Nestled in the heart of central Italy, Urbino emerges as a captivating city that effortlessly marries its rich history with artistic brilliance. This enchanting gem, renowned as the birthplace of Raphael, invites you to step into a world where cobblestone streets lead to architectural marvels.
While Florence is known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, this small hill town in the Marche region (le Marche in Italian) is where some of the greatest minds of the time lived and created. Under the tutelage of the Duke of Montefeltro, Urbino became one of Europe’s most illustrious courts known for attracting artists of all kinds. Artists, scholars and poets gathered at the duke’s equally magnificent ducal palace while discussing ideas of the day. This was the place to be for Renaissance art.
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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Understanding the Renaissance
The Renaissance, spanning the 14th to 17th centuries, was a pivotal period that reshaped art, culture, and human thought and left a remarkable historical legacy. This era emerged in response to the Middle Ages (also called the Dark Ages), driven by a rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman wisdom, an emphasis on individual humanism, an economic boom from trade, and the rise of powerful city-states.
Factors Leading To The Renaissance:
Revival of knowledge: Following the Dark Ages, the world witnessed a rekindling of interest in classical texts, catapulting Europe into a renewed pursuit of wisdom and innovation.
Rise of humanism: A central philosophy and humanism exalted human potential, encouraging intellectual exploration and paving the way for remarkable artistic and scientific breakthroughs.
Thriving city-states: Independent city-states like Florence, Venice and Urbino flourished. Their wealth from trade and banking enabled them to foster artistic patronage, supporting a climate of creativity.
Key artists and figures
Leonardo da Vinci: A true polymath, Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” remain artistic marvels, embodying his scientific curiosity and anatomical precision.
Michelangelo: Renowned for masterpieces like the “David” sculpture and the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes, Michelangelo’s work embodies spiritual and humanistic themes.
Raphael: His mastery of composition shines in his famous painting “The School of Athens,” reflecting the era’s intellectual vibrancy and idealized beauty of the ideal city.
Filippo Brunelleschi: An architect and engineer, Brunelleschi’s innovative dome for Florence’s cathedral showcased engineering prowess that epitomized the Renaissance spirit.
Giovanni Santi: As a painter and poet, Giovanni Santi created works of art that captured the essence of the Renaissance, his son Raphael later achieved fame as an artistic luminary.
Piero della Francesca: Piero della Francesca was an influential painter, known for his geometric perspective in works like “The Flagellation of Christ” and the “Baptism of Christ.” His use of mathematics in paintings helped define the period’s visual aesthetics.
Giorgio Vasari: A writer and artist from Florence, Giorgio Vasari wrote the influential “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects” which chronicled the achievements of Renaissance artists.
The Renaissance’s transformative essence resides in its celebration of human potential and innovation. Urbino, nestled within the tapestry of Renaissance city-states, holds a unique place in this rich history.
The rise of Italian Renaissance towns
I might not have known much about this place 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 all over central Italy, including Urbino. With its awe-inspiring architecture and rich cultural history, it became one of my top destinations in Italy.
Like many others in the area, this was once a Roman settlement. Later, it became a strategically placed medieval stronghold for several centuries. Eventually, it came under the rule of the Montefeltro family 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 and thinkers to his court. His curious mind and deep pockets enabled Urbino to flourish.
Artists like Raphael and Bramante flocked to Urbino, 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.
Federico da Montefeltro, the man 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.
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 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 the intellectual leaders of the time. To give you some perspective, during his reign, the library here was more extensive than that of the Vatican in Rome. It also must have been quite valuable as the Vatican later acquired it.
Urbino Italy 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.
After spending time in Federico’s court, Count Baldassare Castiglione wrote a how-to book, The Courtier, (Il cortegiano) 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.
While Urbino is a relatively small town with a high-sloping hillside and a UNESCO World Heritage historic centre, its Renaissance appearance 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 old defensive city walls, you can admire the cobbled stone streets and imagine what life during that time must have looked like. It’s easy to see the beauty that inspired those who lived here. Urbino is a treasure trove of architecture, art and culture.
Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
Dominating the Urbino’s skyline is Urbino’s main attraction – Federico’s ducal palace. Built during the 15th century with style and practicality, the palace is a wonderful throwback to this town’s glory. It houses an impressive collection of 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. He wanted to leave a lasting and powerful legacy on the place he called home.
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.
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 Urbino was built. 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 artworks and numerous archeological remains and objects from the Iron Age and the Roman Empire.
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)
This small town is the birthplace of the famous painter Raphael. The house where 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 painters.
The Urbino Cathedral (Duomo di Urbino)
Federico 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.
Urbino, an Italian gem worth visiting
Today, the town 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 ducal palace and the National Gallery are still as impressive as they 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 Urbino 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 and surrounding buildings. It might even give you a better appreciation of the man who made this place one of the greatest towns of the 15th century.
I found this Urbino 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.
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