Should you ever spend your summer holidays on the Adriatic coast between Rimini and Ancona, tear yourself away from the beach for a day, travel inland for about an hour and visit Urbino, a town which is on the list of UNESCO’s cultural heritage.
Urbino is situated on the top of a hill, it is completely surrounded by a high brick wall and dominated by a castle. Leave your car in the car park at the bottom and enter through one of the big stone gates from which a street runs straight up the hill. Looking right and left you’ll see other streets running up and down flanked by houses from the Middle Ages. It depends on the season you’ve chosen if you get a crammed feeling or not, but not only because of the tourists, the town has 14 000 inhabitants and 26 000 students!
You shouldn’t only stroll around, drinking a cappuccino here and eating an ice-cream there, but also visit the Palazzo Ducale, the Ducal Palace, made of the same bricks as the walls thus creating the impression as if the whole town were part of the castle.
You can only understand Urbino if you know something about Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482), he was born as an illegitimate son of the Duke, was adopted by him and his wife who was said to be infertile, but later, when she got a child of her own, he was sent away. He became a successful mercenary in the many wars fought in Italy at the time, amassed a lot of money and when his stepbrother died a mysterious (?) death, became the new Duke.
He had the top of the hill cleared of all houses, enlarged the existing castle and turned it into a typical Renaissance court. The show façade has two prolonged towers on either side which are there only for ornamental purposes, the castle wasn’t meant to be a stronghold for defence any more. Three balconies with Renaissance ornaments run up vertically between the towers, below them in the basement were the bathrooms, the place where the body was cared for, the first balcony symbolises the entrance to the temple of the spirit, the second to the temple of the muse, the third to the temple of the mind, behind it was Federico’s study room.
If you like you can come with us today and see the castle through our eyes. We walk up a long flight of stairs (the hill is steep) to the right of the façade round the walls and come to the so-called court of wings; from the main building two wings stretch out thus forming a square open at one side symbolising the Duke’s idea of opening up to and embracing the outside world as well as inviting the people to come in.
We do so, enter through the main entrance and are in the Court of Honour which is built according to the Renaissance ideals of equilibrium and harmony. This court was also open to the public, people could come in and go from there to the library which they could use – in case they could read, of course.
How can a staircase express an idea? In contrast to the dark and narrow wooden ones of the Middle Ages with high steps the ones in this castle are well-lit, wide, the low and wide steps made of stone were meant for elegant striding, the ladies in fine gowns with their servants carrying the trains.
We are on the uppermost floor the big rooms of which are still cold at the end of March, we can’t imagine life in this castle in winter despite the big fire-places we see everywhere. In one room stands an enormous wooden box, a room in a room so-to-speak, in which the Duke used to sleep, very wise.
The first 15 rooms, formerly stately guest rooms, are decorated with religious paintings of minor importance, from room 16 on we are in the Duke’s private rooms now housing the National Gallery of the Marche (the Italian region of which Urbino is the capital). In his effort to make his castle the dwelling place of the Muses the Duke called the greatest artists of his time. Nowadays the visitors can see artefacts ranging from the 14th to the 17th century boasting some significant masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, for example two paintings by Raffael (who was born in Urbino) or The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca.
Let’s have a closer look at this painting. The picture is divided into two parts, the colourful right side is in the foreground showing pieces of an architectural structure in front of which three men are standing conversing with each other, some landscape can be seen in the background, i.e., man and man made things (buildings) have become more important than nature. The left side which seems moved further to the back shows a room in grey green colour in which soldiers hit Christ whose half naked body is tied to a column. One of the three men on the right side is said to be the Duke’s stepbrother who was murdered (I can’t stop wondering by whose hands or orders?!) dying a sacrificial death like Christ.
On the way out we all go to the clean bathrooms of the castle because the ones under the car-park belong to the filthy variety. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to look into the many workshops lining the streets and watch the artisans work. What we did see everywhere was the portrait of Federico da Montefeltro always showing him only from the left side the reason being that he had lost his right eye. His nose is shown with a very prominent hook right at its beginning looking rather odd. Legend has it that the Duke seduced a lady in the hollow trunk of an oak tree and when he had to fight a duel to defend her honour he did so with an open visor which was not a good idea, not only was the bone of his nose smashed, but he also lost his right eye.
This is what the guide books say, our guide had a different story: Federico did lose his right eye in the fight indeed, but his nose did not suffer, he had the bridge of his nose removed later so that he could look directly to the right with his good left eye without the nose disturbing the view. Well . . .