The original capital of the Duchy of Montefeltro (35 km from Pesaro) extends across the top of two hills. Its houses and churches are built down each hill as far Porta Lavagine on the north-east slope and Porta Valbona to the south-west.
This is one of the major art towns in the world, both because of its history and for the many buildings and works of art which are housed here. Its origins are extremely old but documentation of its history begins only in the 3rd Century BC, when Urvinum Mataurense received the title of Roman municipality (remains of its wall and theatre still survive). Its strategic position proved to be a great advantage during the conflicts of the feudal period, when the town allied itself with the Ghibellines. When Antonio da Montefeltro repressed a revolt in Rome against the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, he was given the title of Count and appointed Imperial legate of Urbino in 1155.
This was the beginning of the link between the city and the Montefeltro dynasty, which lasted, despite periods of conflict and strife, until the family died out. The first period of artistic patronage was under Count Guidantonio, when the two Salimbeni brothers, Lorenzo and Jacopo, from San Severino Marche, were commissioned to fresco the Oratory of San Giovanni in 1416. They were followed by Ottaviano Nelli of Gubbio and Antonio Alberti of Ferrara, who each carried out several works in Urbino. After the death of Guidantonio (1443) and the murder of the young Oddantonio (1444), it was under Federico II da Montefeltro, Count and then Duke, that Urbino reached its greatest period of artistic splendour, particularly after the Duke had thwarted the expansionist ambitions of Sigismondo Malatesta in 1463 and had established territorial supremacy over the lands of Montefeltro. Under Duke Federico the medieval residence of the Montefeltros was expanded and decorated, first by Luciano Laurana and then by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, to become the splendid Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace).
This magnificent architectural masterpiece, with its twin towers (‘Torricini’) and inner courtyard, now houses the prestigious Galleria Nazionale delle Marche which includes such masterpieces as Piero della Francesca’s “Flagellation” and “Madonna of Senigallia” and Raphael’s “La Muta”. The palace stands as an eternal monument to the memory of Duke Federico, his son Guidubaldo and their splendid Court, with its fine rooms – from the ‘Salone del Trono’ (Throne Room) to the unique ‘Studiolo del Duca’ panelled with splendid inlaid wood and decorated with portraits of famous men. But walking around the hilly streets and alleyways of Urbino itself, there is still plenty of evidence of its long artistic and cultural history – the neo-Palladian Cathedral, rebuilt by Valadier after the 1784 earthquake, the church of San Domenico, with its magnificent portal, built in travertine stone, over which stands a copy of the lunette by Luca della Robbia, the Medieval church San Francesco with its fine pointed Gothic bell tower and great altar-piece by Federico Barocci, the Oratory of San Giuseppe with its famous ‘Presepe’ (Nativity Scene) by Brandani, Palazzo Albani (15th-18th centuries) and the nearby Church of Santo Spirito (16th Century) and the birthplace of Raphael, which now houses the Accademia Raffaello Sanzio, founded in 1869. Further up stands the Fortezza Albornoz.
From its battlements we can look out over the twin towers of the Ducal Palace, and across to the 15th Century church of San Bernardino, on one of the neighbouring hills, which houses the Mausoleum of the Dukes. Below the town, at Borgo Mercatale, we can admire the semi-cylindrical spiral ramp which was built in the 15th Century by Francesco di Giorgio Martini and, above it, the 19th Century Teatro ‘R. Sanzio’. Higher still are the apse, dome and bell tower of the Cathedral and, to the side of them, next to the large windows of the palace’s hanging garden, the magnificent western frontage of the Ducal Palace. Urbino also has its own independent university, with its modern colleges, as well as the Istituto Superiore per le Industrie Artistiche (ISIA), which is housed in the magnificent former monastery of Santa Chiara. Urbino is also home of the ‘Scuola del Libro’ which is famous as a producer of artistic talent in the field of graphic design and various engraving techniques.
Urbino celebrates La Festa del Duca each August – this is an historical procession in period costume through the streets of the town centre, in which acrobats and fire-eaters take part, and which culminates in a tournament held in the presence of the Ducal Court.