Walled, austere and mostly built of brick, URBINO is a jumble of Renaissance and medieval houses, churches and palazzi atop a hill, dominated by the tremendous Palazzo Ducale. During the second half of the fifteenth century, it was one of the most prestigious courts in Europe, ruled by the remarkable Federico da Montefeltro, who employed some of the greatest artists and architects of the time to build and decorate his palace. Baldassarre Castiglione, whose sixteenth-century handbook of courtly behaviour, Il Cortegiane (The Courtier), is set in the palace, reckoned it to be the most beautiful in all Italy, and it does seem from contemporary accounts that fifteenth-century Urbino was an extraordinarily civilized place, a measured and urbane society in which life was lived without indulgence.
Nowadays Urbino is saved from an existence as an open-air museum by its lively university. In term-time at least, there’s a refreshing, energetic feel to the town and plenty of places to eat and drink. Although a new town has grown up in the valley below, it seems to have been almost wilfully designed to be as ugly as possible, so as to better highlight the glories of the walled upper town, which, after all, is where you’ll want to spend most of your time.
Outside the dour town walls, two places in northern Le Marche – the medieval strongholds of Sassocorvaro and San Leo – are well worth the effort it takes to reach them.Read More
SassocorvaroPerched above an artificial lake some 30km northwest of Urbino by road, SASSOCORVARO is dominated by one of Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s most ambitious fortresses. Built on the orders of Federico da Montefeltro for one of his condottieri (mercenary soldiers), Ottaviano degli Ubaldini, it was, like San Leo, designed to withstand the onslaught of cannon. Unfortunately, the site lacked San Leo’s natural advantages and Francesco was forced to seek a strictly architectural solution, doing away with straight walls and building a grim fortress bulging with hourglass towers. After the functional exterior, the inside comes as something of a surprise, with an elegant Renaissance courtyard and an intimate and frescoed theatre. It’s a tribute to the strength of Francesco’s architecture that the fortress was selected as a safe house for some of Italy’s greatest works of art during World War II, including Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation and Giorgione’s La Tempesta, reproductions of which are on show. There’s also a museum of folk life, with displays of traditional weaving, wine-making equipment and a mock-up of an old kitchen.
San LeoThe menacing fortress of SAN LEO, clamped to the summit of a dizzying precipice in the northern tip of Le Marche, has staggered generations of visitors with its intimidating beauty. Machiavelli praised it, Dante modelled the terrain of his Purgatory on it, and Pietro Bembo considered it Italy’s “most beautiful implement of war”. In fact it’s not as impregnable as it seems; one of the few invaders to have actually been repelled was Cesare Borgia, despite his having first persuaded a weak-willed retainer to give him the key.
There’s been a fortress at San Leo since the Romans founded a city on the rock. Later colonizers added to it until the fifteenth century, when Federico da Montefeltro realized that it was no match for the new gunpowder-charged weapons, and set his military architect, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, the task of creating a new one. The walls were built on a slight inward slope and backed with earth, thus reducing the impact of cannonballs. Three large squares were incorporated for the manoeuvring of heavy cannons, and every point was defended with firing posts.
From the eighteenth century San Leo was used as a prison for enemies of the Vatican, of whom the most notorious was the womanizing Count of Cagliostro, a self-proclaimed alchemist, miracle doctor and necromancer. At first the charismatic heretic was incarcerated in a regular prison, but on the insistence of his guards, who were terrified of his diabolic powers, he was moved to the so-called Pozzetto di Cagliostro (Cagliostro’s Well), now the fortress’s most memorable sight. The only entrance was through a trap door in the ceiling, so that food could be lowered to him without the warden running the risk of engaging Cagliostro’s evil eye. There was one window, triple-barred and placed so that the prisoner couldn’t avoid seeing San Leo’s twin churches. Not that this had any effect – Cagliostro died of an apoplectic attack, unrepentant after four years of being virtually buried alive.
As well as the fortress, there’s the pleasant old village to explore. St Leo arrived in the third century and converted the local population to Christianity, and the two village churches, though they failed to impress Cagliostro, are worth a visit. The Pieve was built in the ninth century, with material salvaged from a Roman temple to Jupiter, by Byzantine-influenced architects from Ravenna. Sunk into the ground behind the church is a sixth-century chapel founded by and later dedicated to St Leo, whose body lay here until 1014 when Henry II, Emperor of Germany, calling in at the town on his way home from defeating the Greeks and Saracens in Rome, decided to remove it to Germany. His plans were thwarted by the horses bearing the saint’s body – after a short distance they refused to go any further, so St Leo’s body was left in the small village of Voghenza near Ferrara. The heavy lid of the sarcophagus remains in San Leo’s twelfth-century Duomo, dedicated to the saint.
Federico da Montefeltro
Federico da Montefeltro
Federico da Montefeltro (1422–82) was a formidable soldier, a shrewd and humane ruler, and a genuine intellectual. As the elder but illegitimate son of the Montefeltro family, he only became ruler of Urbino after his tyrannical half-brother Oddantonio fell victim to an assassin during a popular rebellion. Federico promptly arrived on the scene – fuelling rumours that he’d engineered the uprising himself – and was elected to office after promising to cut taxes, to provide an education and health service, and to allow the people some say in the election of magistrates.
Urbino was a small state with few natural resources a long way from any major trading routes, so selling the military services of his army and himself was Federico’s only way of keeping the city solvent. Federico’s mercenary activities yielded a huge annual income, a substantial portion of which was used to keep taxes low, thus reducing the likelihood of social discontent during his long absences. When he was at home, he would leave his door open at mealtimes so that any member of his 500-strong court might speak to him between courses, and used to move around his state unarmed (unusual in a time when assassination was common), checking on the welfare of his people.
Between military and political commitments, Federico also found time to indulge his interest in the arts. Though he delighted in music, his first love was architecture, which he considered to be the highest form of intellectual and aesthetic activity. A friend of the leading architectural theorist Alberti, he commissioned buildings from Renaissance luminaries such as Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Piero della Francesca.