The one-time cultural capital of the Renaissance lures fewer visitors than its rival cities across the Apennines. People don’t know what they’re missing, says Nick Trend.
The new exhibition that opened at the National Gallery today showcases the work of the virtuoso late-Renaissance painter, Federico Barocci. Highly prized in his lifetime, he was then half-forgotten by succeeding generations, only to be rediscovered centuries later. In a way, the same is true of Urbino, his home town, and also birthplace of the more enduringly-famous Raphael.
It is an idyllic hill town where houses and palaces of weathered brick and pantiles cluster around steep narrow streets, with misty mountains stretching mysteriously beyond, like the background of a Leonardo portrait. But, because it is on the opposite side of the Apennines to Florence and Siena, Perugia and Assissi, like Barocci, Urbino has been half-forgotten by tourists and art lovers.
They are missing a treat. In its time – the 15th and 16th centuries – this was one of the cultural capitals of the Renaissance. Piero della Francesca came here to paint and write on perspective , as did Ucello, and Raphael’s father, and the great architects Laurana and Martini.
In short, this matches any hill town in Tuscany or Umbria, with a fraction of the visitors. Prices are lower, the sights less crowded and the people friendlier. Go this spring, while the peace lasts, after getting a taste for the Barocci’s brilliant paintings at the National Gallery.
Where to stay (click)
Day one10am - Explore the Ducal Palace (6) and the National Gallery of Le Marche (palazzoducaleurbino.it; entrance €5). The palace is one of the great Italian buildings of the 15th century – the central courtyard is particularly elegant, with fine Corinthian capitals around the arcades. Built by the town’s great patron, Duke Frederico of Montefeltro, it is a rambling pile which appears to shore up the western side of the town. Its rooms include a first-class collection of works by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Uccello, Titian and Barocci. But the highlight for me is the Duke’s tiny studiolo lined with brilliantly effective trompe-l’oeil intarsia (inlaid wood) depicting shelves, books, music instruments and animals. It is one of only two such rooms to survive from the Italian Renaissance.1pm - The palace cafe, just off the main courtyard, is a good place for a drink and a light sandwich lunch.
2pm - After lunch, pop into the cathedral, immediately next door to the palace. The 16th-century church was substantially rebuilt after an earthquake in 1789 with a grand neo-classical facade. It is home to three of Barocci’s paintings: a couple of early works, and a great Last Supper which, when it returns from the exhibition at the National Gallery in London, will hang once more in the Ducal Chapel next to the high altar (a copy is currently on display). Next, walk down to Raphael’s birthplace (7), stopping on the way at the Church of San Francesco (8), which has another great Barocci altarpiece, the Pardon of St Francis. Near the main west door are two marble grave slabs laid next to each other - one is the grave of Barocci, the other of Raphael’s parents. Raphael, Urbino's most famous son3pm - A few paces up the hill is where Raphael’s parents lived and he spent his early years. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a court painter to the Duke and set up his studio here in this smart 15th-century house on one of the town’s main streets. Raphael was born here in 1483 and trained at home at least until the age of 11, when his father died. There is a small mural attributed to the boy painter in one room, but the house is chiefly interesting as an atmospheric 15th-century home/workshop.4.30pm - Enjoy the late afternoon sunshine in the lovely, quiet shade of the walled Botanical Garden (9), which is 200 years old and maintained by the university. The entrance is on Via Bramante.8pm - Enjoy your evening meal at La Trattoria del Leone (10) (0039 0722 329894; latrattoriadelleone.it). Be sure to book as there are just a few tables in two, small, simple dining rooms. Specialities include rabbit with olives, bacon, sausages, passatelli and roast pork. It has a particularly good local wine list.
Day two10am - Spend the morning exploring the narrow streets and enjoying the glimpses of quiet courtyards, and the sudden surprising views of the hills beyond. Try also to squeeze in a visit to one or two of the little oratory churches. The oratories were the chapels of wealthy religious confraternities who were influential during the Renaissance. Best are the John the Baptist Oratory (11), with highly-colourful frescos of the life of the saint painted by the Salimbeni brothers in 1416; and the Oratory of St Joseph, with its lifesize 16th-century Nativity scene sculpted in plaster and set in a natural grotto.1pm - Lunch at Antica Osteria della Stella (12) (0039 0722 320228; anticaosteriadalastella.com), an ancient inn that claims to have hosted Raphael and Piero della Francesca. There is a lovely, beamed dining room and white linen tablecloths specialising in local pasta dishes such as cappelletti in chicken broth, tagliatelle with white truffle or gamey sauces.
Via Mariano Pallottini