Italy has some of the world’s most sumptuous and elegant palaces – several of them deriving from the former castles that were set up
One doesn’t need to go very far from Lucca to find some of them out – there are some great Medici villas quite close at hand at Stazzema and at Poggio a Caiano for example.
Further afield there are the major strongholds of the great governing families of mediaeval and renaissance Italy – the Sforza and Visconti at Milan and the Gonzaga at Mantua.
But for me the greatest, most delightful and most wonderful of all these palaces is the Duke of Federico da Montefeltro’s ethereal home at the scenically placed hilltop capital of his dukedom of Urbino.
It was, therefore, out of this world for us to get to Urbino yesterday. The only snag is that Urbino is not the easiest place to get from the Lucca side of the Apennines and at this distance from Florence.
We took the road to Sansepolcro, passing the famous Madonna at Monterchi, described in my previous post, and then the hard work began. Taking the minor road from San Giustino our cinquina braved the vallico or bocca Trabaria to well above one thousand metres over the main Apennine ridge in slashing rain. Evening descended and we still hadn’t reached Urbino so we decided to stay at a lonely agriturismo which was satisfactory for our needs.
Next morning the weather cleared up and we entered the splendid golden brick city of Urbino dominated at its entrance by the tall cylindrical towers of the palace (at present under wraps for restoration)
which, designed by Dalmatian architect Luciano Laurana, epitomise that weird and wonderful mixture of culture and power of this amazingly down-to-earth, warts-and-all (as especially seen in the twin portrait with his wife in the Uffizi gallery) Duke.
The inner court of honour is the epitome of the renaissance’s sense of grace and proportion and for me counts as perhaps one of the top five of all Italian cortili I have ever walked in.
Federico’s benevolently despotic rule in the mid fifteenth century is perfectly represented in this gloriously fairy-tale like palace, which also happens to be the national gallery of the Marche. Only the older sections of the rooms are frescoed – the rest of the palace chambers are an elegant white with discrete stucchi.
When you enter the duke’s little study (studiolo), however, it’s a different world – the finest marquetry I’ve ever seen (pace Mantua) adorn it with tromp d’oeil of animals, musical instruments, city landscapes and books.
What a place to study in and think on eternal and universal subjects! This is surely the best study in the world.
And if the duke was on the move he even had a portable version, which has been pieced together in one of the rooms.
As for the paintings: there are lots of them, and some of them are worth a detailed look, but one’s eyes are inevitable attracted to four of them:
Piero della Francesca’s flagellation with its extraordinary study of perspective,
his ineffable Madonna,
the ideal city by an unknown hand but familiar to anyone who has studied book covers on renaissance architecture,
and an early Raphael of promising beauty.
I’d last been to this wondrous palace in 1997 and was very pleased to find that further sections had been opened up. In particular, the basement with its private bath, stables, kitchens and store cellars helped to complete the picture of what life must have been like at Federico’s court.
If you haven’t been to Urbino and wandered around the palace and taken in some of the incredibly steep streets of this fabled town then you are missing too much of what makes Italy so alluring and seductive!
(More photos to follow when I can download them!)