|Urbino and the Ducal Palace||| Print ||
|Wednesday, 19 January 2011|
Guided tour to Urbino and Ducal Palace
Urbino appears completely immersed in the surrounding hills that seem to merge their outline with that of its houses. The brick-work colours too, seem to blend with those of the landscape Continuous usage of bricks in construction works has created a perfectly homogeneous urban pattern.
The present outlook of the town centre is the consequence of continuous urban growth that took place ever since Renaissance times up to the 19th century, a swelling that filled all the remaining vacant spaces within the 16th century walls.
In the 15th and partly in the 16th century Urbino faced a cultural and artistic flourish primarily tied to the dynasties that ruled over it: the Montefeltro first and then the Della Rovere. Under the rule of the former, and in particular Federico di Montefeltro, Urbino was not only capital of a State, but also one of the most outstanding centres of culture and of Italian Renaissance influence. Federico became lord of Urbino in 1444. With his government, that lasted until 1482, the town became one of Europe’s cultural capitals. Its finest monument which stands out to symbolize the town itself is the Ducal Palace. Commissioned by Federico di Montefeltro its construction was started soon after the mid 15th century, and was designed by the best architects of the time: amongst the most noted were the Dalmatian Luciano Laurana and the Senese Francesco di Giorgio Martini. Expert captain of fortune, but also deft diplomat, Federico invested heavily in this enterprise, and used most of the money he had earned from the numerous military and political assignments that major Italian States entrusted him with.
In 1444, Federico was only 22 years old, but since the early age of 16 he had been in charge of a Montefeltro company under the command of Niccolò Piccinino. He was then a man of action, but above all one who wished to go beyond that Captain of Fortune image that had been the hallmark of his family's tradition. Always in touch with the greatest Italian families of the time and deeply keen on humanistic culture, he had wanted a palace that could best represent his image and the culture he had embraced: no more a fortress therefore, but rather a civil abode with all comforts and fit to host a great court.
The palace, set upon the top of the hill was made to jut out and overhang the slope in order to gain more space. Right beneath it a square, that Urbino badly needed, was built: it is the large square of Mercatale.
Up the wide steps, the first great monumental staircase in the history of Italian civil architecture, one arrives at the piano nobile which today house the National Gallery of the Marches. Here are exhibited primarily the works by painters from the Marches, or works that had been painted for the Marches from the 14th century to the 17th century, including some unique masterpieces like Piero della Francesca’s “The Flagellation”. This is one of the most important works of Italy's 14th century period and one of the most enigmatic. Up to date scholars have not made any headway in the definite interpretation of its contents. This yet, further increases the charm that surrounds this work of art. The immobility of the figures, the care of each detail, the perfect proportions of the parts, relay a feeling of monumentality that smaller dimension works rarely convey. Also nearby stands Piero della Francesca’s “Madonna di Senigallia”.
From the study the Duke could pass directly to the high loggia between the two turrets. The view up there opens on a breathtaking landscape that stretches as far as the horizon which was then the border of the Dukedom of Urbino.
But here is the portrait, painted by Pedro Berruguete, of the Duke in all his glory with his small heir Guidobaldo. As military commander, Federico had himself portrayed with his armour on, as a humanist, with a large book in his hands. Visible also are the outstanding honours he had received from both the English and Aragonese rulers: the order of the Garter from the former, the Ermine -Collar from the latter. He is portrayed in profile because of an accident that occurred in his youth when during a joust, a lance blow had disfigured both his nose and part of his face.
The windows give on to the hanging gardens today completely restored. It is one of the most delightful places of the Palace. Along the walls, a communication passage connected the Duke's apartments to those of the Duchess.
The Hall of “Angels” derives its name from the frieze of the big fire place. It is one of the largest and most beautiful rooms. Doors and portals are amongst the richest in the whole Palace both for the refinement of the marquetry and the recurrent use of gold and blue colours. Here are exhibited some of the Picture-Gallery works like the so called “Ideal City” which is perhaps the most inspiring among all the perspective works of the Renaissance. The author is unknown, but it is certainly a painter that comes from the surroundings of Urbino. The 'Communion of the Apostles' by Giusto de Gand and Paolo Uccello’s “Story of the Profaned Host” are also kept here.
The hall of the feast is one of the largest rooms of the time, designed for this purpose. Today unfortunately we see it emptied if its old furnishings. It only houses large 17th century tapestries, reproductions of those that Raphael himself had designed and that are in the Sistine Chapel.
The apartment of the Duchess exhibits two works of Raphael. One of the Florentine period’s masterpieces, the so called “Muta”, and a little painting of the early period showing Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The former is a portrait to which up to now, no certain name could be given. This mysterious figure perfectly set within a background of which the most minute details are visible, confer on the whole picture a sense of universal humanity.
Raphael Sanzio was born in Urbino in 1483 and the town still preserves his birthplace which is open to visitors. Inside we can see a small size fresco portraying the Holy Virgin adoring the sleeping Infant: it is one of the master's early youth works.
The whole city is made of ups and downs. Some of the most renowned alleys are: Sant'Andrea, Piola San Bartolo, la Voltaccia, Santa Chiara. Some are very steep; never straight, all made with bricks. Some open suddenly on unexpected views. From along the alley of San Giovanni one has the best view of the city and of the Palace. The name refers to the church of Saint John the Baptist that houses one of the most precious series of frescoes that the late Gothic period has left. They are by the Salimbeni brothers, from San Severino Marche, who worked in Urbino sometime in 1416. They depict with fantasy and liveliness, typical, of the late Gothic style, the history of Saint John the Baptist: his miraculous birth, his preaching, Jesus’ baptism, etc. The colours are bright and variegated with subtle shadings, the drawing very delicate. On the back wall a great Crucifixion is painted with dramatic and overpowering tone, but rich in descriptive details: the scene depicts Mary fainting and beside her a mother chasing her child, a horse bucking, a dog licking its paw.
Not far away, in the Oratory of Saint Joseph we see yet another art treasure: a human scale crib in stucco by Federico Brandani, another great master from Urbino, made in 1545.
Higher up, from the wide open space where the 14th century tower of Albornoz rises, one has the full view of the city: the Palace, the large mass of the Cathedral, the handsome gothic steeple of the church of Saint Francis. The landscape is stunning with the vast expanse of hills outstretching as far as the Apennines. Further away rises the church of San Bernardino that Federico commissioned and that Francesco di Giorgio Martini designed. It is a fine example of 15th century architecture. The interior is bright and of those pure Renaissance forms that are neat and simple.
Urbino doesn't however owe its fortunes to the Montefeltro and to the Della Rovere alone. One more important period in the history of Urbino was to come at the end of the 18th century when Giovanni Francesco Albani from Urbino ascended to the papal throne with the name of Clemente XI.
Due to the Pope’s personal attention and more, to that of his young nephew, Cardinal Annibale, Urbino's several ancient buildings and urban layout underwent renovation. In particular, all the interiors of the city’s conventual churches still bearing gothic styles were restructured: the church of Saint Augustine, those of San Domenico and Saint Francis. In the latter, the beautiful altarpiece that depicts in all its splendour 'The Pardon of Assisi' by Federico Barocci, the other great 16th century painter from Urbino, remains.
The Cathedral on the contrary, takes its new forms from the Neoclassic style. In fact when in 1789 the dome collapsed, the entire Cathedral underwent full restructuring. Giuseppe Valadier one of the best architects and at the time supervisor of Saint Peter's, was entrusted with the assignment. The Sacramento Chapel, which maintained its original design, contains yet another extraordinary painting by Barocci: 'The last Supper'. Very bright colours and the strongly pathetic tone as well as the insertion of familiar scenes in the sacred themes, are the typical style strains of this author. The close-up rendering of the details is so realistic as to nearly suggest a forerunning of Caravaggio's style.
Urbino is not old history alone. The presence of the University drove the administration to seek more modern-oriented infrastructures: but the authority of ancient heritage has forced contemporary architecture to take due notice of the tradition, and to understand and respect it.
New architectural solutions, once again unique for the most part devised by the architect Giancarlo De Carlo, have been brought forth. The University colleges have been distributed along the slopes in order not to interfere with the features of the hilly landscape and also so as not to shroud the view of the old city. The Faculty of Education, housed in an old historical building, has been arranged in such a way as to maintain the homogeneous pattern of the city by preserving the external structure of old bricks, while the interiors have been completely changed by new, daring plans.
In this ancient city the old and the new face each other, stand in contrast to each other and somehow have learned to gracefully blend together.