Paradise Lost

A glimpse of Federico’s ideal city

The Honor Court at Urbino's Ducal Palace, where artists, scientists, and mathematicians mingled.

The palace doesn’t seem that big from the courtyard.

It is only when I go underground to the cavernous kitchens and storerooms, where the air gets at least 10 degrees cooler, and when I walk up the wide, grand staircases that I truly understand this palace is enormous. Just when I think there can’t be any more hallways, there is always another around the corner, filled with golden Byzantine altarpieces or collections of delicately painted ceramics. The typical boulder-and-dungeon atmosphere of a 15th-century castle is absent in Urbino’s Palazzo Ducale. It is surprisingly light. Stone corridors are lined with unexpected windows, allowing light to pour in. I peer out every window to find different courtyards; some filled with green shrubbery and blooming flowers while others are simply paved with stone.

These now-barren courtyards once bustled with people. Federico da Montefeltro, soldier, scholar, and the duke of these lands from 1444 to 1482, initiated the flow of great minds to Urbino. The mathematician-artist Leon Battista Alberti, who brought back the ideals of classical architecture, and Piero della Francesca, who was a pioneer in the usage of perspective, were some of the notable individuals in the city. Urbino became the home of a movement now known as the mathematical renaissance, which was born out of the marriage between the arts and sciences.

For Federico, this was the perfect society. It was a society where people of different disciplines shared ideas and lived in harmony, a society unique for its time. “While the city of Florence had mathematicians and artists, they didn’t live together as they did in Urbino,” says Maria Rosaria Valazzi, director of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, which is housed in the Palazzo Ducale. “Federico tried to create a perfect society and a perfect kind of art, also a perfect palace.”

Sadly, this “perfect society” was short-lived. Everything Federico accomplished in his reign was lost soon after his death in 1482. Luckily for us, though, the palace still offers a window into Federico’s ideal city—granted, of course, you know who to ask to decipher the symbols.

Take, for example, the palace piazza, the space that stretches between the palace and the duomo. “Anyone walking up to the palace at that time would have been impressed,” says Valazzi. In contrast to many fortress-like palaces of the time, she explains, the Ducal Palace appears to welcome people in. The wide, spacious piazza and its light and airy quality seemed to aid in the free flow of ideas. It was there in the piazza that the mathematical renaissance grew and thrived.

[pullquote] Urbino became the home of a movement now known as the mathematical renaissance, which was born out of the marriage between the arts and sciences.[/pullquote]The Palazzo Ducale, says Valazzi, was “a city in form of a palace.” At its height it was home to over 400 people including the architect Melozzo da Forli, the mathematician Luca Pacioli, and the artist Pedro Berruguete. Federico used his military wealth and success to attract and hire local artisans for his architectural projects, and he alleviated taxes on his subjects, all of which made him a well-loved ruler. Artists and thinkers flocked to Urbino to take part in the new cultural revolution initiated by Federico.

If the palace is a city, Federico’s studiolo, or study, is the city’s heart. The study, located on the second floor of the palace, is filled with symbols and hidden meanings, say Valazzi and museum curator Alessandro Marchi, most of which refer to the ideals of Federico’s perfect society.

Though only the size of today’s typical closet, the deep and warm colors of the intricately inlaid wood panels make this room one of the most memorable of the palace. The top halves of the walls are lined with portraits of men. These men were people of the duke’s past and his present, including the poet Homer, philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and religious figures Solomon and Moses, all looming over Federico as if to send down inspiration as he worked.

Just below the portraits begins the woodwork. A hodgepodge of books and sheet music appear to be stacked on shelves while a knight’s armor and spear seem to be strewn on benches. The intarsia technique, or inlaid wood, allows panels to take on perspective and depth, an impressive feat during that time. The four walls are lined with tricks and illusions of trompe l’oeil that make your eyes believe that the objects face you no matter where you stand in the room.

On one wall a lute appears to lie next to a spear. The placement is not accidental, says Valazzi. The instrument represents the perfection of music, the unflawed relationship between math and sound. It was this harmonious blending of disciplines that Federico so admired. But the military weapon has its purpose too. It symbolizes the idea that a perfect society has many elements, including a strong military force. Scientific instruments such as a compass and an hourglass also find their homes among the trompe l’oeil shelves, reminding the viewer that it takes the balance and accord of many subjects to achieve an ideal society.

One of the most distinctive features of the studiolo, says Marchi, is the small squirrel settled on a receding stone background framed by Grecian columns and arches. Marchi explains that just as a squirrel takes acorns and saves them for the winter, Federico would take many ideas and readings and save them. “It is a symbol of how you take culture and store it, and then later in life it will become valuable to you,” says Marchi. Federico’s wide range of interests helped create a rare kind of utopia where harmony and justice were the center: Urbino.

Federico’s ideals lasted only as long as the reign of his son Guidobaldo, then disappeared. By the late 15th century, after Guidobaldo and his wife Elisabetta had passed away, the architects and philosophers had fled the city, leaving it in a standstill. The changing worldviews at the end of the 15th century overtook what Federico had created and no more attempts were made to recreate his utopia.

Valazzi, however, has a hope for what people might take away when they visit modern Urbino, a hope Federico himself might have approved of: “That the world can be harmonious. That the world can find an idea of justice and harmony.”

Palazzo Ducale
Piazza Rinascimento, 13
61029 Urbino, Italy

Open Monday 8:30 a.m.-2p.m. and Tuesday through Sunday 8:30 a.m-7:15 p.m.

This article is from Urbino Now magazine’s Urbino Centro section, which offers an in-depth look at the daily life of Urbino. Please view more magazine articles or order a complete printed copy of Urbino Now.