Urbino—Hilltop Heart of the Renaissance

Urbino, hilltop heart of the Renaissance that is home to Raphael and harmonious architecture

How could a town at the heart of the Italian Renaissance be so often overlooked by art-loving travelers? The only plausible answer is that Urbino, a hill town in the scenic Marche region, needs a little work to get there.

The most convenient rail station to Urbino is some 30 minutes away, by bus or car, in the Adriatic beach resort of Pesaro. No major highway off-ramp lies near Urbino. Yet once a traveler, winding through the Marche’s green, gentle hills, sees Urbino looming ahead, the iconic twin towers of its ducal palace dominating the panorama, the rewards for making that extra effort to visit the town are instantly plain.

That both Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) and Donato Bramante, a Renaissance architect, were born in or near Urbino, seem fitting. The compact town, with its historic heart perched atop two hills and its steep stone streets sloping toward Renaissance-era walls, is a living repository both of masterpiece paintings and exceptionally aesthetically-pleasing architecture.

Little of its physical construction is changed from its heady days more than 500 years ago when the ducal court enjoyed renown as one of the most enlightened and prestigious places during the Renaissance. The cover of Italian travel magazine Bell’Italia once summed up Urbino this way: “The Renaissance lives here.”

Imposing yet elegant, expansive while finely proportioned, the palace is the star of Urbino. Take a leisurely half-day to explore it, all the while breathing in an atmosphere that, centuries later, still conveys how the court of the Duke of Montefeltro of Urbino, Federico, was celebrated as a capital of culture and learning.

The palace is also home to the National Gallery of the Marche, whose painting collection includes Raphael’s ”The Gentlewoman,” also known as “the Mute One,” for the closed lips of the woman posing for the portrait. The model was possibly Duke Federico’s daughter. Other stars of the collection are works by Titian and a pair of paintings by Piero Della Francesca, notably his “Flagellation,” which was commissioned by the duke. Curiously, Raphael’s work and the paintings by Piero Della Francesca’, were all stolen one night from the gallery in 1975, and all found, intact, a year later.

The duke won fame as a skillful warrior, astute politician and humanist. Of this last trait, you will have to be convinced as soon as you step inside the duke’s study, marvelous beyond compare. Its walls feature intricate designs of inlaid wood, executed with an exquisite perspective on par with the best painters of the time. The designs make the walls appear as if they actually are three-dimensional bookshelves, filled with stacks of books and journals and objects like an hour-glass and a knight’s armor. The inlay effect is so cleverly achieved that walls resemble cupboards with half-opened, lattice-wood doors, but it’s all a wonderful illusion.

The motifs of the inlaid wood reflect the duke’s passions, including astronomy, music, books, and architecture. As for real books, the duke had a very rich collection which wound up in the 17th-century in the Vatican Library.

Also to be admired is the Courtyard of Honor, a jewel of architectural harmony that is the heart of the palace complex.

The palace art galley displays a portrait of the duke, with his high forehead, receding hairline and a hooked nose. Those who have visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence might have admired an even more celebrated portrait of the duke, in a scarlet gown and a matching hat, painted by Piero Della Francesca and displayed alongside a twin portrait of the duke’s much younger wife, a pale Battista Sforza. When his wife died, at only 26, the duke, two decades her elder, was said to have been heartbroken.

The palace commands charming views of the hilly, often terraced, Marche countryside.

Urbino’s reputation as a center of learning continues vibrantly today. It is home to a university, which draws international students as well as Italians, and includes a school of journalism considered among Italy’s best. The young population keeps the town lively. It also means that trattorie feature hearty and reasonably priced meals to be washed down with local wines, with no pretensions and much hospitality.

Strolling the steep streets give one’s calves a workout. Often peeking out from the end of narrow lanes are fine glimpses of the hills surrounding the town.

Two streets are named for native sons — Via Raffaello and Bramante, the architect whose celebrated commissions included works on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Along Via Raffaello is the house where Raphael was born and raised, learning painting from his artist father, The house has a charmingly simple courtyard, and on its walls is a fresco painting of a Madonna and Child by Raphael. Although done while he was still a youth, the painting strongly hints at the expressive portraits Raphael would produce in his career. In this case, a serene-looking Madonna holds a secure-looking, sleeping Baby Jesus.

Regarded as one of the Renaissance’s most complete painters and certainly one of its most popular in his lifetime, Raphael died young even for those days, at 37. Urbino, along with other Italian cities that are home to his masterpieces, is expected to hold special initiatives in 2020 to mark the 500th anniversary of his death.