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Urbino is towards the north of the le Marche region and inland from Pesaro. It is situated nearly 500 metres above sea level, on the top of two hills that are part of the Apennines and between the valleys of the Foglia and Metauro Rivers.
Urbino is a very impressive walled town with a remarkably well preserved medieval and renaissance centre, and the highlight of a visit to this part of Italy, and must not be missed if you are in the vicinity!
Urbino is a beautiful example of a city which has preserved almost intact the structure of its brightest period, that of the Renaissance - the town was remodelled by Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1442-1482), who called the most famous artists of the time to his court to build the so-called City of the Prince.
The fame of the town was further enhanced because Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), a painter of international renown, was born here.
Although a small town had stood in this location as early as Roman times, it started to gain in importance with a defensive role in the war between ithe goths and the Romans in the 6th century.
Moving forwards a few centuries, the town had become an important regional centre by the end of the 13th century. It was at its most prosperous in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and much of the town that we see today dates from that period, above all the period during which Federico de Montefeltro was the Duke of Urbino.
Palazzo Ducale, Urbino
The Palazzo Ducale that dominates Urbino is a very important renaissance masterpiece with a great deal of interest to discover. Federico de Montefeltro created a centre of learning here and many of the most important renaissance characters stayed at the palace (the University of Urbino was established in 1506).
The Palazzo Ducale was described by Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), author of "The Courtesan", not as a palace, but “a city with the form of a palace”.
For the construction of the first Royal Palace of the Renaissance, the entire medieval town was rebuilt and it also had its shape changed because of the Palazzo Ducale.
The work of the architects Luciano Laurana and Francesco di Giorgio Martini had to cope with difficult architectural problems because of the shape of the land on which Urbino stood. It developed in three phases:
- The courtyard and balconies (by Laurana) is the most original part of the building: the façade is closed laterally by two slender towers, surmounted by pinnacles, and the centre boasts three overlapping arches.
- When Laurana left Urbino in 1472, he was replaced by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, who brought the work almost to completion, including commissioning the decoration of the façade with wings that looks toward the inner city.
- The cornices of portals and windows, and various decorations in the main halls, were built by the Milanese sculptor Ambrogio Barocci
There is a great deal to enjoy in the palace, both with the exterior facades and in the interior. Among the notable highlights are the inner courtyard, a large open space lurrounded by the renaissance buildings, and with decorative arcades at ground level; the studiolo, once the office of the Duke, is a small room decorated with elaborate marquetry wooden panels creating trompe l'oeil effects, some designed by Botticelli; and the grand staircase that leads to the rooms of the first floor of the palace
Galleria Nazionale delle Marche
The Palazzo Ducale also houses the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche which is one of the best collections of Renaissance paintings in the world, with many acknowledged masterpieces by the grand masters of the time (eg 'Flagellation' by Piero della Francesca and a 'Resurrection' by Titian.
Among the masterpieces in the gallery are the 'Portrait of a Lady' by Raffaello (better known as 'The Mute Woman'), attributable to the Florentine period of the artist. Equally famous are two paintings by Piero della Francesca: the 'Flagellation of Christ' and the 'Madonna of Senigallia'.
You can also see two paintings by Titian: 'The Last Supper' and the 'Resurrection of Christ', works originally designed for the “Compagnia of ‘Corpus Domini’” in Urbino.
In the sumptuous Throne Room is a valuable collection of Flemish tapestries, custom-designed by Raffaello.
Museums of archaeology and of ceramics are also situated in the palace complex.
In recognition of the importance of the Ducal Palace as one of the most important buildings in Italy it is now also a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Other Things to see in Urbino
Although Urbino is known above all for the magnificent renaissance Ducal Palace there are other sights of interest, and in addition to simply wandering around the historical centre enjoying the general lively atmosphere, numerous bars and restaurants and many characterful buildings, including:
Casa Natale di Raffaello
Another interesting museum is the House of Raffaello. The painter was born here in 1483 and spent the first years of his life in contact with the art, learned in the workshop of his father, Giovanni Santi (1433-1494): situated at Casa Natale di Raffaello (on via di Raffaello).
The rooms of the house include a most charming courtyard with a well, sink and pestle to grind the colours and the bedroom of Raphael, which has preserved the fresco depicting the “Madonna and Child”, an early work of the artist.
Oratories of St. John and San Giuseppe
Nearby, in the medieval quarter of “San Giovanni” [“St. John”], there are the Oratories of St. John and San Giuseppe [“St. Joseph”]. In the Oratory of St. John a cycle of frescoes of the early 15th century is preserved, by the brothers Salimbeni di Sanseverino (1416) and an excellent example of "International Gothic" style.
The Oratory of St. Joseph has a beautiful Crib by Federico Brandani (1520-1575)
Church of San Francesco
Another important religious building is the Church of San Francesco, of Romanesque-Gothic style and built in the second half of the 14th century.
It originally had two naves, but was rebuilt between 1732 and 1751 and of the ancient church there is now only the portal, with ornaments made by Constantino Trappola in 1516-1517.
The church interior has three naves, the central one wider than the side. Inside are the tombs of the parents of Raphael, and also shrines of some noble families of Urbino.
Among the works to admire we mention the "Pardon of Assisi", by Barocci and a 15th century fresco.
Other notable buildings
- Urbino cathedral, rebuilt with a neoclassical facade at the end of the 18th century, after the earlier cathedral had been destroyed by an earthquake
- several churches - a couple of the best of these are the Church of Sant'Agostino and the frescoed interior of the Church of San Giovanni Battista.
- other palaces such as Palazzo Albani, Palazzo Odasi and Palazzo Passionei
Other Urbino information
Your visit to Urbino can finish with a view from above, from the Fortezza Albornoz, from where you can enjoy the views across verdant countryside. The building is rectangular in shape and has two semi-circular towers on the inner side. The main door is located on the north side from where, via a ramp, you enter the terrace overlooking the entire city and surrounding area,
For a change of scenery visit the botanical gardens off via Bramante - they are more than 200 years old and contain an interesting and extensive selection of trees, plants and flowers.
Various festivals are held in Urbino and if possible you could try and visit during one of these: a flower festival is held in May; a jazz festival in June and a festival of ancient music in July. During the summer, the second sunday in August sees the town turned over to medieval pageantry and costumes and historical reenactments.
See also the history of Urbino
You can find more local travel ideas in the Marche guide.