Discover a lesser-known Renaissance gem by spending one day in Urbino, Italy, deep in the hills of Le Marche.
Are you searching for an Italian Renaissance town that has all the charm and history of Florence or Assisi but a fraction of their visitors?
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Urbino, the cultural capital of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, attracts far fewer visitors than its rival cities.
Situated in the hills of Le Marche on the wrong side of the Apennines, the mountain range that forms Italy’s spine, it spawned and nurtured Renaissance art luminaries such as Piero della Francesca and Raphael and the great architects Laurana and Martini.
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A Short History of Urbino, Italy
Urbino’s golden age was in the 15th century when the powerful Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1444-82), one of the giants of the Italian Renaissance, established his court there. A military leader, a man of letters and a patron of the arts, under his stewardship, Urbino attracted the greatest artists, architects and scholars of the day and became a thriving artistic centre.
But by the end of the 16th Century, Urbino had faded into provincial anonymity, largely because of its separation from other cultural centres on the western slopes of the Apennines.
However, this may have been a fortunate accident of geography. Avoiding the later development that blighted its erstwhile rivals, Urbino is one of the best-preserved Renaissance cities in Italy.
A Tour of the Renaissance Town of Urbino, Italy
Luigi, the guide for our day in Urbino, meets us at the top of the slope opposite the Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale), from where we can look out over the pantiles crowning the town’s rooftops.
Today, Urbino doesn’t appear to have changed much since the days when Duke Federico of Montefeltro was walking its streets. Steep, narrow lanes – Luigi tells us navigating these streets in winter can be challenging – are lined by houses and palazzi of weathered red brick.
Rising above the town, Fortezza Albornorz, Urbino’s defensive fortress, keeps watch over the town and across the undulating countryside receding into the distance. A real-life version of the Italian Renaissance paintings that Urbino’s artists spawned.
The Ducal Palace, Urbino (Palazzo Ducale)
Our day in Urbino starts in the exquisite main courtyard of the 15th Century Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale), in Luigi’s words:
… the most beautiful example of what the Renaissance means
This is all about balance and harmony; an almost square courtyard, with five series of six Corinthian columns, featuring a comic strip of Latin script.
Built by Duke Federico da Montefeltro, this is one of the largest palaces in Italy and Urbino’s main tourist magnet.
In the 15th Century, 10% of Urbino’s 5,000 strong population loved here, nobility upstairs and servants in the lower floors. A Renaissance Upstairs Downstairs if you like.
Federico made his mark throughout the Ducal Palace. Literally.
On walls, ceilings fireplaces and window frames, his name appears wherever you look: ‘Federicus Urbini Dux’ or ‘FE DUX’ for short. Although the rooms of the Ducal Palace are mostly plain, its vast fireplaces and elaborately decorated doorways are evidence of the palace’s past splendour.
The most striking room is Federico’s private study, a small space within his apartment, with beautifully inlaid wood panelling. A photograph would not have done it justice.
Duke Federico da Montefeltro married first at the tender age of 15, but this union did not result in any children, at least not with his wife.
After his first wife’s death, he married again at the age of 38 to a woman 24 years his junior. The ceremony took part the Ducal Palace’s Painted Room which has been fully restored after years of damage. Would you believe that its walls had been whitewashed?
This second marriage produced eight children in 12 years, the last being the longed-for son and heir. Fate wasn’t kind to his wife, who died from pneumonia after the birth of their son, Guidobaldo.
However, Duke Federico’s family line died with him. Guidobaldo was impotent and died from gout at the age of 36. On his death in 1508, he was succeeded by his nephew Francesco Maria I della Rovere, thanks to the support of his uncle Pope Julius II.
There is only one remaining portrait of Federico da Montefeltro in the Ducal Palace. The most famous painting of him is a diptych with his second wife by Piero della Francesca, which hangs in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.
During a horseback joust, a lance broke his nose and removed his right eye. Consequently, he was always painted in profile, showing the left side of his face.
Renaissance Art of the Ducal Palace
The Ducal Palace is a treasure trove of Italian Renaissance art. Many of these paintings were not originally housed in the palace but in churches, evident from their religious nature.
The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca, is a textbook example of the use of perspective. Luigi invites us to find the vanishing point of the painting:
Look at the shadow cast by my hand and see how I connect all of these lines. That is the vanishing point. People in the foreground look bigger; those in the distance look smaller
Surprisingly, the flagellation itself is in the background of this masterpiece. Prominence is given to an unknown group of men standing in the foreground. Although there are many interpretations as to who they are and what they represent, a popular theory is that this painting is an allusion to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Variously attributed to Piero della Francesca, Luciano Maurana and Francesco do Giogio Martini, The Ideal City depicts a 15th Century city landscape that is almost devoid of human activity. With its open doors and windows, this city appears suspended in time, waiting for something to happen.
Raphael in Urbino
But Urbino’s most lauded son is Raffaello Sanzio, better known to English speakers as Raphael. Born in Urbino in 1483, this painter and architect, together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, formed the Holy Trinity of Renaissance masters.
Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Woman, also known as La Muta (or Silent Lady), is displayed in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, housed in the Ducal Palace, and is the next stop on our day in Urbino.
This portrait of an unknown noblewoman takes its name from her facial expression and sealed lips. As Luigi put it:
She is sad or is not willing to share her emotions and steps inside herself. Maybe grief or she is in pain. Maybe she is a widow more than a silent lady.
Today, we can only speculate.
Casa Natale di Raffaello, Urbino, Italy
Raphael’s birthplace, Casa Natale di Raffaello, is a short distance from the Ducal Palace.
Today, this attractive house is a small museum but does not display any of Raphael’s paintings. There is a fine ceiling fresco but there is no certainty that he painted it.
Raphael’s father was the court painter to Duke Federico da Montefeltro, who died the year before he was born. Under the patronage of Federico’s son, Guiobaldo, the court continued to flourish artistically.
After Raphael lost his parents early in life – his mother at the age of eight and his father when he was 11 – he was raised by uncles. At the age of 17, he started travelling and working outside of Urbino, to Perugia, Sienna, Florence and Rome.
Raphael spent the last part of his life working in the papal city for Julius II and Louis X. On his death in 1520, he was buried in the city’s Pantheon.
Today, Raphael is in the company of the Kings of Italy.
When I visited in 2019, Urbino’s famed cathedral was closed for restoration due to damage sustained in the 2016 earthquake. It’s not clear when it is due to reopen.
Plan Your Visit to Urbino, Italy
How to get to Urbino
It’s safe to say that Urbino is not the easiest Italian town to get to. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing as this deters the crowds that descend on the more popular and accessible tourist honeypots of Tuscany and Umbria.
Getting to Urbino by plane
- Urbino doesn’t have an airport.
- The nearest airports to Urbino are Ancona and Rimini. For a broader choice of airlines, fly into Bologna, 166 km north-east of Urbino.
- All of these cities are served by the railway line that stretches down Italy’s Adriatic coast.
Getting to Urbino by train
- The closest train station is Pesaro, 37km to the south-west. Pesaro sits on the railway line that connects Bologna and Rimini with Ancona. Trains are frequent but make sure that you buy the right ticket for the service that you are taking and note that reservations are compulsory on some services.
- Regional trains (Regionali) are marginally slower but far less expensive than the Intercity services.
- It can sometimes pay to book in advance.
- Don’t risk a fine. Validate your train ticket in one of the machines at the station before your travel.
- Take one of the buses that leave from Pesaro railway station for Urbino. If you can, catch one the faster services, that make this journey in 45 minutes, rather than a slower local service.
Hire a car
Having your own set of wheels offers the greatest flexibility.
Visiting Urbino on a shore excursion from a cruise ship
Ancona was my final port of call on an Adriatic Sea cruise. As it would not have been possible to get to Urbino independently and be assured that we would be back in time for the ship leaving port, I visited Urbino on a shore excursion organised by the cruise company.
Where to stay in Urbino
As I visited Urbino on a shore excursion from Ancona, I didn’t stay overnight. However, I have found a few choices of centrally-located accommodation for those on a mid-range budget:
B&B Villa Paradiso – This bed & breakfast, less than ten minutes walk from the centre of Urbino has garnered fantastic reviews.
Residenza Ambrogi B&B – Located just outside Urbino’s walls, a ten-minute walk from the Ducal Palace, this choice is praised for the hospitality of its owners and for its breakfasts.
B&B Albornoz – Located in the centre of Urbino, close to Casa Natale di Rafaello, this bed & breakfast has also attracted great reviews.
Why I Think Urbino is an Italian Renaissance gem
If you are looking for a town that matches any hill town in Umbria or Tuscany, Urbino is it.
The better-known Renaissance gems of Florence and Siena, Perugia and Assisi are undeniably wonderful. However, chances are you will be sharing elbow room – and selfie space – with hordes of other visitors ticking these places off their cultural tour of Italy.
Half-forgotten by tourists and art lovers, Urbino’s sights are not crowded, prices are lower and the town has a relaxed and friendly feel.
Go before word gets out.