Urbino: The One-Eyed Man is King

That the British are world leaders at painful longing for things which never actually existed can be evidenced by the evergreen popularity of King Arthur, the scourge of the Romans and leader of a fabulous court at Camelot. Merlin, Morgan Le Fay, the island of Avalon, the Knights of the Round Table; because this stuff never existed, it can represent anything that you want it to. Mythology tells us how we would like to see ourselves. Urbino would be a sort of Italian Camelot, were it not for the difference that it was a real city, run by a real man, that can still be visited today and still looks remarkably similar to how it would have appeared in its semi-mythical heyday. 

When BBC4 make their frequent shows in which a presenter travels the length of an idealised Italy, Urbino is the cultural crown jewel invariably chosen to represent Le Marche. It has more in common with towns further north like Mantua or Ferrara than with most of Le Marche, being one of the great city-states of Renaissance Italy in which art and culture flourished. Urbino is best-known as the hometown of the painter Raphael, but visit and the dominant personality, the one that shaped the city itself, is that of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, ruler of Urbino for the four decades that were its zenith. When the family line died out, it being in the nature of things, the Papacy took charge and life became much quieter, apart from a busy coda when one local boy became Pope Clement XI.

Federico’s side-on portraits are amongst the most recognisable images of Renaissance painting; he only appears in profile because of a lance that went through his right eye during a jousting tournament. Like the Estes, the Gonazagas and the Medici, he used his town as a power base and his wealth to become a prominent patron of the liberal arts. Castiglione was a courtier at Urbino and his do’s-and-don’ts handbook, Il Cortegiano, was as influential in its time as Machiavelli. His big idea was sprezzatura, most commonly translated as ‘studied nonchalance’; if you’re carrying out a difficult task that requires all of your effort and concentration, do not let the effort show; make it look easy, casual, something you could do with your eyes closed- in order that you may display una bella figura.

As on our arrival, the slow train from Ascoli ends up at Ancona, where we switch for a Piacenza train that seems to be stopping in most of the great cities of Emilia-Romagna, and I feel a twinge of regret to be disembarking so early. Nestled in the Marchegiani hills and far from the coast, Urbino is nowhere near the coastal train route and the only public transport going is a 45-minute bus from Pesaro station. There isn’t time to explore Pesaro, although it is one of the more august sites on the Marche coast, and hometown of the great composer Rossini. Urbino is a very small town, bolstered by the presence of a university, and this bus seems to exist entirely for the benefit of students, who provide a lengthy analysis of the Juventus squad for the duration of our journey. The hills on the drive into Urbino are beautiful, but largely blighted by factories and warehouses. Even our thrilling first glimpse of Urbino comes with a large car showroom in the foreground.

The hilltop feels more like a mountaintop as our bus snakes slowly up its side, reminding me of Perugia. The bus terminates outside the city walls at the base of Urbino, from which there is much more climbing; thankfully our kindly Airbnb host, Alberto, has driven down to help with our luggage. The flat is just off Via Saffi, at the southern end of the walled city, and getting to the heart of Urbino entails yet another ridiculously steep climb. Like Perugia again, on the first excursion this seems murderous but once day one is out of the way, you feel entirely used to it.

The city walls enclose a lung-shaped small town that has a great uniformity, buildings and pavements all in a pale pink brick, and dominated by two steep hills; to the east, an old fortress surrounded by a park that offers a panoramic view inwards, and at the dead centre of Urbino, a hill with the Duomo and Palazzo Ducale, the latter’s iconic twin turrets straight out of a fairytale. The towers are highly decorative, and seem to be wearing Elizabethan neck ruffles in their bands of lighter stone. They contain large, white-framed windows, with balconies between the towers, indicating that Urbino was not just a simple defensive structure and the windows were not just for pouring boiling oil onto besieging armies. This is beauty; it is a step towards Neuschwanstein.

It is only a shame that our two days in Urbino were marked by foul weather -dark skies and heavy drizzle- because the hills that face the city are impossibly gorgeous and I can only dream of how they would have looked at sunrise, sunset or on a beautiful afternoon. At their heart, and just a mile or two from the city limits, is San Bernardino Church, where the Dukes of Urbino are buried.

With a mere 15,000 residents, Urbino is not much bigger than one of the villages on the Amalfi coast, and yet its artistic treasures are magnificent and left me with the feeling that we were in our own private Florence. It must be well-visited in high season, but this was one appealing aspect of Le Marche; I didn’t encounter one foreign tourist during four days in Ascoli and I think I could have counted the tourists in Urbino on both hands.

If there were no tourists there were plenty of students, who appear to vastly outnumber permanent residents. I am too far gone past university age to be able to relate to or even slightly comprehend today’s safe-spacers, but the students do invigorate the town and prevent it from feeling like a Pompeii. Our host joked that the elderly around here are all very skinny and fit, but I saw a few looking very challenged by the steep hills to the point where I almost wondered if they were here as a method of euthanasia. The students were receiving their laurea while we were there and getting up to all kinds of blasphemous antics. E. Honda, quo vadis?

Between the two hills, and just down from Piazza Duomo, is Piazza della Repubblica, the everyday square in which the folks of Urbino eat, drink, loiter and live their lives. Most of the nightlife is here, or on the streets running off it, with two cafés under a large neon sign for Campari the focal point. After Ascoli’s parade of smoked meats, we feel like our blood is 80% salt and it’s a relief that aperitivo here is closer to the usual crisps-and-peanuts affair that prevails in most of Italy. Our last night in town is Thursday, which is the big night out for students (who presumably take their dirty laundry to mamma at the weekend), when we end up drinking in a pastry shop that appears to turn into a nightclub after dark.

On the Piazza Duomo the facade of the Palazzo Ducale is an inward L-shape, and oddly reticent, leaving the Duomo to steal its thunder. It is actually a bit of a composite, Federico’s cathedral having received a statue-laden white stone facade in the C18th, following which an earthquake shattered the dome and the interior had to be reconstructed. It may be an arriviste but it is likeable on the inside with a glorious marble floor and a couple of nutty rococo chapels.

In Urbino, however, God is very much second banana to the almighty works of Federico da Montefeltro. Enter the archway into the Palazzo Ducale’s courtyard and you will see a sight that may be familiar from TV documentaries, if not the imitations it has spawned the world over. The symmetrical square courtyard is all round arches, Corinthian columns and pilasters, leaded windows with a Jacobean look about them, pink and white like some extravagant dessert. Running across the four faces is a Latin text listing Federico’s titles, qualities and achievements in an exquisite serif font, little leaf shapes separating each word, of the kind that still graces book jackets to this day.

Entry to the Palazzo Ducale is €4, which is an absolute steal. When you’ve bought a ticket from the gift shop you proceed to the rooms on the first floor, up one of those very wide and shallow staircases that Renaissance palaces always seem to have (in Bologna they say theirs was designed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages).

The palace is bigger than it looks, and looks like the life’s work of Federico. It is now used as an art gallery, but even the decor of the rooms themselves are replete with great stuff. The first room has a big fireplace with a frieze full of centaurs and whatnot; much of the art has a pagan theme. Nowadays historians go to great lengths to debunk the far-too-simple dichotomy of Dark Ages (bad) and Renaissance (good), but when you stand in front of stuff like this it’s not hard to see how the notion gained currency.

One of the more unexpected objects in the first few rooms is the wooden sleeping area that contained the Duke’s bed; essentially a room within a room, it is painted all over with intricate patterns, heraldry, fake marble effects and illustrations of birds in the trees, winged cherubs and strange things that resemble jellyfish.

Even though Popes and Napoleon made off with their pick of the Duke’s collection (the Venus of Urbino famously resides in Florence) a lot of good stuff has made its way here. There are as many paintings as you could wish for, and a great many of them are exceptionally beautiful. The collection is particularly big on large gilded altarpieces with eccentric storyboard scenes in the smaller panels.

One interesting oddity about Urbino is that ‘The Old Pretender’ James Stuart, son of the deposed King James II and father of Bonnie Prince Charlie, spent some time here. There is next to no information about this online, but according to Brian Sewell he threw himself at the mercy of the Pope after a failed uprising against the Hanoverians, and a deeply embarrassed pontiff sent his court to reside in the most remote, out-of-the-way town in the Papal States, namely Urbino, where they availed themselves of the local women and were steadily bored out of their minds. His bedroom is still called ‘la stanza del Re d’Inghilterra’, even though the English themselves had very different ideas.

Two of the most prized paintings in the palace are by Piero della Francesca. Piero is to be quite fashionable nowadays, but he divides opinion; some see the hand of a genius in his cool compositions, some think that humanity has been sacrificed at the altar of geometry. I only became properly aware of him a couple of years ago when we were in Arezzo, where the #1 must-see is his Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle that takes in huge battle scenes, the fateful dream of Constantine, and the demented medieval belief that JC’s crucifix was made from Adam & Eve’s tree of knowledge. Here we have the Senigallia Madonna, who has decorated her house in a very tasteful shade of Farrow & Ball, and the Flagellation of Christ.

The Flagellation is cryptic, puzzling, stylish and disquieting. It really gets your brain working. The beating itself is pushed to the background. Jesus stands below a gilded statue of an Emperor, and the scene is watched by a bloke on a throne with a funny hat, but what should be a visceral, gut-wrenching sight looks as cool and still and serene as a Vermeer. Furthermore, the focus is on the foreground, and a conference between three men who are not paying the blindest bit of attention to the flagellation.

It’s hard to know what to make of it all. The closest thing I could find to an English biography of Federico was Vendetta by Hugh Biceno, a book about Federico’s rivalry with the Rimini condottiere Sigismondo Malatesta (another man who knew all about building temples to himself), which is a manful attempt to render comprehensible the alternating alliances and betrayals in an era when, like a jockey in the Siena palio, a mercenary might be fighting for Venice against Florence one year, for Florence against Rome the next, and for a Rome-Florence union against Venice the year after. The author suggests that Piero’s Flagellation could be a guilt-laden allegory for the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims, an event which took place in Federico’s lifetime and caused much anxious soul-searching throughout Christendom. The book also plays down Federico’s reputation as a good and humane leader, attributing much of it to successfully disseminated propaganda; when commissioning artists, he tended not to hire the very best available but to drive the best bargain he could, even if it meant appointing a mediocre painter. The three foreground figures in the Flagellation are likened to figures from the Urbino court, the central man possibly representing Oddantonio, the brother whom we suspect Federico bumped off in order to assume control of the Duchy (in those days, killing all one’s siblings was standard practice for anyone wishing to head off potential coups d’état).

The chambers get increasingly lavish as we continue through the palace, reaching the giddiest heights in Federico’s private quarters. His small chapel reminds me of the ‘Calvinist’ chapel in Ferrara Castle which contains no images, but a dazzling selection of coloured marble. The endearing portrait of Federico setting a good example to his son by reading is very well known, and depicts gifts from the King of England and the Ottoman Sultan (his garter and the mitre).

But what is for my money the most astonishing and memorable sight in Urbino is Federico’s studiolo, an incredible conjuring trick using a method of marquetry known as intarsia. Photographs don’t quite convey the effect, but the two-dimensional wooden panels lining the room really do look like three-dimensional spaces, and the objects on the counter tops look as if one could pick them up; it is an incredible effect.

There are open cupboards containing books and mathematical instruments, mandolins, bowls of fruit, flutes, suits of armour, and perhaps the most audacious feature of all is an open window gazing onto a rural landscape. All of this is in fact flat pieces of wood, and gives the sensation that you have slipped into some strange dimension not unlike an A-ha video. It feels a privilege to be in this room and it takes us a long time before we can drag ourselves away.

The household names keep coming with Fra Carnevale’s perspective-heavy Ideal City, a vast room of tapestries after Raphael, and one of Raphael’s masterpieces in La Muta, thought by some to be his response to the Mona Lisa. Raphael is Urbino’s most famous son, yet compared to the Duke he scarcely left a trace here; his childhood home is now a museum but contains none of his paintings. We didn’t go there, but did notice one house seemingly kept up as a shrine because the mother of “the divine Raphael” (if they say so themselves) had lived there. Urbino is one of the cities visited by that Anglophile Czech Edith Templeton in The Surprise of Cremona, one my favourite books and probably the one that gave me a taste for poncing around on my itineraries of endless Italian cities; she was a deeply strange woman and a stellar wit, and it was her rhapsodic praise for the Ravenna mosaics prompted me to visit those miracles for myself. Eagerly revisiting the Urbino chapter on my return, I found that she only really visits for the Raphael connection, that she dislikes Piero, the Palazzo Ducale, and even the people of Urbino, and that the studiolo is omitted from her account altogether. Funny girl; as it comes towards the end of the book, perhaps she was burnt out by that point.

Having spent all morning and lunchtime seeing the first floor, we are aware that Urbino’s eateries are about to close for the afternoon and, once we see that the second floor begins with a hall of Barocci paintings, verify with the staff that if we nip outside for food we can come back later to see the second floor. I then proceed to lose my ticket in Il Buco, the boisterous hole-in-the-wall pizza joint much beloved by Urbino’s students, so I cannot tell you what delights the second floor might have held (this comes as a partial relief as my brain was already quite saturated).

Thus the second afternoon was chiefly spent walking. Our host Alberto worked for the university, and explained to us that the institution accounts for the lion’s share of the town’s buildings, its halls and courtyards;  much of Urbino’s treasures are therefore hidden to those visitors who confine themselves to walking the streets. His advice to us was to be nosy whenever the opportunity presented itself. I’ve never been very good at having the brass neck to slip into buildings that appear to be closed to the public, but I noticed enough to see what he meant.

The Palazzo Ducale appeared to have given us our fill of art, but this little town holds one more absolute jewel that is absolutely unmissable- the Oratorio San Giovanni, whose walls boast a cycle of frescoes by the Salimbeni brothers that, in the year of our visit, is exactly 600 years old. Hand on heart, I had never heard of the Salimbenis, and I understand that they are not well known beyond Le Marche, but I will be damn sure to remember the name from now on.

Behind the altar is a huge Crucifixion scene, and the wall to the right contains a full cycle of the life of John the Baptist. The paintings on the other two walls are substantially faded and sometimes barely there, but the aforementioned pair took my breath away.

It may not be as strange or unique as the studiolo, but it is truly great, captivating art. We paid €2.50 a ticket and to spend so long looking at the frescoes, having only two whispering restorers with a lamp and a camera for company, was a magical experience. If these paintings were in a church in Florence or Rome, fat chance of being so spoilt. Their condition is excellent, and the palette of colours really sings. The Crucifixion is a cast-of-thousands affair, split into hierarchies, social groups and clashing factions, but far more Rabelaisian than a painstakingly composed Piero. Distraught angels hold chalices up to Christ’s leaking wounds and concerned ladies gather around a fainting Mary.

John the Baptist’s scenes of river baptism and conferences with the Virgin are watched over by a deity within a strange cocoon of angelic faces.

The scenes possess a real sense of drama; every face in the crowd is a real person that appears to be thinking their own private thoughts. Had they been born 600 years later I think these boys would have made one hell of an HBO series (or a doorstop novel, had they been born 450 years later in Russia).

A monstrous demon clings onto one of the crucified thieves, a child is snatched away from a horse kicking out, little dogs lick between their legs. There are a thousand little dramas worked into the corners of each frame. You can spend a very long time in here and still manage to stumble across new details.

The lovely Alberto was so good at anticipating our needs that he double-checked the transport for our journey back. Thus we learned on the eve of our departure that Trenitalia had called a national 24-hour strike for the day of the journey, and there was much panicking. After combing all the official websites I could find, I eventually noticed a list of ‘treni garantiti in casa di sciopero’; during national strikes, for the major routes they tend to lay on one train at 7am and another at 7pm. The very first bus of the morning, at 6am, took us to Pesaro with just a few minutes to spare before the solitary train to Ancona.

Although I had originally planned to skip Ancona, events led to us having a couple of hours to kill before the airport bus, and Ancona station is not the most enchanting location in which to kill two hours. We tried walking in the vague direction of the old town, and the more we walked the filthier and more decrepit Ancona became (and not in an aesthetic necrophiliac way, like Venice). Just when it feels as if there will be no end to the sooty shanty town and its urine-soaked underpasses, you come to the port where there are at least some baroque gateways. You see an old castle on the hill to your right, and behind the port is the small promontory of land with the cathedral. I could sense my long-suffering girlfriend thinking, “I hope he doesn’t want to climb all the way up to that cathedral”. In my defence, there turned out to be a free lift that ran right from the bottom all the way to a point that was only a few hundred steps from the top.

The walk from the station makes Ancona seem like the most godforsaken shithole one could ever conceive of, but when you finally reach that promontory with the duomo, it does get better. There are C13th churches with enchanting Romanesque details, and one with a weird helter-skelter tower.

It is the escalator that makes it possible for us to see the cathedral in our strict time window, and I was overjoyed to find one just as I had begun thinking “We’ll never make it up there, what we really need is a lift, I bet they won’t have one”. The entrance is beside the foundations of a palazzo which a sign attributes to the reign of Galla Placidia, the woman who was one of the last rulers of Ancient Rome and whose mausoleum is one of the star turns in Ravenna.

Climb up all those steps, anyway, and your reward is one hell of a view over the bay of Ancona. It may not be much to see close up, but from up here it makes you think of the Bay of Naples (the view may have been enhanced by what was, after a week in springtime Italy, our first experience of sunlight). The cathedral is clad in creamy marble; I had expected it to look like the churches of Bari, but the marble reminds me more of the Venetian churches like San Marco and Miracoli.

Inside, the church is Romanesque with an intriguing crypt, and a Greek cross plan that makes me think of Venice again; specifically a larger San Giacomo dell’Orio. I’m itching to have a nose around, but they are saying mass. So, after a few minutes to soak up the mood, it’s back down on the lift and off to the airport. The lady looking after the lift smiles to see us come back after 20 minutes and asks, “Alright, what did you forget?” When I explain that we just wanted a quick look at the cathedral before catching our flight, she replies “OK”: which, successive interactions with the natives has taught me, generally translates into English as “I think you foreigners are fucking demented, but if you insist on doing it that way, it’s your funeral”. And so to London, with no little reluctance.

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