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15 Facts About 'Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino'

Painted between 1465 and 1472, Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino is both one of Piero della Francesca's greatest works and one of the most famous portraits from the Italian Renaissance. But it's not just impressive to look at—beneath its brushstrokes lie secrets and the tragedy of the Italian couple.

1. IT IS A DIPTYCH.

The profile portraits, displayed today as a pair of paintings, are tempera works painted on wooden panels. However, in the past, they were connected by hinges, which locked the Duke and Duchess's gazes. Today, the hinge has been abandoned, and the paintings share an elaborate gold frame at Florence's Uffizi Gallery.

2. PORTRAITS OF THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF URBINO DEPICTS A MERCENARY DUKE.

The work captures the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro. He was the commander of a band of mercenaries who would be hired out by Italian city-states to battle on their behalf. The fortune Montefeltro made from this bloody line of work was used to transform the hill town of Urbino into a grand court as well as to finance works of art that would assure his legacy. Art historians believe Piero began the Duke's commissioned portrait as early as 1465.

3. THE DUCHESS'S PORTRAIT WAS PAINTED IN MEMORIAL.

Before Piero could complete the matching panel, the 26-year-old Duchess Battista Sforza died of acute pneumonia brought on by childbirth on July 7, 1472. Some have suggested her pale skin is not a sign of status—women of privilege didn't toil in the sun—but more the pallor of death. The artist likely used Sforza's death mask for reference.

4. THE PROFILES FAVORED THE DUKE'S GOOD SIDE...

Though a proud warrior, Montefeltro preferred that his battle scars not be preserved for posterity. A brutal bout of jousting at a tournament cost him his right eye and a chunk of his nose. So, this regal portrait favors his left side.

5. ... BUT THAT WASN'T THE ONLY REASON HE FACED THAT WAY.

Traditionally the subjects of profile portraits face the right. Because of Montefeltro's deformities, this wasn't an option. But the effect of him facing left is that it locks his eyes with his lady, suggesting they share a bond that transcends death.

6. THE PROFILE APPROACH WAS ALSO RELEVANT TO A HOBBY OF THE DUKE'S COURT.

Humanist courts of the 15th century were very fond of collecting coins of ancient Rome. On these, great men were rendered in stark profile, a tradition that has carried through to currency all over the world.

7. THE STAGING REFLECTS THE COUPLE'S POWER.

The Duke and Duchess are poised high above the landscape in the background, as if they are atop a tower. Thus, they have a bird's eye view over their sprawling domain, speaking not only to Urbino's hilltop position, but also to the pair's high status.

8. THE DUCHESS'S HAIRDO SHOWS SHE WAS THE HEIGHT OF FASHION.

When these paintings were made, high foreheads were all the rage. Ladies would dedicatedly pluck away at their hairlines to achieve this coveted look.

9. THE BACK OF THE PANELS ARE PAINTED AS WELL.

That's a diptych standard. The specially crafted frame at the Uffizi allows for visitors to walk around and see both sides of Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino. On the back lies an elaborate scene that depicts the Duke and Duchess approaching each other, each riding an antique wagon. Gleaming in glorious armor, he is pulled by a team of white horses. Dressed in finery, she is pulled by unicorns.

10. THIS BACK PANEL NONE TOO SUBTLY PRAISES THEIR VIRTUES.

Joining the Duke and Duchess on their carts are characters meant as the physical embodiments of Virtues. Justice, Wisdom, Valor and Moderation flank the Duke, while Faith, Hope and Charity ride with the Duchess.

11. THE LATIN INSCRIPTION ON THE BACK SPELLS OUT ITS MEANING.

Roughly translated, it reads: "He rides illustrious in glorious triumph, as he wields the scepter in moderation. The eternal fame of his virtues celebrates [him] as equal to the greatest dukes. She who observed modesty in success flies on all men’s lips, honoured by the praise of her great husband’s exploits.”

12. IT WAS NOT THE FIRST PAINTING PIERO DID FOR THE DUKE.

The dates are hazy, but it's believed the painter took commissions from Montefeltro for nearly 20 years, resulting in works like The Flagellation and Brera Madonna, which presented the 50-year-old Duke in armor kneeling before the Virgin Mary.

13. THE DUKE MAY HAVE BEEN A HUNCHBACK.

A 2008 medical study argued that Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino and Brera Madonna presented substantial enough evidence to prove that Montefeltro could have been diagnosed with thoracic hyperkyphosis.

14. PIERO EMPLOYED GEOMETRY IN HIS COMPOSITIONS.

The works of this Early Renaissance artist have fascinated art enthusiasts for centuries, in part because he used his mathematics background to work out the pleasing shapes and staging of his scenes.

15. THESE WORKS MAY HAVE INFLUENCED GEORGES SEURAT.

Art historians who've studied Seurat's masterpieces A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 and Bathers at Asnières argue there is a connection between the painter and Piero. They believe the 19th century French painter's predilection for profile subjects and simple forms shaped by use of light was inspired by Piero's signature style.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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