The ancient city of Urbino, set in the rolling hills of the Marche, has a well-deserved reputation among cultured tourists in Italy. This is mainly because of the central role it played in the Renaissance.

 

Here, not only did some of the most astonishingly accomplished artists of the period live here (most notably the painter Raphael), but it also was a centre of financial power and political intrigue. The renaissance architecture and artistic patrimony of the city is so well preserved that the historical town centre has been awarded the much-coveted title of Unesco World Heritage site. It is a delight just to wander through the steep, narrow streets admiring the astonishing range of fine buildings and fascinating vistas.

 

The landscape is reminiscent of those landscapes painted by Raphael. It is a small city surrounded by golden sandstone walls, and is somewhat isolated from the main tourist routes as there is no access by rail or motorway, but there are regular bus services from Pesaro throughout the year, and, during the summer, from other tourist resorts on the coast. The climate is moderate, with summer temperatures averaging around 25 degrees, and the winter not falling much below 7.

The Ducal Palace - Home of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino

     

   
Video: Double portrait of the Dukes of Urbino by Piero della Francesca 1465-1472
   
Video: Ducal Palace (Ducal Palace, UNESCO world heritage site - Construction started in 1454)

   

The overpowering feel of the place is 14th century, when the city came to its full glory under the rule of Federico da Montefeltro, who ruled here between 1442 and 1482.

 

He was extremely wealthy, an able diplomat, military strategist and a passionate patron of the arts, and commissioned a major restructuring of the city according to Renaissance principals: modernity, comfort, reason and beauty.

 

Data (the Duke’s stables, housing 300 horses), which has been recently reconstructed to its former glory.

  

   

His court glittered with genius: Piero Della Francesca was developing the science of perspective, Francesco di Giorgio Martini wrote a treatise on architecture, the father of the painter Raphael (Giovanni Santi) wrote a poetic account of the lives of the principal artists of the period. Castiglione, also, was part of this constellation, writing his political treatise ‘Il Cortegiano’ (the courtier) which introduced the idea of the European Gentleman. His court was the hub of Renaissance thought.

   

   

Il Palazzo Ducale (The Ducal Palace) is the first port of call on most tourist’s itinerary in Urbino, and is truly a magnificent building, even though almost all of the original decoration and commissioned artworks are no longer in situ. The beautifully decorated doorways and firplaces are a hint of the glories that would have been present in its heyday.

The most evocative part of the palace has to be the Duke’s private study, which is a small room built within the Duke’s apartment, decorated with intricately inlaind wood panelling and furnished in the authentic style.

  

   

This was reconstructed from sections found stored in underground storerooms. Unfortunately, the most famous painting of the Duke, by Piero della Francesca, is now in the Uffizi.

The building also houses the main art gallery of the Marche, (La Galleria nazionale delle Marche) which contains, amongst many other glories of the Renaissance, Della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ and the Madonna of Senegallia, Raffaello's The Mute Woman; Giusto di Gand's Communion of the Apostles and Paolo Uccello's Miracle of the Host.

 

Another interesting feature of the Palace is the spiral ramp (La Rampa) leading to the Data (the Duke’s stables, housing 300 horses), which has been recently reconstructed to its former glory.

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Home of Raffaello Sanzio, 1483 - 1520

  

 

Self Portrait (1504 - 1506)
   

 

Video: Biography of Raffaello Sanzio
   

The other essential destination for the cultural tourist is La Casa di Raffaello (Raphael’s House) which stands on the street of the same name. It is the birthplace of the famous renaissance painter Raffaello Sanzio whose father, Giovanni, was court painter to Duke Federico, and the house is a substantial building paying testament to his status.

 

It now houses a small museum. It has a very elegant interior and is little changed since the painter’s day. It has been kept fairly unadorned, with some copies of Raphael paintings on the walls, and some other minor artworks.

 

Raphael was born in this house in 1483 and is considered one of the trinity of ‘greats’ of the Renaissance, along with Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. His work is admired for its clarity of form, ease of composition, and the visual realisation of the Neoplatonic  ideal of human grandeur..

 

A fascinating footnote to the history of the city is the extraordinary role it had during the second world war. After a tacit agreement with the allies and the Germans, a sign was painted on the roof of the Ducal Palace and the city suffered no bombings at all out of respect for the cultural value of the city and its heritage.

The superintendent of the art gallery invited others from around Italy to take advantage of this situation, and over 10,000 works of art were brought here and stored for the duration of the war in order to avoid Nazi requisition or destruction. These included works by Titian, Giorgione, Uccello, Raffaello and many more.

 

There is also a tradition of ground-breaking architecture which extends up to the modern era, particularly with the collaboration of the local council and the University with the Genoese architect Giancarlo de Carlo beginning in 1956.

 

Several interesting projects have since been undertaken, including the internal restructuring of the Bonaventura Palace, several university faculties and colleges outside the city centre. The ‘centro storico’ (historical centre) was also salvaged after many years of neglect, during which time the area, and even the Ducal Palace, was at risk of collapsing because of ground subsidence. It is interesting to see how De Carlo has succeeded in successfully resolving the problem of introducing modernity into an historic setting.

 

Urbino hosts an international Festival of Early Music each year, and there is also a lively contemporary music scene.

There are many exciting festivals in Urbino throughout the year, most notably the Festa Del Duca (on the third weekend of August) in which the glorious Renaissance is recreated, and the Festa Dell’Aquilone (the first weekend in September) in which groups representing the local  boroughs compete in jousts and other traditional sports. In the winter there is also the traditional Carnevale, with masked participants in traditional costume parading through the streets. There are also food and wine festivals where you can savour the wonderful local cheeses, wines and regional dishes.

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