From Famous Castles & Palaces of Italy, Illustrated in Colour from Paintings, by Edmund B. d’Auvergne, London: T. Werner Laurie, [undated, 1911]; pp. 297-310.


Decorated Adorment from the spine of the book, of a gilt berry with leaves in black around it on a burgundy woven ground.




WHILE the frown of the feudal ages still hovered about the princely residences of Milan, Ferrara and Rimini, the old castle of URBINO grew into and was lost in a palace worthy to be the seat of the most polished court in Italy. The little dark brown city on the spurs of the Apennines had come into the possession of the house of Montefeltro in the middle of the thirteenth century — their investiture dated back to 1216 — and soon after, it may be supposed, the foundations of the count’s stronghold were dug. It was a rude, tough pile, no doubt, suited to the temper of its early lords and capable of resisting the attacks of the traditional foe, the Malatesta, and the not less formidable uprisings of the townsfolk. To the wrath of his outraged subjects, Oddantonio, created a duke by the Pope in 1443, fell the very next year a victim. He was killed in his own hall, in the early morning of 22nd July 1444, along with his familiar servants, Manfredo de’ Pii and Tomaso da Rimini; and the people at once called on his illegitimate brother, Federigo, to be their lord and protector.

Their choice was wise. Federigo proved himself to be the ablest captain in Italy, leading his own troops and those of other states to victory on many hard-fought fields. He defeated the terrible Sigismondo Malatesta, 298 and eclipsed him as a patron of arts and letters. He was essentially a man of his time, personifying the new spirit which was changing the face of Europe. At the sack of Volterra he chose as his whole share of the booty a rare and ancient Hebrew Bible; escorting the Pope through hostile country, the conversation was all of the Trojan war, of Homer and Virgil and the antique worthies.

A black and white photograph, of the Castle of Urbino.


It was this humanist duke who, three years after his accession, began to restore and to remodel the old home of his forefathers, which was too rude for his cultivated taste. In 1465 he was so lucky as to secure the services of Luciano da Laurana, who had studied classic models in his native land, Dalmatia, and stood high in the estimation of the Gonzaga of Mantua and the Sforza of Pesaro. Under this master’s hands a palace rose, in the opinion of contemporaries, the most beautiful in Italy; “so well appointed throughout,” wrote Baldassare Castigilione, “that it appeared to be not a palace but a town in the form of a palace.” Raphael was born in its shadow; and in its lines Bramante found inspiration and guidance. Those great men have left nothing but the honour of having produced them to their birthplace; but the palace rising high and vast over the clustering little city is a lasting monument of the dukes who made Urbino one of the beacon lights of culture and civilisation.

Luciano died in 1479, three years before his master, and left the palace practically completed. It is a vast and irregular pile, to modern taste more picturesque than beautiful; and in its combination of the civil and military elements, the blending of the old and new, and 299 the determined adjustment of a regular scheme to an irregular site, emblematic of that age of transition. On the east side, opposite the Church of San Domenico, the ground is level; on the west the hill falls away abruptly and the edifice is reared on massive foundations. This was not accounted a drawback by the architect, as it enabled him to stow away a great number of the meaner offices and chambers below the main level, out of sight.

The east side is the longest and the oldest, and four of the eight two-light windows belonged to the old castle of the counts, the others having been constructed on the same plan by Luciano for the sake of uniformity. The main entrance is, oddly enough, near the corner of the next façade, which is in the style introduced into Italy by the Dalmatian builder, afterwards modified by Bramante. The narrow west front is the most striking. It is flanked by two tall and rather slender towers rising from the steep declivity and machicolated at their summits. Between these are three rows of three windows, those in the middle set within deep arched and balconied recesses. The initials F.C. (Federicus Comes) on these logge and the eagle carved above the highest of them establishes the date of this side of the edifice. In front of this extended a “hanging garden” built over the declivity, and encircled by a wall. The side of the palace to the right of the towers was also once adorned with logge, but these with so many of the windows have been walled up by men afraid of light and air.

The exterior of the palace of the dukes of Urbino, mutilated and roughly handled by its successive owners, 300 presents even more than in Baldassare’s day the aspect of a city in itself. It is wanting in symmetry; though in its very disorder, as in Moorish buildings, an order may be traced. The extravagant praises bestowed on the building by its architect’s contemporaries were perhaps called forth by the splendour of the interior. “The balconies, halls, and chambers are all vaulted with brick,” wrote Bernardino Baldi, the first to describe the palace, “and so artfully designed that nowhere will you find supports of wood or iron; not only is this so in the logge and smaller rooms but in the great hall itself, which, although it is one hundred feet long and from forty-three to forty-five broad, is notwithstanding covered with a double vault of brick, made with lunettes and free from wood and iron. From which it appears how ingenious was the architect and how magnificent the prince; who thought not only of the present but of the eternity of the structure, and spared nothing to that end. For which reason we see in this palace none of those wooden ceilings which perish and are liable to the accidents of fire. In the matter of light the architect is not less liberal, for in this great building there is no room that lacks light, which is due to the good arrangement of the courtyards and of the apartments. With great judgment are also disposed the staircases throughout the palace, where, without recourse to the principal one, you may easily ascend and descend by many others.”

The same writer speaks of the infinite variety of ancient statues of marble and bronze, and of the rare paintings which adorned these spacious halls. 301 He relied in making this statement, perhaps, on the authority of a similar passage in Castiglione’s work, concerning which Dennistoun1 remarks that he had not been able to trace a single piece of sculpture or an easel picture, except a few portraits, to the possession of Duke Federigo. That prince took delight not so much in art as in literature, and his noble library (now incorporated with that of the Vatican) cost him upwards of thirty thousand ducats. Every book was bound in crimson, ornamented with silver; and a contemporary of the founder pronounced the collection to be in every way more complete than any other in Europe.

It is time we entered this seat of a vanished culture. Passing through a door over which we notice the letters “Fe. Dux,” we enter the somewhat overpraised courtyard, surrounded by an arcade, supporting an upper storey. Some funeral inscriptions have been collected here, but the stillness is rather that of the morning calm than of death or decay. Round the frieze runs a Latin inscription which being translated reads: “Federigo, Duke of Urbino, Count of Montefeltro and of Castel Durante, Gonfalonier of the Holy Roman Church, captain of the Italian Confederation, built this house, erected from the foundations, for his glory and his posterity; who fought many times in war, six times took the field, and eight times vanquished the enemy; victor in all his battles, he extended his dominions. His justice, clemency, liberality and religion in times of peace equalled and adorned his victories.”


Mounting the stairs, we enter a world on which the spirit of the Renaissance seems to have lavished its choicest treasures. Pure and graceful pilasters and capitals adorn the walls; there is no excess of ornament, no exaggerations in the mouldings of the cornices and friezes. The designs are mainly floral, with here and there a Cupid, some mythical beast or a coat-of-arms harmoniously introduced into the scheme. The Porta della Guerra is appropriately adorned with trophies; through it we pass into the Sala della Sole, where the decorations are of a mythological character. A finer door admits to the vast throne-room, where the eagle of Montefeltro holds the centre of the ceiling. The windows which opened between the lunettes are now bricked up and covered with the coats-of-arms of the various cities of the Marches. Over two of the fireplaces may be seen the insignia of the Order of the Garter, with which Federigo was invested in 1474, and his son Guidobaldo by Henry VII. thirty years later. It was to thank the Tudor king for this honour that Baldassarre Castiglione was sent by the duke on his famous embassy to England. The next room, named after Lorenzo il Magnifico, who lived some time therein, with the adjoining chambers, forms the picture gallery.

The finest of the rooms is the Sala degli Angeli, the duke’s private audience chamber. The five doors are adorned with beautiful intarsias; the Apollo and the Pallas on one of them have been attributed to Botticelli. Not less beautiful is the frieze of dancing angels over the chimneypiece of Domenico Rosselli. Doors, chimneypieces and walls in this as in the other parts 303 of the palace, retain abundant traces of the original decoration of gold on a field of ultramarine.

The intarsia work, which is one of the chief glories of the building, is at its finest in the duke’s study, and once covered the upper as well as the lower parts of the walls, and also the ceiling. Here Federigo and his son used to attend to affairs of state, to consider and to indite despatches, to receive and ponder over reports, amid their books, their musical instruments and their caged birds, with their sword and harness ever ready to their hand in a corner of the room. Men were not lopsided in those days; letters, arms, love and statecraft were essential parts of each man’s life. Rising from his table, the weary ruler could walk out on to the balcony between the towers, and survey the grand and changeless panorama of the Apennines. He could see Monte del Cavallo, named after the horses that he had bred there; Monte Nerone, fabled to have been once the home of another cultured tyrant; and Monte Carpegna, the cradle of his race. And then, remembering what powerful foes dwelt behind every one of those peaks, he may well perhaps have turned into the oratory, adjoining his study, and breathed forth a prayer for the preservation of his dynasty and his state.

Of the life led by prince and courtiers in these four chambers of blue and gold, in the golden days of Duke Guidobaldo I., a minute description has been left us by Castiglione. Like his father, Guidobaldo was a good soldier though he loved the arts of peace better than those of war. He could do little to improve the palace at Urbino, so he built another at Gubbio, and sundry villas. He was twice expelled from his dominions, the 304 second time by Cæsar Borgia, who is said to have carried off treasure from the palace to the value of a quarter of a million sterling. And when Guidobaldo died in 1508 the duchy passed out of his house to Francesco Maria, of his kinsfolk the Della Rovere. The election of a member of his family to the papal throne under the title of Julius II. procured a powerful ally for the little state; but necessarily involved it in endless complications and wars. The kinsfolk of one Pope, moreover, were always objects of suspicion to the next. By Leo X., Francesco Maria was stripped of his duchy, which was given to Lorenzo de’ Medici. The dispossessed prince challenged the interloper to personal combat, but in vain. On the death of the Medici Pope in 1521 he recovered his states, after an exile of four and a half years. The last duke, a second Francesco Maria, was a pious prince, caring little for the things of this world, and as he left no heirs he took no steps to oppose the absorption of the dukedom into the states of the Church upon his death, which took place in 1631. The houses of Montefeltro and della Rovere deserved well of their generations; and of the little cities set on hills Urbino is one of the least likely to be hidden from fame.

A very similar but less celebrated palace was built about the year 1450 at PESARO on the Adriatic coast, by Alessandro Sforza, on the site of the old residence of the Malatesta, who had sold the county to his brother Francesco five years before. In 1465 Luciano di Laurana was engaged about the edifice, and it seems probable that he was responsible for the great part of the decoration of the exterior. The palace is quadrangular, 305 and consists of two storeys. The lower façade is formed by a loggia of round arches, with circular wreathed medallions in the spandrels. The upper storey is lit by rectangular windows arranged without regard to the arches below. Above them are escutcheons from which extend garlands upheld by putti, the work of Domenico Rosselli. A cornice replaces the old battlements, whereon Giovanni Sforza, grandson of Alessandro, exhibited his enemies’ heads on his recovery of his state from the all-conquering Borgia. Otherwise the exterior has undergone little alteration since the days of Alessandro, and must be regarded as a singularly perfect example of a quattrocento palace.

Pesaro came into the possession of the Rovere of Urbino in 1512, and the interior of the building has many testimonies of this change of owners. The initials of Guidobaldo are to be seen on the jambs of the entrance to the stairs, and are carved, together with his arms, above the windows looking on the court. The same duke also directed Bartolommeo Genga to construct a new suite of rooms overlooking the Via dei Fondachi and others adjoining the great hall over the loggia. These rooms are furnished with handsome chimneypieces and fine arabesques, belonging apparently to a somewhat later period. The passage from the court, called the Caccia del Toro, to the garden was painted to resemble a grove by Camillo Mantovano with such care that he counted every leaf in the trees. Raffaele del Colle painted the vines and Giovanni Antonio di Pesaro, the figures. These paintings have suffered much from wilful damage and exposure. The palace was completely isolated from the neighbouring 306 buildings of Francesco Maria II., on the occasion of his son Federico Ubaldo’s marriage with Claudia del Medici; at the same time the great hall wherein Alessandro’s son and successor Costanzo had married Isabella d’Aragona, was restored and the ceiling designed by Giovanni Cortese with the Rovere emblems. One of the rooms is called after Lucrezia Borgia, who was for some time the wife of Giovanni Sforza. The luckless prince was forced by the Pope to consent to the dissolution of the marriage on the usual ground of non-consummation; afterwards protesting that his consent had been extorted by violence and launching against the Pontiff one of the most horrible accusations.

The Villa Imperiale, about an hour’s walk from Pesaro, on Monte San Bartolo, manifests even more distinctly than the palace the various ages of its parts. The Malatesta seem to have had a country house here, which was enlarged into a castle by Alessandro Sforza in 1469. The Emperor Frederick III. laid the first stone, on his way back from Rome. The edifice, like the Palace of Urbino, is raised on a sloping and partly artificial foundation. It is square in form and entered through a gate-tower. Through the gate, over which is displayed the Sforza escutcheon, you pass at once into a rather narrow court, bordered by a portico with round arches, which supports a gallery above. The gate, the court and the cistern within it are all plainly works of the fifteenth century. At this time the villa was certainly designed for a military building. The vast chambers in the basement afforded accommodation for the mercenary troops of which Alessandro, as a 307 condottiere of renown, had always large numbers in his service. Completed in 1472, nothing was done to the villa till the restoration of Francesco Maria II., who ordered it to be renovated by Girolamo Genga of Urbino. It would be difficult to say how much of the villa of Alessandro Sforza was left after the process. The building at all events lost its battlements and its martial character. Francesco had a particular affection for the Imperiale, partly because in its vicinity he inflicted a defeat on Lorenzo dei Medici. He called in the most skilful artists of his day to commemorate in painting the vicissitudes of his career. Genga shows him at the head of a triumphal procession, accompanied by Alfonso of Ferrara; the brothers Dossi show him at the head of his army; other painters illustrate his successes as a commander and the coronation of Charles V. Rafaellino del Colle represents the duke crowned with a garland, and in the same room has painted the “Calumny of Apelles.” Vasari tells us that Bronzino decorated the ceiling of Prince Guidobaldo’s room with a beautiful Cupid, which so much shocked the young man that he left the palace altogether. This is almost as good as Aloysius Gonzaga’s refusal to kiss the shadow of a little girl.

Eleonora, the wife of Francesco Maria, was a kinswoman of that saint. She displayed none of his contempt for the world, and made her husband’s court here and at Urbino a centre of culture and gaiety. Here she was visited by Bernardo and Torquato Tasso, the former of whom composed his “Amadis de Gaul” perhaps at the Imperiale. Not content with the palace, she caused Girolamo Genga to 308 build another villa behind it, intending it as a place of rest and refreshment for her war-worn consort, as the inscription on the front of the edifice and continued into the court records. The villa overhangs the valley and is upheld by a remarkable substructure. The court is at the level of the first floor, and the gardens of the second floor and of the loggia crowning the whole edifice, respectively. The two buildings communicate by a passage over a magnificent arch. The villa was never finished, but is for all that a noble building. The view from its terrace is superb. Francesco Maria II. meditated erecting a third villa, which should give him a better view of the sea; but his schemes were cut short by death, and with him passed for ever the reign of joy and brilliancy from the doomed duchy of Urbino.


 1  “Memoirs of the Duke of Urbino,” 1909.





Decorated Adorment from the spine of the book, of a tree with gilt leaves on a burgundy woven ground.