived, becoming a duchy and a hub of Renaissance and Humanist culture. 

But who were the Montefeltro, and why did their rule end so suddenly?

The Guelphs vs. The Ghibellines

The 12th and 13th centuries saw great conflict between the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and their respected factions – the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Battle between the two powers commenced in 1125, running through to 1186 where a short truce through the Peace of Constance was found before resuming in 1216. It was only in 1392, with the Black Death, the decline of free communes, and several strategic moves by European powers, that the war finally ended for good. 

The Montefeltro were involved heavily in these wars, beginning in 1155, when Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, claimed Urbino as part of the Holy Roman Empire, despite its status as part of the Papal States, and granted Antonio I the role of imperial vicar. In 1226, Antonio’s grandchildren, Buonconte I and Taddeo, were appointed counts of Urbino by Frederick II. Both figures became leaders of the Ghibellines in the Marche and Romagna while their main competition, the Malatesta, took up with the Guelphs. 

Buonconte is the first of the Montefeltro family to appear in Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy. The general was killed in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289; a battle in which Dante himself was present. In Canto V of Purgatory, Dante asks Buonconte why his body was never recovered. He replied that he fled when he was wounded in the throat and was praying to the blessed Virgin Mary when he died. As a result, an angel was sent to claim his soul, but an enraged demon destroyed his body out of anger, beginning a storm that washed what was left of his remains into the Arno River. 

From Purgatory to the Inferno

Buonconte was succeeded by Montefeltrano II and his son, Guido I. As Captain of Forlì, Guido fought against the French commanded forces loyal to Pope Martin IV. Forlì fell to the papal forces and the Romagna submitted once more to papal authority. Though he accepted the authority of Pope Honorius IV in 1286, Guido was excommunicated. He moved to Pisa, joining their Ghibelline forces as captain, and turned the fight to Florence and Cesena. 

Ten years later, Guido was forgiven by Pope Boniface VIII, and entered the Franciscan order. He remained close to the Pope: records show Boniface asking him for advice on how to deal with the Colonna who, at the time, were disputing his legitimacy and had taken refuge in the fortress of Palestrina. Guido suggested the Pope promise them amnesty then revoke it when he won the battle. This advice earned him a place in Dante’s Inferno. In Canto XXVII, he tells Dante he had given the advice reluctantly and that when St. Francis arrived to collect his soul, a black cherub claimed him for Hell instead. 

A Game of Chess

If the Papacy and the Montefeltro were playing a game of chess for Urbino, the decades which followed continuously resulted in ‘checks’. 

Guido’s successor was Federico I. He increased both the domains under Montefeltro control and their taxes, earning him an assassination. Urbino was placed back in papal control under the commander, Ferrantino Malatesta. 

Federico’s son, Nolfo, reconquered Urbino as soon as he was able. His first act as lord was to kill all his father’s enemies. Nolfo’s taste for war lasted thirty-one years before he signed a treaty and was made papal vicar. 

But it wasn’t to last. Pope Innocent VI sent Cardinal Alboroz on a campaign through Italy to reclaim the papal states, and Urbino found itself under the control of the Holy See once more. 

Federico II became Count of Urbino, holding the position from 1364 to his death in 1370. Federico’s defining moment was marrying into a family of condottieri from Mantua, the Gonzaga. 

His son, Antonio II, took advantage of a rebellion in the Marche and Umbria regions to restore his authority in Urbino five years later. He allied himself with Florence and Milan, and married his children to their ancestral enemies, the Malatesta. 

The Papacy and the Montefeltro seemed to unite again when Guidantonio, Antonio II’s son, was appointed ruler of the Duchy of Spoleto by Pope Martin V. Guidantonio betrayed him, though, allying with King Ladislaus of Naples who awarded him the title of Grand Constable of Naples in 1411. Enraged, the Pope excommunicated Guidantonio, though this was sort lived and the two reconciled not long later. 

Fratricide or Born to be Duke? 

Oddantonio, Guidantonio’s legitimate son, was assassinated a few months after gaining power of Urbino, with the lordship falling into the hands of his illegitimate half-brother, Federico III. Oddantonio lived a life of excess with lavish parties lasting up to two weeks at a time and led to his raising taxes and seeking support from the Malatesta. His and his counsellors’ assassination seemed inevitable, as were the rumours that Federico had been involved in their deaths. There’s no definitive proof of this, however, and while there’s little known about their relationship, Federico did offer his half-brother financial support. 

Federico proved to be the greatest of the Montefeltro line. 

One of the most successful condottieri of the time (having become a mercenary under the command of Niccolò Piccinino at the age of sixteen), Federico had a reputation of honour and as a great civil leader. When he lost his right eye in a jousting accident, he instructed his surgeons to remove the bridge of his nose to improve his field of vision and lessen his vulnerability. He was also made Gonfaloniere of the Holy Roman Church by Pope Pius II and, in 1478, was involved in the Pazzi Conspiracy which saw the death of Giuliano de’ Medici. 

Federico was nicknamed the ‘Light of Italy’ and under his rule Urbino thrived. He strolled through the streets unarmed and unattended, stopping into shops and checking in with local businesses. Whenever soldiers were killed or wounded in his command, he would take care of their families, going as far as providing dowries for their daughters. 

With his humanist education, he created a Renaissance city to be envied. He supported the arts and artists, created a studiolo which is still talked about today, and constructed one of the largest libraries in Italy. 

When his wife, Battista Sforza, died aged twenty-five from pneumonia after giving birth to their seventh child, Federico spent much more of his time in Urbino. Sadly, his magnanimous reign ended in 1482 when he died of a fever on a rare Condotta with Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara against Venice. 

Caught in Cesare’s Campaign

Federico’s son, Guidobaldo, inherited Urbino. 

For a while, he fought as one of Pope Alexander VI’s captains against King Charles VIII during the French invasion of Italy. During this time, he was taken prisoner by the Orsini and Vitelli families. His freedom was granted the following the year, but Guidobaldo’s return to Urbino was short-lived as, in 1502, Cesare Borgia came to claim it. 

Guidobaldo and his wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga, were forced to flee to avoid being killed by Borgia’s armies. Whatever hope he felt when the Orsini and Vitelli turned against their leader shattered when they were assassinated in Senigallia at the hands of Borgia’s faithful generals. But his luck turned the following year when the Pope died, and Borgia’s power began to waiver. 

The End of the Montefeltro

Impotent and childless, Guidobaldo made a decision when he returned to Urbino. He and Elisabetta adopted his sister’s son, Francesco Maria della Rovere, uniting Senigallia and Urbino. Francesco’s uncle was Giuliano della Rovere, who, that year, had been elevated to Pope Julius II. 

Guidobaldo died aged thirty-six from gout, bringing an end to the Montefeltro line. 

The fate of Urbino remained tumultuous. As quickly as the papacy changed hands, so did Urbino. When Giovanni de’ Medici became Pope Leo X ten years later, Leo stripped Francesco of the duchy and gifted it to his nephew, Lorenzo, instead. Once again, there was battle for Urbino, with both parties kicking the other out until Lorenzo regained the city via treaty for a total of two years before it reverted to the Rovere family who ruled until the family’s extinction in 1631 when it returned the Papal States. 


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