Urbino: a hilltop town full of hidden treasures

After being  inspired by Raphael’s painting in Rome’s Villa Farnesina, I decided to pay a visit to his hometown, the medieval city of Urbino in the Marche region of Italy.

From Rome I took a train to Pesaro and then hopped on the bus, passing lush green countryside on the way up to this hidden gem. When I hopped off I looked up and saw the town and its famous ducal palace looming above me (unfortunately with the particularly striking palace facade covered in scaffolding but that wasn’t too disappointing).

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The palace was built by Federico III da Montefeltro, a duke who ruled Urbino from 1444 until he died in 1482. He was a key figure in the Italian Renaissance, encouraging young artists like Raphael and building up one of the biggest libraries outside the Vatican at the time. His means of funding his passion for the arts was not so romantic however, as he made his fortune as a professional mercenary.

I remember coming across this picture of Federico by Piero della Francesca in Florence’s Uffizi gallery. I was struck by his interesting nose- he apparently lost his nasal bridge and his right eye in a jousting accident.

uffiziI headed straight for the ducal palace on the first morning of my stay in Urbino. So did all the tour parties. I spent most of the visit trying to dodge them, especially the ones full of noisy teenagers. Sometimes I stopped to listen to a few explanations, so they were useful in a way. But I started reminiscing about the times I’d visited villas with almost no-one else there.

When you first enter the palace, you come into a light and airy courtyard, which apparently became a blueprint for other similar courtyards in grand palaces around Italy.

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After paying the very reasonable 5 euro entrance fee, I wandered up the wide monumental staircase. I particularly liked the beige marble decorations in here, which had grotesque-like patterns on them.

marblestInside the palace, there are halls and halls full of art treasures. I also admired some of the original art of the palace, although not many furnishings remain and some decorations have been badly damaged. Here are some frescoes on the walls of the Men at Arms room that I liked:

menatarmsroomThe room next door contained a huge painted wooden box bed. People used to sleep inside these wooden caskets to keep warm in winter, according to a tour guide I overheard.

boxbedAnother interesting part of the palace was Federico’s small study. This had intricately decorated wooden panels depicting symbols of the liberal arts such as musical instruments, as well as pictures of prominent philosophers and saints, the Illustrious Men.

cabinetI also liked these stained glass windows, created by Timoteo Viti and dated between 1470-1523. They show the Annunciation and the coat of arms of the merchant Guidalotti family.

stainedglass2After finishing my visit to the Ducal Palace, I wandered back into the town, had lunch, then headed to the home of one of my favourite artists, Raphael, who was born and brought up in Urbino.

raphaelhouseThe house, now converted into a museum, contains mainly copies of Raphael’s greatest works, and a few pictures by his father Giovanni Santi and his contemporaries. The most interesting feature for me was this wall fresco in the room where Raphael was apparently born on the Holy Friday of 1483 (coincidentally today is Good Friday 2014). Portraying Mary and Child, the fresco was originally attributed to Santi, but some critics believe it could have been an early work by a young Raphael.

raffrescoAfter visiting the house I walked up to the Albornoz fortress, a great point to admire a panoramic view of Urbino. I stayed here for a while and enjoyed the scenery like many other Urbino residents and visitors.

urbgirlsLater on I also visited the oratory of San Giovanni Battista, which had a truly amazing set of early 15th century frescos by Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni. Restoration works were underway with lots of scaffolding around the walls, but I still got a sense of the magnificence of the art and would recommend visiting when you are in town! As it’s Good Friday, here is an image of the main fresco of the crucifixion:

crucisI also visited the Cathedral of Urbino, and enjoyed a glass of local wine in the square around it. I particularly liked the white neoclassical facade. Statues on the top of the church represent Faith, Hope and Charity, while others portray saints.

urbinocathedralUrbino was exceptionally vibrant for such a small provincial town, partly due to all the university students. Its piazzas were really buzzing at night. So it’s a fun place to include on a tour around central Italy. One should prepare for quite a bit of exercise, because everywhere you go you have to climb up and down hills. The food I tried here was so lovely and so varied that I am going to save it for a separate blog post. Hope you enjoyed my tour of the sight-seeing gems for now.

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6 thoughts on “Urbino: a hilltop town full of hidden treasures

  1. I’m glad that you appreciated Urbino, the Oratory is probably my favourite bit and not everyone visits it.
    As a side note: buses of teenagers are nowhere to be seen outside April and early May (when school tours are on) and it’s often possible to visit the palace and Urbino without having to fight against the crowds.
    Have a look at my Le Marche Photo Blog if you wish, for images of other amazing and (even more) unknown places in Le Marche. http://lemarchephotoblog.blogspot.com

    1. Hi Giulia, tx for your comments. I looked up the buses from Rome, which are another option, but they weren’t going at the times I wanted… the train and bus worked out fine for me as I had all day to get there 🙂 Bus could be better if you’re short on time…

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