Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 2001
Sabine Eiche, ed. Ordine et officij de casa de lo Illustrissimo Signor Duca de Urbino Urbino: Accademia Raffaello, 1999. 145 pp.; 11 b/w ills. Cloth $27.50 (8887573034)

Recent scholarship has produced a mounting bibliography in the area of court studies, helping to convince most scholars that, however important the great republics, the courts must be included in any complete evaluation of cultural history in the Renaissance. Yet the precise nature of the Italian Renaissance court remains hard to define, with many fundamental questions still inadequately answered. How institutionalized was the court? Who, exactly, were its members? Did they have specific roles and privileges? Hard facts on these topics are both scarce and scattered, making the document presented in Sabine Eiche’s book especially precious: the Ordine et officij, a treatise on the running of the ducal household written at the court of Urbino in the late 1400s. Known to scholars of Urbino since at least the nineteenth century, it was published in an uncritical and, unfortunately, unreliable transcription by Giuseppe Ermini in 1932 (also by the Accademia Raffaello). The present volume definitively replaces Ermini’s by republishing this important treatise in its entirety with a rigorous, annotated transcription accompanied by an introduction and three essays. As a whole, the volume contributes important new scholarship that helps illuminate and assess the value of the treatise for future research and provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the organization of the Montefeltro court—and of Renaissance seigneurial courts in general.

By focusing on this single treatise, the volume also does much to dispel the reductive yet tenacious misconception that Italy’s secular courts, such as those at Milan, Naples, Urbino, Ferrara, and Mantua, were in some way analogous to one another on account of their comparable forms of government. Our growing fund of knowledge about these princely states makes the unique nature of each more evident in terms of size, geography, language, demographics, shifting political alliances and local dynastic agendas, among many other characteristics. It is precisely through the unearthing and study of original documents like the Ordine et officij that scholars can engage in comparative court studies and begin to evaluate to what extent we can, if at all, speak of a common “court culture” in early modern Italy.

The original text of the Ordine et officij survives in a seventy-two page manuscript (probably an early sixteenth-century copy of a lost original) that was transferred in 1657 from the ducal library in Urbino to the Vatican library, where it is preserved today (BAV Urb. lat. 1248). It consists of sixty-four short chapters of instructions for the court household on a variety of topics that range from filing systems for the chancery and proper etiquette at the ducal table to protecting the family silver from light-fingered staff and keeping the lord’s stables dry and free of manure. While the precise date of the treatise is not known, internal evidence suggests it was written around 1490, early in the reign of Duke Guidobaldo I da Montefeltro (1482-1508) and just prior to Baldassare Castiglione’s fabled sojourn in his service. Nor are we certain of the author’s identity, although his authoritative narrative voice and impeccable discretion suggest that he may have been the maestro di casa, as John Larner convincingly points out in his brief but insightful introduction to the volume.

The first substantive essay, John Law’s “The Ordine et officij: Aspects of Context and Content,” provides a magisterial analysis of the treatise, situating it within the historiographical tradition (his notes are filled with helpful bibliographical references) and then deftly outlining its contents. Law reveals how the author of the treatise, rather than describing a complete “court,” is primarily concerned with the management of its core household, or famiglia—those members directly engaged in serving the lord. This explains the Ordine’s predominant focus on practical topics such as the orderly management of the seigneurial residence and stables, proper hospitality for visitors, and, above all, ensuring the preservation and prestige of the duke. By contrast, more abstract matters like the proper role of the lord’s consort or the importance of noble lineage—topics featured centrally in that most famous of Renaissance books about the court, Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier—are left untreated. Similarly, the treatise gives considerable attention to the correct preparation and dispensation of food and drink (a topic treated in the volume’s second essay), but disappointingly little to Urbino’s magnificent ducal palace or to its decoration. As Law points out, the fact that the Ordine bears no dedication may suggest that its author was trying to describe an ideal household, albeit one strongly informed by his personal experience at and intimate knowledge of the Montefeltro court. Peppered with specific and often entertaining examples, Law’s synthetic essay provides an excellent overview of the Ordine’s content, character, and texture for the specialist and the general reader alike.

In the second essay, Allen Grieco takes up the question of “Conviviality in a Renaissance Court: the Ordine et officij and the Court of Urbino,” making the salient observation that of the treatise’s sixty-four chapters, no fewer than twenty-three are exclusively related to the purchase, preparation, and presentation of foodstuffs for the ducal table, while nearly fifty percent of the text deals with food at least tangentially. While the central role that “conviviality” played in the life and ceremony of the Renaissance court is not a new concept, Grieco shows how it is brought to the forefront in the Ordine et officij, where the individual responsibilities of those who served the duke at table (stewards, cup-bearers, carvers, hand-washers, etc.), as well as those who worked behind the scenes (cooks, under-cooks, pantry staff, spice-keepers, etc.), are described in detail and within a precise hierarchy. The fascinating nature of these culinary offices made me wish that Grieco had devoted somewhat more space to his analysis of them, and less to his detailed discussion of Giovanni Pontano’s contemporary treatise De conviviis (an important topic, but perhaps one of greater interest to specialists in culinary history than to general readers). This fine essay nonetheless highlights the importance of conviviality, frequently neglected in court studies, and signals the Ordine as an important source for future scholarship on this topic.

In the final essay, “Behind the Scenes at Court,” Sabine Eiche provides a sensitive and extensively researched investigation of the household life of the dukes of Urbino as revealed by their personal correspondence in the sixteenth century. Selected letters, thirty-seven of which are published in a useful appendix to her essay, shed light on topics not discussed by the Ordine et officij, such as the nature of the ducal couple’s relationships to those in their employ, how they recruited, hired, and (less often) fired members of their famiglia, and the praise and blame meted out to staff for their loyalty or abuse of position. In this correspondence, the duchess—a figure essentially absent from the Ordine—assumes a central role in household life. The lucid picture of staff machinations, jealousies, and favoritism that emerges in Eiche’s essay betrays the fragmentary nature of the documentary evidence she has so beautifully distilled and synthesized for her readers, and Eiche tantalizingly remarks that this archival material is only the tip of what additional research could bring to a very fruitful study of what it was actually like to work in an Italian Renaissance court.

The three essays are each summarized in short abstracts in Italian, and followed by eleven black and white plates that reproduce key pages from the text of the Vatican manuscript as well as a few interior views of the cavernous spaces in Urbino’s Palazzo Ducale, where much of the Ordine et officij’s prescribed activities took place: the duke’s camera, bathroom, kitchens, and stables. The remainder of the volume is then dedicated to a complete transcription of the Ordine itself, following solid archival standards that are clearly laid out in a preliminary note.

In a volume where excellent analytical essays by English-speaking scholars so successfully reconstruct the historical context of the Ordine et officij, it is a shame that the present publication does not also include a parallel English translation of the treatise, a feature that would have rendered this rich document accessible to a broader audience, including university students and non-Italian specialists. Still, the Accademia Raffaello, Sabine Eiche, and the contributing authors are to be heartily commended for drawing our attention to this valuable treatise and making its original text available in an illuminating publication that is a welcome addition to any library of Renaissance art, architecture, or history.

Molly Bourne
Department of History of Art, Syracuse University in Florence

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