We crossed the Umbrian border into Le Marche along roads that wound round tall, craggy mountain peaks. We were headed for Urbino, one of the cultural capitals of the Renaissance. The historic centre, dating largely from the 15th and 16th centuries, has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Surprisingly, Urbino attracts fewer visitors than other Renaissance cities, presumably because of its location rather than its quality. It is all the better for its limited number of tourists.
It was here, in the middle of the 15th century, that Duke Federico of Montefeltro built the Ducal Palace, one of Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance palaces and – if you believe the proud boasts of the people of Urbino – a model for all of the others.
The fairytale twin towers of the Ducal Palace give Urbino its distinctive skyline. Unfortunately when we arrived they were wrapped in scaffolding: a little necessary maintenance no doubt!
The entrance is rather unassuming – a large door opening off a paved square next to the cathedral. But the door led into a majestic courtyard, perfectly proportioned and tastefully ornamented with columns.
Sweeping marble staircases led to wide corridors, bright with light from the many windows.
The rooms are sizeable but not overly ostentatious; decorative features were mostly limited to the doors, architraves, corbels and fireplaces.
Most of the walls were bare: they would probably have been hung with tapestries in Federico’s day. There are fragments of frescoes in only 2 rooms.
Federico clearly had a penchant for cherubs as they are a regular feature throughout the Palace. These little angels decorated a fireplace….
….and these cheeky faces were on the ceiling of his tiny, marble-clad chapel….
Some of the rooms are very grand in size, used for feasts or audiences with the Duke.
One of the most interesting rooms is the Duke’s tiny study – the “Studiolo”, covered in intarsia – an elaborate form of marquetry using inlays in wood. This room is one of only 2 surviving examples.
The windows were highly decorative, with small panes of wobbly glass.
Looking out from inside the Palace, the cathedral dome could be a watercolour painting. I think this is my favourite photo of our entire trip.
We also visited the underground rooms. Here there were kitchens, stables, laundry rooms and an ice house. Federico was all set to entertain in style.
Fittingly, since Duke Federico was an enlightened patron of the arts, inviting the greatest artists, poets and scholars to his splendid home, the Palace now houses the National Gallery of Le Marche. Amongst its collection are works by Piero della Francesca – the Flagellation of Christ and the Madonna of Senigallia – and the anonymous painting of the “Ideal City”, possibly another della Francesca masterpiece.
The star exhibit was Raphael’s “La Muta” (the Silent One), an anonymous painting of a gentlewoman. I am a great admirer of Raphael’s paintings and this one is stunningly beautiful; the woman is elegant with hands poised gracefully, referencing Leonardo’s Florentine style and the Mona Lisa. This reproduction does not do the original justice.
As well as paintings, there are lovely sculptures such as this delicate head of a woman – notice the tendrils of hair.
This Palace was a fitting home for a quintessential Renaissance man.
Next to the Ducal Palace stands the cathedral, marble fronted and well proportioned.
Opposite was the church of San Domenico, attached to a former monastery which is now a hotel. This is where we stayed for 2 nights, so the view from our cafe breakfast table was delightful, whichever way we turned.
Urbino’s houses are mostly brick, its narrow streets set against a backdrop of mountains and wide skies. It is, however, not stuck in the past, but is a very cosmopolitan place, a University city, bustling with long-limbed youth.