L’Arca dell’Arte

March 3, 2016 / Art & Archaeology
Sassocorvaro, Le Marche

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Most of you are certainly familiar with the following painting by Piero della Francesca. It is a double portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, Count and subsequently Duke of Urbino, and his wife Battista Sforza.


Actually, his father was one Count Ubaldini della Carda, but Federico was the second son and so not in line to inherit much of anything. Options back then for someone in his position were either to join the clergy, or to become a condottiere, a military leader. Federico chose the latter, earning fame and glory as a courageous and very capable general. (He is always portrayed in profile because he lost his right eye while jousting, and didn’t want this shown for posterity. As for his nose, he had the notch done with a file so he could gain back some field of view with his remaining eye.) Here he is again, kneeling, in armor, in another painting by Piero della Francesca.


Later on, fate would turn in his favor as far as titles were concerned. His maternal grandfather had no male sons from various marriages, and so as an adult Federico was “adopted” by his grandfather and thus became Count of Urbino.

While we know quite a bit about Federico, not much is known about his very well read (and noted alchemist) older brother, Ottaviano, who as first born became Count Ubaldini della Carda when their father died.


Yet, recent research shows that the two were very close, and in fact it appears they ruled Urbino, Gubbio, Casteldurante, and Spoleto as a diarchia (joint rule). Federico was the military leader, and Ottaviano was the diplomat and politician, making for a team that was very effective in navigating the constantly changing Guelf-Ghibelline allegiances of Renaissance central Italy.

At one point during their reign, Ottaviano had the Rocca di Sassocorvaro (aka Rocca Ubaldinesca) built around a smaller, older keep already in place. His fortress was laid out in the shape of a turtle, a symbolic motif in alchemy which stood for toughness, constancy, and the connection between two worlds (water/land in case of the turtle, hence heaven/earth for humans).


Besides this, not much sets it apart from the numerous other Renaissance fortresses that dot the Italian countryside. History too, for the most part, passed it by…

Fast forward four and a half centuries to Pasquale Rotondi, an art historian in Ancona, Le Marche. Right before World War II, in 1938, Rotondi was made director of the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica in Rome, and then superintendent of all art and galleries in Le Marche. With the outbreak of hostilities, he was charged by the Ministry of Education with saving as much of the enormous collection of Italian art as he could manage from theft by the Germans and from bombardment.


So what do with with it all? Where to store it? Sure enough, he chooses the Rocca di Sassocorvaro, and shares his secret operation with his colleagues, various museum directors, art historians, and colleagues up and down Italy’s east coast. Within months Italy’s treasures start pouring in… Venice, Urbino, Pesaro, Fano, Ancona, Lagosta, Fabriano, Jesi, Osimo, Macerata, Fermo, and Ascoli Piceno are just some of the places that send most of their masterpieces to Rotondi, who stores them all in the Rocca, an effort for which he will posthumously receive the highest Italian presidential award in 2005. It is said that at its most-stuffed, the Rocca di Sassocorvaro held more than 10,000 Italian masterpieces, the largest collection of Italian art ever assembled under one roof. For this reason, the Rocca is now also known as l’Arca dell’Arte (the Ark of Art).

An interesting footnote of this the story? The art saved included masterpieces by Giorgione, Bellini, Paolo Uccello, Titian, Mantegna and Raffaello among others… including quite a few by Piero della Francesca…

Ring a bell? Remember the two paintings above with Federico in them? I wonder what Federico and his brother Ottaviano would say if they could learn that those paintings still exist today thanks to a fort they built close to half a millennium ago.


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by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

15 Responses to “L’Arca dell’Arte”

  1. Pat Carney Ceccarelli
    Pat Carney Ceccarelli

    What a great article GB! You manage to bring art, history and Italian landscape into an immediate human dimension . So that somehow the past becomes alive..

  2. Taube Ponce

    As always, thank you so much for sharing these fascinating insights and history!

  3. Maria Ingham

    Fascinating piece of history! And what fabulous foresight of what was to come and the intelligence to make a plan on how to save the art patrimony of Italy. Also the historic story about the two brothers is interesting in itself. Thank you for this wonderful entry.

  4. Gale Iannone in CT

    Wonderful article. So much is learned in a few words and photos. Well done, GB.

  5. Fascinating! I don;ty recall this being mentioned in the recent book about the Monuments Men and how they helped to save Italian art. Or have I forgotten that it was mentioned?

  6. louise

    Wow! that is a lesson plus on history and art. Love the tie in of modern with the Renaissance, and the info about the “stuffed” fortress. Anything left there? What a treasure house, for sure.

  7. Anne Robichaud

    Absolutely fascinating, GB! Now here in the US but home to Assisi but have already written Pino that la Rocca must be a first outing when I am home! Mille mille grazie for the insights

  8. Victoria De Maio

    I can only echo and repeat all of the comments above! What a wonderful presentation of facts, art and history. I especially love the story about the Duke’s nose! Those tidbits and details are fascinating as is this entire story…
    Grazie indeed!

  9. Anne Wright

    I really enjoyed this, especially my discovery that Federico had the notch filed in his nose so he could improve the vision in his remaining eye. I’d always wondered about that profile!

  10. Mary Cappiello

    Loved this article that encompassed so much art history, Italian history and WW II as well. Would love to take a quick journey or see this Castello when in Italy again.


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