Vigevano and the Renaissance

In a country brimming with Renaissance architecture, it would be hard to choose which town might be considered the most beautiful, the most ideal Renaissance city. Maybe we could just settle for a short list? What is the framework for making such a claim? Do we choose on the basis of architecture, famous art, sculpture, painting, churches, piazze, harmonious urban landscape, civic pride or all of the above? Tourists in search of the Italian Renaissance in situ might put Florence near the top of the list, given that city’s fame. I personally find Florence dark, uninviting and not so harmonious when it comes to all things Rinascimento. Florence is crowded and many tourists are happy to see the fake David and Donatello, wander over the Ponte Vecchio, traipse through the Uffizzi for hours, catch a Masaccio or Giotto in one of the smaller churches, get in the queue to wander through Duomo, swoon if your name is Stendhal,¹slurp a gelato in Piazza della Signoria, wolf down an overpriced panino or pasta, then claim to have ‘done’ Florence.

The perfect piazza alla Bramante.

The Humanist writers of the 14th and 15th centuries were part of the great advertising think tank of the Florentine Renaissance. This hype culminated in the writing of Giorgio Vasari, evident in his Le Vite de’ Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architettori.  (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, sculptors and Architects). Published in 1550, ‘Lives‘ was the first art history written, presenting a distinct Florentine bias. I often get the feeling that Vasari’s prejudice is alive and well, nearly 500 years later. Florence has a great deal to offer in terms of understanding many aspects of the Renaissance, but other less famous cities do so equally and are more pleasant to visit.

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Up until recently, the city of Urbino in the Marche region sat at the top of my “Best Renaissance city” list. Under the rule of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482, the town of Urbino flourished. Federico da Montefeltro was a successful condottiere, a gifted diplomat and an enthusiastic patron of art and literature. Ruling for four decades, he set out to reorganise the state, making the city of Urbino ‘comfortable, efficient and beautiful’. Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, the Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, which outlined the standards for the modern European gentleman, was founded on Federico’s court. It was the Renaissance place to be in terms of language and letters.

The famous portrait by Piero della Francesca, Dyptich of the Dukes of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, 1465-1472 circa. And what an amazing match of the two most important Renaissance families of that era.
Piazza Ducale Vigevano

Vigevano is a small town in Lombardy that could also claim the same title of Città Ideale of the Renaissance. The central part of the town, the Piazza Ducale, leads the eye in every direction- along the arched colonnades, through the inviting side streets, upwards towards the apartments overlooking the piazza, and then back down towards the Cathedral and further along into the grand Castello Sforzesco.

Vigevano is located around 35 kms from Milano in the Lomellina district of Lombardy. I was seduced by the graceful Piazza Ducale. Designed by Bramante, this is one of Italy’s most beautiful piazzas. The building was instigated by Duke Ludovico Sforza (il Moro) and work began in 1492. It was intended to serve as a stately forecourt to the castle and did so for some time. It is shaped in an elongated rectangle measuring 134 metres by 48 metres and is enclosed with arched porticos supported by 84 columns. The porticos have carved capitals, each one carved differently.

Castello Sforzesco

The castle, which rises up at the town’s highest point, dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The castle was built in two consecutive stages, one under the Visconti and the other under the Sforza. The Visconti era is marked by  paranoia in design, as seen in the strada coperta, a secret exit from the castle. The latter architectural additions under the Sforza are marked with grace and openness. The artistic contribution of Donato Bramante cannot be understated-  his arches seem to balance lightly on stiletto shoes. So light, so graceful. During this period, the castle became one of Europe’s richest Renaissance courts, not unlike that of Urbino. Both leaders, Montefeltro and Lodovica Sforza were allies and skillful diplomats.

Stables, Castello Sforzesco
Falconiera, Castello Sforzesco

There is much to see and experience in Vigevano. A castle covering more than 2 hectares, a fine cathedral, a museum dedicated to the history of shoes ( Vigevano is the shoe making centre of Italy) and much more. But my main reason for wanting to return is simple. It’s that beautiful piazza that takes the prize: it is the centre stage of Vigevano. Theatrical, seductive and yet restrained, it invites you to take a stroll, to cross over, or to take shelter under Bramante’s arches in inclement weather, to whisper, to meet up with your lover, to be incognito or conversely to parade and strut about in your new shoes. Like all the best Italian piazze, Vigevano’s Piazza Ducale gives meaning and depth to that little Italian word, Centro.

La strada coperto, Visconti paranoia in Castello sforzesco

¹ I also suffer from Stendhalismo  when visiting Duomo in Firenze.

 

22 thoughts on “Vigevano and the Renaissance”

  1. Should I find myself in Italy, I’m with you Vigevano would be my kind of place. The architecture looks amazing. I could spend hours just looking up the columns and taking pictures. I too might experience Stendhalismo (thanks for the link very educational) when strolling about Vigevano.

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  2. Florence ‘dark and uninviting’ ? Thanks teach’ for making me look again . . . if you have been working on this post for year then I surely must put all asunder for a week and know a whole lot more than I do now: know it will be a fascinating journey even without leaving my library chair . . . . . . thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The work on this post was cut to shreds, edited, discarde, rehashed and finally abbreviated. I can get carried way at times and have to pull myself back. I was hampered by poor quality photos and an obsession with the Sforza family too. My time in Vigevano was too short also. I hope it came out ok in the end.

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  3. You have ably assisted my avoidance of our overheated reality, providing a interlude of respite… I felt transported as I read and zoomed the photos to enhance the sensation of vicarious travel. Not quite Stenhalismo (wow… who knew) but pleasant indeed.

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  4. Wonderful post — daydreaming about Italy and the Renaissance is a fabulous pastime. Florence has become so crowded that I never want to go back, just to remember what I saw there years and years in the past. I was very sad when I could spend only a few hours in Urbino where so much humanism was developed. I’m also a fan of Isabella d’Este and her palace — but also had few hours to look around Mantua (her adult home) and Ferrara (her childhood home).

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. Following in the footsteps of the d’Este family is a great way o travel through Italy. I went to Mantua and Ferrara in 1985 and am probably due for another vsisit.

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  5. Reblogged this on ALMOST ITALIAN and commented:

    Today I’m heading back to Vigevano, a beautiful Renaissance city in Lombardy around 45 kms from Milano. So close to the largest industrial and most polluted city of Italy, and yet it feels so far away when you’re there. Vigevano retains its Renaissance aura, despite this proximity. I like to imagine the Sforza family of the 1400s travelling between their castles in Milano and Vigevano, and the pageantry of the tour. Or of the condottiero, Francesco Sforza, and his mercenary troupes arriving on horseback, returning from battles and diplomatic deals around Northern Italy.

    The original post was published at the beginning of 2019, based on my visit to Vigevano in November 2017. It took a year to write. After visiting the enchanting Castello Sforzesco, I became immersed in the lives of the famiglia Sforza, especially that of Beatrice d’Este, the beautiful and well educated wife of Ludovico Sforza, who held court to gather around her learned men, poets and artists, such as Castiglione, Bramante,  Leonardo da Vinci and others. I’m still in search of a well written biography/history of the Sforza family.

    Unlike most travel posts, this one makes no mention of restaurants, accommodation, Italian bio or all the things travellers demand from Italy. In many senses, it relies on the reader having some knowledge of the writing of Italian humanists and Renaissance history and makes comparisons with other Italian Renaissance cities of note, Florence and Urbino. For these reasons, it was not a popular post, but it’s one of my Favorites. 

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    1. Thanks Francis. Although Bramante is said to be the inspiration behind the piazza, I’m sure Leonardo may have had a hand in it, given that he resided in Milano and his main patron was the Sforza family.

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  6. Amazing Francesca! The piazza is beautiful – even that it is still so beautifully detailed and undamaged is wonderful. I’ve actually just been reading about Lombardy – the incredible lemon houses that used to line the shores of Lake Garda. (In Helena Attlee’s fascinating ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’ if you haven’t come across it)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are still houses painted lemon along the shores of Como. I haven’t been to Garda but long to go there, now just a dream. I’ll check out that book, thanks for the recommendation Beck.

      Liked by 1 person

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