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.
Perched 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 traditional rural life, with displays of traditional weaving, wine-making equipment and a mock-up of an old kitchen.
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.
Top image: Urbino, city and World Heritage Site in the Marche region of Italy © Stefano_Valeri/Shutterstock