Imagine the opportunity to lose yourself for a morning or longer in world class Renaissance art. Imagine also the opportunity to do so in one of the world’s finest Renaissance buildings. And finally, with most difficulty, imagine the opportunity to feel as if you almost have the place to yourself. That is what it felt like when we spent a glorious morning in the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, home of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche.
The palace was built in the C15 for Federico de Montefeltre, Count and the Duke of Urbino, and his wife Battista Sforza. Federico was in many ways the epitome of the ‘Renaissance Man’, a strong warrior, a thinker and philosopher and a great patron of the arts. Together with his highly influential wife (married at 14, dead at 26) he brought to Urbino some of the greatest architects and artists to build his Renaissance palace and to fill it with art of a matching quality. The paintings on show include work by Piero delle Francesco, Raphael (born in Urbino), Titian and Barocci (a native and resident of Urbino recently the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery in London – see here).
The whole palace is enormous but remarkably the central gem of the whole building is a room no more than 4 metres square, the Duke’s study
. This tiny room was decimated first with wood marquetry to represent a series of open cupboards containing the symbols of everything the Duke thought important in life; astronomy, music, art and books. There is a cupboard too containing his armour, but symbolically it has been hung up and put away. Above the marquetry are twenty eight portraits of great thinkers and philosophers who the Duke admired as illustrious men. The Duke would bring his most important guests to this place of contemplation to properly understand what he was all about: vain, quite possibly; glorious, no doubt about it.
Since then Urbino faded from view and it remains even now somewhat off the beaten tourist track but an absolutely essential place of pilgrimage for all those interested in the Renaissance. Imagine being in Florence, but without everyone else! (Please note though that there is a price you pay for Urbino being quiet. The hotels are few in number and indifferent in quality).
Urbino is not simply worth a deviation on a visit to Italy; it is definitely worth the trip to Italy to visit Urbino alone.