italian renaissance, urbino

Discover Urbino: Italian Renaissance Gem You Need to Visit

While Florence is known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, the small town of Urbino is where some of the greatest minds of the time lived and created. Under the tutelage of the Duke of Montefeltro, it became one of Europe’s most illustrious courts. Artists, scholars and poets gathered at the duke’s equally magnificent Renaissance palace while discussing ideas of the day. This was the place to be.

While Urbino had its golden age during the Renaissance, most people travelling to Italy today have never heard of it. That’s also why it’s not as crowded as other well-known places. With its historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this small walled city offers stunning views and plenty of history for any culture lover.

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The rise of Italy’s Renaissance town

I might not have known much about Urbino if it wasn’t for one of my university profs. Professor Bartlett told fantastic tales of the past, bringing the Italian Renaissance to life, and I was hooked. His passion for this era was infectious, and I soon found myself dreaming of visiting the very places he spoke of. With its awe-inspiring architecture and rich cultural history, it became one of my top destinations in Italy.

italian renaissance, urbino
Spectacular Italian Renaissance town

Like many others in the area, this was once a Roman town. Later, it became a strategically placed medieval stronghold for several centuries. Eventually, it came under the rule of the House of Montefeltro during the 15th century. It then rose to prominence when Federico da Montefeltro became the duke.

While Federico was a mercenary soldier, he was also an influential and fascinating man. He became a duke at age 22 and ruled for 38 years. He was a patron of the arts and welcomed painters, writers, artists, and thinkers to his court. His curious mind and deep pockets enabled the town to flourish.

Artists like Raphael and Bramante flocked to the town, creating some of their most iconic works under the Duke’s patronage. Even today, you can still see the lasting impact of Federico’s reign on the town’s stunning architecture and rich cultural heritage.

Looking for more places in Italy to explore? Check out Genoa, Cagliari or Palermo!

Federico da Montefeltro, the man behind who ruled here

Federico started as an illegitimate son of the ruling lord, Guidantonio da Montefeltro.  His career as a mercenary began around age 16. He was extremely successful at his job, which also made him a very wealthy man. It also equipped him with a wide range of skills and knowledge that played an important part in establishing his legacy.

He became the Duke of Urbino in 1444 after the death of his half-brother Oddantonio. There were suspicions that Federico had his brother assassinated. However, the fact that Oddantonio was very unpopular means that he had many enemies. Any of them could have done the deed on their own accord or on Federico’s orders.

italian renaissance, urbino
Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca / Public domain

While Federico was a mercenary, he was a well-educated one. He was well-versed in music, mathematics, astronomy, geometry, Latin and the arts. He also invested his money into transforming his stronghold into an important Renaissance centre. He was always painted in profile and is probably most recognizable from the above painting by Piero della Francesca. Apparently, Federico lost his eye and part of his nose in his youth, explaining why he preferred the side profile. It’s a memorable one that you won’t soon forget.

Federico welcomed other great minds to his court. He surrounded himself with the intellectuals of the day, discussing new and progressive ideas that would greatly influence Europe’s ideology for centuries to come. He amassed a massive collection of art and books by artists of the time. To give you some perspective, during his reign, the library here was more extensive than that of the Vatican. It also must have been quite valuable as the Vatican later acquired it.

Urbino and the Rise of the Renaissance Man

You might have heard the term used before, but what exactly is a Renaissance Man? Where does the name come from? A Renaissance Man is defined as someone cultured, educated and proficient in a wide range of fields from the arts, sciences and humanities. Some of the famous Renaissance men include Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. There were numerous others in later centuries, and the term is still used today, although not as often.

If you enjoy reading this post, you might like 10 Reasons to visit Italy!

italian renaissance, urbino
The Ducal Palace courtyard

After spending time in Federico’s court, Count Baldassare Castiglione wrote a how-to book, The Courtier, as a guide for aspiring courtiers. It provided advice on how to succeed in court and make yourself stand out. The book was initially published in 1528 in Italian. It was then translated and sold all over Europe. The book was the basis for the term Renaissance Man and is a fascinating look into a Renaissance court’s life.  

The Duke was a gentleman and a scholar. A soldier and an intellectual. He studied Latin and collected manuscripts. He was the patron of the arts and surrounded himself with luminaries of his time. He was the quintessential Renaissance Man. It’s not surprising then that the term came out of his court.

Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale)

Dominating the town’s skyline is Federico’s grand palace. Built during the 15th century with style and practicality, the palace is a wonderful throwback to this Italian Renaissance town’s glory. It houses an impressive collection of Renaissance paintings and numerous frescoes, sculptures, tapestries, and drawings in over 80 rooms.

Federico employed the architects Luciano Laurana and Francesco di Giorgio to expand the original home’s central façade and towers that stood here. Unlike other military castles of the day, Palazzo Ducale was built for comfort and pleasure. You can see that implemented in the three-story loggia and the large windows, not found in military castles. This Renaissance Man wanted to leave a lasting and powerful legacy on the place he called home.

italian renaissance, urbino
Palazzo Ducale

The rooms inside the palace are flooded with light, thanks to the enormous windows. This was not a standard feature for fortifications at that time. Small windows were more practical for deterring intrusions and made more sense as a defence feature. Clearly, Federico had grander plans. He employed Francesco di Giorgio to build smokeless fireplaces and introduced numerous other innovations. Combining beauty and practicality was his primary goal.

Other Things to Explore

While Urbino is a relatively small town, it has the power to wow visitors as they arrive. Make sure to pause and enjoy the breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside from the top. Once inside the walled city, you can admire the cobbled stone streets and imagine what life during the Italian Renaissance looked like. It’s easy to see the beauty that inspired those that lived here. This little Italian Renaissance town is a treasure trove of architecture, art and culture.

Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico)

The garden was established in 1806 by Giovanni De Bringole. It’s divided into three inclined terraces along the side of the hill on which the town was built upon. Today, the University of Urbino maintains a garden full of plants, ponds and pathways.

Marche National Gallery (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche)

Located inside the Palazzo Ducale, the gallery features a collection of Renaissance paintings and numerous archeological remains and objects from the Iron Age and the Roman Empire.

italian renaissance, urbino
These views never get old

Museo Diocesano Albani

The museum is dedicated to the local noble family Albani. It houses a collection of glass, ceramics and various religious items.

Oratorio di San Giuseppe

This red-brick medieval church is known for its nativity scene (presepio). Inside you’ll also find several brightly coloured frescoes by Lorenzo and Giacomo Salimbeni.

Raphael’s House (Casa Raffaello)

Urbino is the birthplace of the famous Renaissance painter Raphael. The house he was born in 1483 is now a museum. While the building had several reconstructions by subsequent owners, it houses copies of Raphael’s paintings, sketches and tributes from other artists.

italian renaissance, urbino
The Cathedral

the Cathedral (Duomo di Urbino)

Federico had commissioned to rebuild the original church in 1021, and it was finally completed in 1604. After suffering extensive damage from an earthquake in 1789, the cathedral got a substantial upgrade. Today, its grand neo-classical façade houses the religious works of painter Federico Barocci, and it’s the seat of the Archbishop of Urbino-Urbania-Sant’Angelo in Vado.

An Italian gem worth visiting

Today, Urbino might not be as well-known as it was during the time of Federico da Montefeltro. It’s a small town on a hill with stunning landscapes all around it. The palazzo is still as impressive as it must have been to visitors in those days, but the town is relatively unknown.

If you’re a culture and history lover like me, you’ll appreciate the critical role it once played. As you wander through the historic centre, you’ll realize that you’re walking on the same streets as Raphael and other greats once did. You might imagine the thinkers and artists that gathered in the palazzo as you stroll through it. It might even give you a better appreciation of the man that made this place one of the greatest towns of the Italian Renaissance.

italian renaissance, urbino

I found this small town delightful. Its legacy as a cradle of culture continues today with the university. Established in 1506 as an academic institution, the university was fully recognized as such in 1671. During the 1960s and 1970s, the university bought up numerous decrepit buildings in town, transforming them into faculty and department buildings. In a way, this university town is a perfect progression from the Renaissance town it once was.

You probably won’t need a whole day in Urbino. It’s a small town best reached by car or bus from larger towns like Pesaro or Fano. You can use this guide to help you plan your visit, but to truly experience the magic of a time gone by, consider staying here overnight.

Travel Planning Resources

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