Urbino’s most beloved Duke is still walking the streets he ruled 500 years ago
URBINO, ITALY – On a warm June afternoon Duke Federico da Montefeltro strolled across the cobblestones of the Piazza de Repubblica, the main social square in this historic city.
He is resplendent in his bright red shirt and pants, flat hat, flowing cape, and fur shawl. A dazzling, jewel encrusted necklace draped across his chest and a silver sword hung from a waist belt.
He waved “Ciao!” to friends he recognized, and they returned the greeting with little fanfare. But his appearance seemed to stun other café patrons.
That was understandable. After all, he died 535 years ago.
“I dress up as the Duke, so I have to control the town,” joked Roberto Tempesta, a resident of this Renaissance city who takes the role of its famous founder, Duke Federico da Montefeltro at civic functions.
Portraying the role of the Duke is not only enjoyable, but also an honor.
Montefeltro is among the most interesting characters in Italian history; a man who rose from an obscure birth to become one of the most powerful political and cultural figures in Italy’s history.
According to historians, Federico da Montefeltro was born on June 6, 1422, the illegitimate son of Guidantonio da Montefeltro, then the lord of Urbino. By his teenage years Federico had so distinguished himself as a warrior he was legitimized by his father. But he remained second in line to inherit rule of the region behind the duke’s legitimate son, Oddantonio.
That changed in 1444 when Oddantonio, by then Duke of Montefeltro, was assassinated in a bloody knife attack. Federico, suspected but never proven to be part of the plot, quickly took the title and seat of power.
Federico went on to make Urbino one of the centers of the Renaissance, spreading his rule across the region and building cities that remain architectural gems today.
In 1982 Urbino decided one way to keep the Duke’s place in history visibly alive was by having a citizen portray him in complete Renaissance costume at official events in the city and region.
Sergio Tempesta was chosen to be the first “Duke,” a role he held until passing it on to his son, Roberto, in 2001.
There is no pay, and the honor comes with a busy schedule consuming many weekends each year. Events include long parades through cities at major events such as patron saint feast days, as well as celebrity-like cameo appearances at pageants, fairs and markets in communities large and small across the region.
Born and raised in Urbino, Tempesta said his part-time gig has resulted in some local fame – with or without costume.
“I work in an office and sometimes people bow before me when they see me,” he said.
“Yes, of course it’s an honor to play this role because Federico da Montefeltro is known in the entire world and every single person who sees me or watches pictures on the internet recognize me as the Duke, and this makes me really proud, and keeps the city of Urbino alive,” Tempesta said. “It’s an honor because everything this role gives to me is something that cannot be compared to anything else.”
And this is not one-man show.
Flavio di Paoli is the creative power behind Tempesta’s appearances – and appearance. He not only sets the schedule, but also designs and produces each intricate costume the Duke wears, studying Renaissance fashions to get an accurate combination of colors, patterns, and styles.
If I had the chance, I would create costumes all the time, because this is what I love doing.
“If I had the chance, I would create costumes all the time, because this is what I love doing,” di Paoli says. “The problem is, I have to organize the entire event, so the costumes just come with it.”
Tempesta described their work to be very time consuming, sometimes overwhelming, and stressful. But, in the end, “beautiful.”
“I see Urbino through the Duke’s eyes,” Roberto says. “It’s the city that makes you enter this magical world.”