Words and Photographs by David Warren Grunner
If on a summer’s day you find yourself standing in il Mercatale, the large piazza-turned-bus terminal beneath Urbino’s ancient city walls—look up. Against a sky of childish blue, you’ll witness an orchestra of swallows filling the air, engaged in dizzying acrobatic feats above the city’s Ducal Palace. The juxtaposition is brilliant—a silent, staid Renaissance structure frozen beneath a sky abuzz with avian daredevils.
Urbino, literally little city, rises almost organically from out of the hilly landscape of the northern regions of Le Marche. The vibrant center of a constellation of small, walled cities and towns that freckle the countryside, Urbino remains, even to this day, unconnected to the intricate system of railways that wind through Italy like a path of steel veins, joining towns and cities to one another. Instead, one must either come by bus or by car. And, yet, this only adds to its charm. Approaching on a July morning, one winds down narrow roads adjacent to sloped fields ablaze with sunflowers until, unexpectedly, the city emerges. The nearly theatrical character of its appearance is intentional—the two towers of Urbino’s Ducal Palace were constructed on angle so as to meet the gaze of visitors and welcome them to Duke Federico da Montefeltro’s court. The dramatic effect—a visible manifestation of the Duke’s prowess—remains as potent today as it was hundreds of years ago.
The pomp and bragging rights are, after all, well earned. One cannot understate Urbino’s Renaissance significance. A city of art and learning, its court served as the inspiration and, later, the setting for Baladassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, the definitive sixteenth century account of courtly life. More importantly, perhaps, Urbino is the birthplace of the Renaissance master Raphael (nee Raffaello Sanzio) whose presence is felt throughout the winding city streets. Walking up the aptly named Via Raffaello from La Piazza della Republica, Urbino’s central square, visitors can duck inside the unassuming and humble birthplace of the artist, once home to his father, an artist and poet before him. For those brave enough to tackle the entirety of Via Raffaello by foot—a city whose central quarters must be taken in on foot, Urbino’s steep hills are not for the faint of heart—a small park dedicated to the artist awaits. From this point, on a clear day, one can spy the Adriatic in the distance, its pellucid blue meeting the sky and obfuscating the horizon. On summer nights, the city’s children gather to play hide-and-go seek, using the marble busts of poets and writers as well as the towering statue of Raphael himself as hiding places.
Urbino’s labyrinthine streets are dotted with churches, oratories and chapels, each unlike the other. One of the most striking, the fourteenth century Romanesque-Gothic Chiesa di San Francesco (dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi), rests within the small square near the bottom of Via Raffaello, Piazetta delle Erbe, which is home to a small farmers market throughout the week. San Francesco’s bell tower, speckled with grass, looms large above the small square. A journey through the adjoining winding and narrow alleyways will take you to a true gem hidden behind the city walls—l’Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista (The Oratory of Saint John the Baptist), a small chapel dating from the 1300’s whose walls are covered in frescos painted by the Salimbeni brothers.
The city’s Ducal Palace, a 15th century Renaissance structure and now UNESCO World Heritage site, stands, as it always has, in the heart of Urbino. Entering via the small square adjacent to the city’s cathedral, a vaulted passage way lets onto il Cortile d’Onore, the palace’s interior courtyard, a touchstone of Renaissance geometry and architectural equilibrium. Imposing high ceilinged halls with frescoed walls give way to smaller galleries and balconies that offer views of the surrounding hillsides. Most importantly, the Ducal Palace houses the National Gallery of Le Marche—a stunning collection that boasts works from the likes of Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Titian and Barocci. Perhaps the greatest treasure of Urbino’s collection is the 1470 canvas The Ideal City, attributed to Piero della Francesca, which hangs on the far wall of a smaller gallery and can be read as a portrait of Urbino itself.
In the summer, Urbino bustles. Its cobblestones streets are filled with tourists, wide-eyed with cameras in hand. International students flock to the city for exchange programs and language immersion courses, mingling themselves with the locals who are generous and known for their hospitality. Throughout these summer months, Urbino hosts literary and artistic events, academic conferences open to the public, and baroque and classical music concerts that go late into the night in the various courtyards throughout the city. Now in its second year, Urbino is also home to a unique and burgeoning program, Shakespeare in Italy, a fourteen day actor’s residence dedicated to exploring and celebrating the Bard’s fascination with Italy. The city’s fortress, tucked within a park commemorating the resistance to Fascist rule, which offers breathtaking panoramic vistas of the city from on high, was once home to the yearly kite flying competition. The height of summer celebrations arrives in mid-August, when Urbino hosts its annual Festa del Duca, a three day long celebration during which the historical center of Urbino is returned to the Renaissance.
Come the autumn and winter months, however, Urbino becomes a sleepy city filled with those who flock to its University—one mustn’t forget that, for all intents and purposes, Urbino is a university town, home to a 16th century university with, at any given time, to nearly 13,000 students. These students, both Italian and from across the rest of the EU, breathe life into the city, filling the squares and cafes long after the tourists have absconded.
Still, even in the face of its history, its plethora of cultural institutes, its rich and varied culinary offerings and, most importantly, its unparalleled beauty, Urbino remains a secret to many outside of Italy, drawn more to the majestic and fabled cities of Rome, Venice and Florence. Yet, though she be but little, she is fierce—spend a couple of days in Urbino and, as you watch her disappear in the rearview mirror while you meander down the same slender roads you travelled upon to reach her, you’ll find all your stay nearly impossible to forget.