Urbino seen from the north-west. Source: Home in Rome. Absolutely click on the image!
Urbino really emerges so unexpectedly, without any transition on the mountain-top among the green hills, like the medieval castles in the book of hours of the Duke of Berry. Other medieval Italian towns are encircled by large zones of modern suburbs, but Urbino was tailored so disproportionately large by the 15th-century building activity of the Duke Federigo da Montefeltro like the coat of a newborn puppy, so that the town has not yet managed to entirely fill it up. True, in the course of the last century a modern university quarter has been established to the north of the walls, but it completely disappears between the green hills, only the students fill with vitality the city in the twenty-four hours of the day.
However, the main view of the town is from the south-west, as it appears for the first time to the traveler coming from Florence or Rome. The impressive twin towers with the three-storied loggia between them look as if this were a colossal main gate of the city, monumentally increasing the proportions of the town and of the palace. This, however, is a well calculated architectural trick. In the reality the towers flank the back-windows of the palace, whose main entrance opens on the other side, towards the main square. Urbino keeps up the appearance outside, but inside it lives its own life.
This fascinating town is in fact surprisingly small. You can walk through it from the north to the south in ten minutes – true, in the other direction you need at least twice as much time because of the enormous difference in level. Nevertheless, the visitor feels it spacious and large, for it is rich, refined and vivid, and it has everything that is necessary to perfection: good restaurants, cafés and enotecas, that is wine-shops visited by the locals, museums and palaces, churches and oratories with religious companies active since the Middle Ages, good bookshops, university clubs, art workshops, Bible reading circles, associations of mushroom gatherers and alpinists, botanical gardens and many green spots. It is like a small-scale model for every other Italian town, an ideal city as it has been regarded since the Renaissance, and as it was represented in the idealized image by Piero della Francesca in the gallery of the Palazzo Ducale, one of the most distinguished galleries of modern Italy.
Photo of Bill Storage
The most illustrious monument of the town is naturally the Palazzo Ducale founded by Duke Federigo in the second part of the 1400s and built by several outstanding masters who all had learnt their craft in Florence. Due to their excellence and their mastery of the new architectural language shaped by Brunelleschi, the palace is not only the very first Renaissance building created outside of Florence, but also the most beautiful Renaissance palace in absolute. Our friend Péter Farbaky, one of the best researchers of Quattrocento art in Hungary has pointed out that this edifice inspired several important details of the – since then vanished – late 15th-century palace of King Matthias in Buda, from the marvelous ground-floor arcades through the studiolo to the hanging garden looking at the hills – of Marche and Buda, respectively – and visually merging with them.
The bookshop in the native house of Raffaello is the richest source of the literature on the local history of Urbino. The great amount of these publications demonstrates both the self-consciousness of the town and the vigor of the local workshop of urban history. A remarkable part of these works are signed or introduced by the critic, historian of French literature, senator and university rector Carlo Bo (1911-2001), whose name has been adopted by the university of Urbino. From the abundant selection we have purchased the monograph of Urbino by Franco Mazzini, the catalog of local houses and palaces by Franco Negroni, the photo album by Pepi Merisio with the descriptions of Carlo Bo and Ermete Grifoni, and the 18th-century description of Urbino by two cardinals of Clement XI who was a member of the local Albani family. We will also present them later here, on our blog.
A great part of the only English book on Urbino written by June Osborne and illustrated with beautiful photos can be read in the library of Google. But, strangely, we cannot find much more on the web about Urbino. In Italian only some summary lists of monuments, while in other languages not even that much. But the web only reflects what we have also seen in the reality while traveling in Marche: that this province has not yet been discovered by tourism, unlike its counterpart on the other side of the mountains, Tuscany. Interestingly, only some American journals and blogs publish some competent descriptions about the town and its surroundings, by Christopher Solomon in the Times, by David VanderVelde from Kansas, by Anne & Kirk Woodyard from Washington, or in the Sunday supplement of the Independent. The author of this latter article, who meticulously describes hour by hour his day spent here stayed in the same hotel where we did: in the Albergo Italia.
At the reception of Italy Hotel – with the poster of the Carlo Bo memorial conference in the background – a postcard from 1934 advertises that it counted as a prestigious hotel already at that time. Curiously, if you do not require a room with hill panorama then this is also one of the cheapest hotels in the town. Sitting at the breakfast tables under the arcades of the inner courtyard we have a view of the hillside from where at the previous sunset we have taken the above photo of the town seen from the south-west. It is a strange feeling to sit in your own photo.
Nevertheless, if you do not only spend a half day here as we did now, you can also do what we have long wished to do: to stay for some days in an agriturismo, an ancient lonely farmhouse in the nearby mountains converted into an inn. There are plenty of such places all over Italy, and especially in Marche. The accomodation is less costly, more archaic and perhaps also more personal than in the town, the environs are splendid, and you must only make up your mind to drive some kilometers along zigzag mountain roads even in the late night after a dinner taken in the town. Places like this include for example the Colcello, the Cà Gnoni, the Girfalco (“Falcon-flyer”, where you can also learn hawking, and whose panoramic photo taken from here was inserted above), or the Locanda della Valle Nuova, whose young mistress Giulia and her parents practice bio-economy in their several hectares large estate, maintain a small library of local history for their guests, organize courses of wool-dyeing, and she writes a blog in English on the sights and events of the zone. To go through the web sites of the several dozen similar places in the neighborhood is a magnificent travel in itself.