by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Città di Urbino
Urbino with the Palazzo of Federico da Monteltro and the dome and campanile of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

Gem of the Renaissance

By Roderick Conway Morris
URBINO, Italy 21 August 1998


If the ideal Renaissance court ever existed it was surely the one presided over by Federico II da Montefeltro in the second half of the 15th century.

Baldassare Castiglione, the leading contemporary arbiter of etiquette and gracious living, certainly thought so, and set his international best-seller 'The Book of the Courtier' in Urbino, this gem of a city hidden away amid a central Italian picture-book landscape of rolling hills, a score of miles inland from the Adriatic coast.

Duke Federico, who ruled from 1444 to 1482, was a formidable warrior who financed the enormous palace that still rises with majestic grace over Urbino and the refined pursuits that it was famous for by hiring himself and his private army out as mercenaries. But he was equally adept in the arts of peace, and had himself portrayed in full armor calmly studying one of the books in his vast collection (wearing the Order of the Garter conferred on him by King Edward IV of England, his renown having spread by then throughout the courtly world).

Indeed, a story in Castiglione's 'Courtier,' epitomizing the philosophy of Federico's Urbino, tells of the cultured lady, who finding herself entertaining a boorish military man, invites him to dance, is refused, so invites him to listen to music, and a series of other pleasant pastimes, all of which are similarly rejected. Finally, she asks in exasperation what does he do. And on receiving the reply, 'I fight,' advises him, that because there are currently no wars or fighting to be done, he should have himself well greased and put in storage in some armory until he is next required, lest he get any more rusty than he already is.

Federico's palace, which Castiglione described as 'a city in the form of a palace,' impresses not only by its sheer size, but also by the airy elegance and variety of environments it embraces: from gardens, grand halls and lofty corridors, to intimate rooms and balconies to which the household and its guests could withdraw to enjoy private pleasures. The most beautiful is Federico's own studiolo, or study, with its wonderful trompe l'oeil marquetry paneling -- illustrating every conceivable literary, musical, artistic and scientific pursuit - designed by Botticelli and Francesco di Giorgio.

The palace was begun by the Dalmatian architect Luciano Laurana, but continued by the great Sienese builder, sculptor, painter and hydraulic and military engineer Francesco di Giorgio Martini, who entered the Duke's service in 1472. He strengthened old castles and constructed new fortifications in Federico's domains, which Federico increased threefold during his reign - including San Leo, the vertiginous aerie atop a dramatic pinnacle and the remote stronghold from which the Montefeltro family had emerged in the Middle Ages.

When Francesco came on the scene, much of the external appearance of the palace was as it is today. But he transformed it inside, 'burrowing like a mole into the existing structures, completely remolding and reordering the interior,' in the words of the architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, and creating the range of spaces that make the palace such a harmonious experience.

The completion of the colonnaded central courtyard was a particular triumph in the revival of classical architecture, and the decorative inscription running round it, enumerating Federico's titles and recording his achievements in peace and war.

Francesco's 'burrowing' also led to the construction of a huge subterranean area with cisterns, water filters, laundries, an icehouse (into which, during the winter, snow was shoveled via a shaft from the hanging gardens above), miniature Roman baths, kitchens, stables and waste-disposal chutes. Refined to the last architectural and functional detail and administered according to a set of household rules drawn up by the duke, the palace at Urbino was not only, as Castiglione wrote, 'to the opinion of many men, the fairest that was to be found in all Italy,' but also the most comfortable, salubrious and efficiently run.

The palace is now the National Gallery of the Marches, the region of which Urbino is still the cultural capital, and distributed through its apartments is a rich collection of paintings: Piero della Francesca's 'Flagellation of Christ' and 'Madonna of Senigallia'; Paolo Ucello's 'The Profanation of the Host'; Raphael's 'Portrait of a Gentlewoman,' to name but a few. Here, too, is the futuristic 'Ideal City,' one of the most elusive of Renaissance images, whose painter and precise meaning remain a mystery.

The collection is strong in works from the 14th and early 15th century, and this year the palace is offering a fine special show, 'The Flowering of the Late Gothic in the Marches,' which continues until Oct. 25. It also features other contemporary works from this region on loan from several countries, and books and fabrics.

Among the most interesting of the painters represented are the local artist Gentile da Fabriano, none of whose pictures now remain in the Marches, with four panels on show here, and the brothers Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni, who also executed fascinating frescoes - a tumultuous crucifixion scene and a sequence illustrating the life of John the Baptist - at the Oratory of St. John, near the palace.

This late-Gothic world was the one into which Federico was born - a world of medieval knightly assumptions, unquestioned pieties and sumptuous decorative surfaces - before he set off on the peregrinations of his youth, during which he drank deep of the New Learning and received the education that was to make him an outstanding patron of innovative artistic and literary forms.

The Renaissance interiors and classical features of the palace, with its miniature Temple of the Muses and Roman baths, seem an age away from these Late Gothic visions, although one feature of the building - the anomalous but charming twin fairy-castle towers - may perhaps have represented for the soldier Federico a nostalgic backward glance in a Machiavellian age to the medieval chivalric epoch.

On a picturesque hill visible from the city is the gloriously positioned and perfectly proportioned San Bernardino Church. Designed by Francesco di Giorgio, it is also the mausoleum of Federico and his son Guidobaldo. Its serene and uncluttered interior brings to mind those of Palladio and, as has now been recognized, Francesco di Giorgio had a considerable influence on his 16th-century Venetian successor. The original altarpiece here was Piero della Francesca's famous scene of Federico kneeling before the Madonna and Child and Saints (now in the Brera Gallery in Milan).

Guidobaldo died without children in 1508 and, after various vicissitudes, the dukedom was annexed to the Papal States in 1631. Later, the contents of Federico's stupendous library, which was probably greater than that of any European university at the time, were carted off to the Vatican. Happily for Urbino, shortly before Guidobaldo died he laid the foundations of Urbino's own university. There are now some 25,000 students, as against a local population of about 15,000, giving the place a young and lively profile.

Thus the spirit of Federico and Guidobaldo's Urbino lives on in what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful seats of learning in the world, and one of the most agreeable places to spend time in Italy.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023