Urbino: Fit for a Duke

Backstreets of Urbino, Italy
Urbino is just right for strolling.
Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy
Ducal Palace, Urbino
By Rick Steves

Urbino is famous as the hometown of the artist Raphael and architect Donato Bramante, yet the town owes much of its fame to the Duke of Montefeltro. This mercenary general turned Urbino into an important Renaissance center, attracting artists such as Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, and Raphael's papà, Giovanni Santi.

Today, Urbino is a small remote town of 24,000 — the majority of whom are students studying at the local university. Its primary economy is in serving the students, rather than tourists, and in spite of its historic and artistic importance, it feels far from the Italian mainstream. Since this was Vatican territory for more than 200 years, you'll see lots of churches.

A classic hill town (1,650 feet above sea level), Urbino has a medieval wall with four gates. Two main roads crisscross at the town's main square, Piazza della Repubblica. Called simply "the Piazza," this is café central — a great place to nurse an aperitivo or coffee and feel the town's pulse. There's barely a level road, with ridged lanes fading into steep stairways, giving hardy locals traction as they clamber about the village. While everything's a steep hike, it's a small town and the climbs are short.

Orientation to Urbino

Apart from the ambience, Urbino can be "seen" in half a day. Ninety percent of the tourist thrills are in the Ducal Palace. The only other must-sees are the Oratory of St. John and the town view from the fortress.

Arrival in Urbino: The big entry square (Piazza Mercatale) holds an underground garage where buses stop and cars park. The old town looms above you. While it's a short hike through the old gate up Via Mazzini to Piazza della Repubblica at the center of town, it's very steep. Fortunately, there's an elevator to lift you up fast and easy to Corso Garibaldi. From here, it's a short, level walk to Piazza della Repubblica. The public WC is just below the main square on Via Mazzini and near the Ducal Palace.

Sights in Urbino

Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale)

Built in the mid-1400s, the Ducal Palace is a sprawling and fascinating place. While the rooms are fairly bare, the palace holds a few very special paintings, as well as exquisite inlaid-wood decorations. It's a monument to how one man — the Duke of Montefeltro — brought the Renaissance to his small town, about 50 years after it started in Florence.

Self-Guided Tour: Your visit is simple: the library and basement (off the main courtyard) and the first floor. The second floor was added a century after the rest of the building; it's filled with porcelain and Mannerist paintings — you can skip it. Precious little is explained in English. Buy a book or follow this basic self-guided tour. (Keep in mind that some items may have been relocated since this description.)

Courtyard: Just past the ticket desk, you'll enter the courtyard, exuberantly Renaissance in its flavor. Architect Luciano Laurana patterned it after the trendsetting Medici palace in Florence, with the same graceful arches atop Corinthian columns. Their light color contrasts pleasantly with the darker colored brick. In the upper story (added later), windows and half-columns match perfectly with the arches and columns beneath them. Notice how the courtyard bows up in good Renaissance style — it collected rainwater, helping power the palace's fancy plumbing system.

Library (Biblioteca del Duca): When the pope took over Urbino in 1657, he also removed the duke's collection of more than 2,000 manuscripts — Duke Federico had preferred manuscripts to newfangled books — transporting them back to the Vatican. Today, the library displays the travertine (soft marble) reliefs that used to decorate the palace exterior with scenes of work and war. The duke's eagle-in-the-sun emblem on the ceiling symbolizes how he brought enlightenment to his realm.

Basement (Sotterranei): Wandering through the basement, look for bits of exposed plumbing, a huge cistern-like refrigerator (where snow was packed each winter), and a giant stable with a clever horse-pie disposal system. The palace is so big — with five levels and several hundred rooms — it was called "a city in the shape of a palace."

First Floor: Your route is a one-way system with numbered rooms and meager English descriptions. The first section — the guest rooms — is now filled with the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, the most important collection of paintings in the Marche region. At one time, this palace held many of the highlights of Florence's Uffizi collection (such as Titian's Venus of Urbino). As the Vatican army was about to take the city, the last duchess fled to Florence and later married a Medici. She took with her as many of her family's art treasures as possible — quite a dowry.

Room 1: The fireplace — with an orgy of Greek-style decoration — is typical of the Renaissance, celebrating the rebirth of the cultural greatness that Europe hadn't seen since the glory days of ancient Greece and Rome. Piero della Francesca's Flagellation is worth a close look. Pontius Pilate, dressed as a Turk, watches Jesus being whipped — an allegory of the Turks threatening Christendom. The three men on the right seem to discuss how Europe will handle this threat from the east. Notice how, in true Renaissance fashion, Jesus stands under a column capped with a classical statue. Together, Jesus and the pre-Christian god seem to illuminate the ceiling. To a Renaissance thinker, there was no contradiction in celebrating Christian and pre-Christian ideals simultaneously.

The Duke's Study: The duke's richly paneled study is the highlight of the palace. Take time to really look at the exquisite inlaid images. Note the mastery of perspective (for example, the latticed cupboard doors appear perfectly open). Let the duke share his passions: art, culture, religion, war, love, music, and caged birds. The period instruments include a delightful lute with a broken string. The duke considered himself an intellectual, inspired by the many great scholars he portrayed on the walls higher up.

Room 20: In the duke's bedroom, the inlaid door shows a medieval fortress facing a Renaissance palazzo— a clear allegory of how war brings darkness, while the new enlightened thought leads to a wide-open sea (in the background), a symbol of good and cultured living. The mercenary warlord put his initials— FEDVX (Federico Duke)— over the palazzo rather than the old-school fortress.

Room 21: This is called the "Angels' Room" for the fun-loving angels — with golden penises — decorating the fireplace mantle. The whole idea in these humanistic times was that life is good — angels can party, and people are invited, too. It's dolce vita time! Note the painting of the ideal city by Luciano Laurana — the primary architect of this complex and marvelous palace.

While Laurana's city was never built, it shows the "divine proportions" of the day — emphasizing balance, harmony, and light. The church is round, like a classical temple. Uninhabited, with black windows, it has a metaphysical feeling. A utopian city...is it possible? The only hint of real life: two tiny birds. Nearby, the long, skinny panel by Uccello tells the sad story of a Christian woman who pawns some communion bread to a Jewish moneylender. He toasts it and it overflows with blood. She is executed, and so is the Jew (with his entire family — children and all, burned at the stake). Because she asked for forgiveness, angels at the woman's deathbed wait to catch her soul the moment it vacates the body (normal exit path: through the mouth). The devils at her feet don't stand a chance.

Room 23: This room features the early-Renaissance paintings of Giovanni Santi, Raphael's father.

Room 25: You'll find the actual Raphaels here. The prize of the collection is Raphael's Portrait of a Gentlewoman (a.k.a. La Muta), a divinely beautiful portrait of a young woman. (Some think this artwork is a hidden self-portrait of Raphael.) Her hands are perfectly realistic. One possible interpretation of the scene is that the woman has accepted an offer of marriage: Her necklace is knotted (her heart is tied up); she holds a letter (which told of the offer); and the portrait was sent to the nobleman who asked for her hand. Her melancholy but determined face seems to say, "This is a serious commitment that I am ready to undertake." Raphael painted this (as Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa) with oil on wood. Mussolini, thinking it only right that at least one great Raphael should reside in the hometown of the master, had this piece moved from Florence to Urbino. The tiny altar wing (to the right) was purchased from the Marcos estate in the Philippines.

Room 28: Look out the window for a good view of the lower town — the palace is built right on the edge of a cliff. The cluster of houses below you was the Jewish ghetto (synagogue on lower left, with the two semicircular windows). The fortress on the hilltop guarded the town. Today, it offers a postcard view of Urbino — worth the climb (see "Fortress View," below).

Leaving the Palace: Locals consider the adjacent cathedral an eyesore for its towering Neoclassical facade. In a town of fine Renaissance facades, this church (built after an earthquake destroyed the original in about 1800) sticks out like a sore thumb. Next to the cathedral is the bishop's residence, and across the street from that is the City Hall with its three flags: Europe, Italy, and UNESCO (the town is proud of its World Heritage Site status).

Oratory of St. John

The Oratory of St. John (San Giovanni), the only other important interior in town, is worth a look for its remarkable frescoes. It was built by a brotherhood dedicated to St. John the Baptist. They were committed to performing random acts of kindness while wearing masks, in order to be humble about their Christian charity. The interior tells the story of the life of St. John the Baptist, from the events leading up to his birth to his beheading at the request of Herod's dancing daughter Salomé (the scene where Herod presents his head to the femme fatale is missing).

Study the exuberant scene engulfing the Crucifixion. The two thieves crucified alongside Jesus meet their eternal fates — the soul of the man who repented is grabbed by an angel, the other by the devil. The mischievous devil was given mirrors for eyes — sure to freak out the faithful 600 years ago. Above it all, a pelican pecks flesh from its own breast to feed its children — symbolic of the amazing power of Christian love.

This fresco was painted in 1400, before the Renaissance arrived in Urbino. It's a good example of the last stage of Gothic — called "International Gothic" — characterized by lots of color, jam-packed with detail and decor, and featuring a post-plague "we survived, let's enjoy life" outlook. Take a peek at Urbino circa 1400 in the people and slice-of-life corners of this art.

Before you leave, check out the view of the Duke's Palace and the ghetto from the little room adjacent to the chapel.

Fortress View

For the ultimate Urbino view, complete with its hilly countryside, climb up to the fortress (closed but surrounded by a grassy park). The Franciscan church spire, on the left, marks the main square. The hill behind that is the site of a huge kite festival (first Sun of Sept). In the distance, on a ridge to the right, is the duke's mausoleum, with the cypress trees next to it marking the community cemetery. The city gathers around the immense Ducal Palace. To the right of the palace, you can see today's parking lot, once the parade ground for the duke's army. The long front of its once-immense horse stables leads to a round tower, which provided a spiral ramp for horses to romp right up to the palace.

Sleeping in Urbino

The hotel scene is limited to a few comfortable, expensive places; the TI has a line on lots of families renting rooms.

Urbino Connections

Urbino is easier for drivers, but public transportation is an option. Buses link Urbino with Pesaro, on the Ravenna–Pesaro train line (buses run hourly, 1-hour trip). From Venice, Florence, or Rome, trains leave for Pesaro almost hourly and take 3–5 hours. The Pesaro bus stop is 100 yards from the train station in Piazza Matteotti. In Urbino, buses come and go from the Piazza Mercatale parking lot below the town, where an elevator lifts you up to the base of the Ducal Palace (or take a 5-minute steep walk up Via Mazzini to Piazza della Repubblica).