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, Urbino 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 Italian 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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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 it all come to life. Italian Renaissance was his specialty and he did his job exceptionally. As a student, I listened to him talk of places that I knew I was going to visit one day.
Urbino became high on the list of those places in Italy.
Like many others in the area, Urbino 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 duke at age 22 and ruled for 38 years. He was a patron of the arts and welcomed to his court painters, writers, artists and thinkers. His curious mind and deep pockets enabled Urbino to flourish.
Federico da Montefeltro’s legacy
Federico started as an illegitimate son of the lord of Urbino, Guidantonio da Montefeltro. His career as a mercenary begun 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 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 Urbino 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.
Federico welcomed other great minds at his court. He surrounded himself with the intellectuals of the day, discussing new and progressive ideas that would greatly influence Europe’s ideology in centuries to come. He amassed a huge collection of art and books by artists of the time. To give you some perspective, during his reign, the Urbino library was larger than that of the Vatican. It also must have been quite valuable as the Vatican later acquired it.
Urbino court 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.
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After spending time in Urbino’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 a court and make yourself stand out in the court. The book was originally 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 of Urbino 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 Urbino 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 displayed 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.
The rooms inside the palace are flooded with light, thanks to the unusually large windows. This was not a common 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 see in Urbino
While today 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 Urbino stands. Today, the University of Urbino maintains the 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 as well as numerous archeological remains and objects from the Iron Age and the Roman Empire.
Museo Diocesano Albani
The museum is dedicated to the noble Urbino 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.
Urbino Cathedral (Duomo di Urbino)
Federico commissioned to rebuild the original church from 1021 and it was 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 religious works of painter Federico Barocci and it’s the seat of the Archbishop of Urbino-Urbania-Sant’Angelo in Vado.
Visiting Urbino today
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 Urbino is largely unknown.
If you’re a culture and history lover like me, you’ll appreciate the important 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 Urbino one of the greatest towns of the Italian Renaissance.
I found Urbino delightful. Its legacy as a cradle of culture continues today with the University of Urbino. 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 Urbino, transforming them into faculty and department building. In a way, this university town is a perfect progression for 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 route.