Library History

Joseph Connors 
Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture 
Harvard University

Francesco Maria II della Rovere (1549-1631), sixth and last duke of Urbino, was a bookish and prudent prince, the polar opposite of his spendthrift father, Guidobaldo II della Rovere. He devoted himself to bringing prosperity back to Urbino, with fiscal reform, and measures to root out corruption, and to protect widows and orphans and curb outrages against the Jews. He demolished the fortress his father had built in Urbino to keep the populace in subjection. He preferred diplomacy to war, and used the paintings of his favorite painter, Filippo Barocci, as diplomatic gifts. One brought him the Golden Fleece from Philip II of Spain. He was a trusted friend of the shy and melancholic Barocci, and when the painter died, he entered in his usually laconic diary this moving note: “Federico Barocci of Urbino has died, excellent painter, at age 79, when his hand and eye served him as they had when he was young.”

Portrait of Francesco II della Rovere by Frederico Barocci

Francesco Maria II married for a second time in 1599, after a childless first marriage, and a boy was born in 1605 on May 16, the feast of S. Ubaldo, the patron saint of Gubbio, whose
specialty was the miraculous birth of heirs to the dukes of Urbino. The baby was christened Federico Ubaldo. Francesco Maria II built a church in Pesaro to commemorate the birth, but the main monument to the newborn was a great library,
built in 1607-09 in a park attached to the Palazzo Ducale at Castel Durante, the duke’s summer residence. The shelving was designed by a young Urbinate architect, Nicola Sabbatini (1574-1654). Sabbatini would go on to become a talented court festaiuolo and the author of the most famous book on stage design of the early baroque, the Pratica di fabricar scene, e macchine ne’ teatri, published in 1638. The shelving of the library was his first work. It was certainly splendid and we might say a bit theatrical, worthy of Sabbatini’s later career and of the great literary and festive traditions of the duchy.

For as long as the child, Federico Ubaldo, lived, the claims on the duchy of the papacy and the Grand Duke of Florence would be thwarted. He was betrothed to Princess Claudia de’ Medici in 1608 at the age of three, and in 1622 the couple was
married and in 1623 produced an heir, Vittoria della Rovere. Federico Ubaldo turned out to be a wastrel, however, and died young, before he could succeed to the dukedom, possibly by poisoning, certainly after a period of riotous living. The voracious pope, Urban VIII Barberini, immediately laid claim to the duchy of Urbino, to take effect as soon as the old duke Francesco Maria II died. In his honor, the summer retreat of Castel Durante was renamed Urbania. Vittoria della Rovere was betrothed as a little girl to the heir of the Grand Duke of Florence and took with her the fabulous art collection of Urbino. This is why there are so many Raphael’s, Titian’s and Piero della Francesca’s in the Uffizi today. Everyone has heard of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which was in the baggage of this prudish little girl. When Francesco Maria II died in 1631, papal troops moved in and until the Risorgimento Urbino would be a papal possession. What we now call the Palazzo
Ducale of Urbino was renamed the Palazzo Apostolico. A later pope, Alexander VII, the pope of Bernini’s colonnade of St. Peter’s, took the manuscript library that had been built up by the great Renaissance duke, Federico da Montefeltro, in 1657. It is now one of the treasures of the Vatican Library. A decade later Alexander VII shipped the 13,000 printed books of the library at Castel Durante / Urbania to Rome to furnish the Biblioteca Alessandrina, the great Borromini library next to S. Ivo alla Sapienza.

della Rovere crest on the ceiling of the Fabbri Library

The room and the shelves of the Castel Durante / Urbania library stood empty for years. Gifts of duplicates and stray books hardly made up for the tremendous loss. Around 1870, Sabbatini’s shelves were removed. The building itself was demolished shortly after the Second World War. The shelves, however, survived. Following a route that we still cannot precisely trace, they entered the clandestine antiques market, and made their way by ship in 1915 to the townhouse
that Egisto Fabbri was building for his brother, Ernesto Fabbri, and sister-in-law, Edith Shepard Vanderbilt Fabbri, on East 95th Street. This precious cargo was transported in two different ships, since the sinking of the Lusitania earlier in 1915 made everyone nervous.

In the vault of the library we see the arms Francesco Maria II della Rovere, the last duke of Urbino. They combine the Montefeltro arms – the umbrella of Federico da Montefeltro as Gonfaloniere della Santa Romana Chiesa, with the della Rovere oak. At the bottom of the arms, as though hanging from a gold chain, we see the Golden Fleece, a dignity awarded to Francesco Maria II by the king of Spain when he was still a young page at the court in Madrid. The coat of arms (in stucco on a very large slab of stone), and the shelves by Sabbatini, all of 1607-1609, bring us back to the days when the duchy of Urbino looked like it would retain its independence and its art, and would be a center of learning with two of the greatest libraries – of manuscripts and of printed books – in Italy. They speak of a time when men believed in the power of books. We should imagine these shelves filled with the books of Francesco Maria II della Rovere, the one Italian prince of the Baroque for whom it might be said, like Prospero in the Tempest, that “his library was dukedom enough.”