The collections belonging to the National Gallery of the Marche are on display in a unique setting: Urbino’s splendid Ducal Palace [in Italian, “Palazzo Ducale”], built for Federico da Montefeltro to promote the glory of his family and at the same time, to express his character as a man of the Renaissance, a man who was able to combine culture, a military career and political prowess.
Federico came to rule over the Montefeltro State in 1444. He was the legitimised son of Count Guidantonio, and succeeded the legitimate heir, his step-brother, Oddantonio, assassinated in a rebellion. His political expertise and moderation as a ruler meant he was immediately welcomed by his subjects as well as in the courts of Italy. In just a few decades under his rule, Urbino became a leading light of the Italian Renaissance.
The style of Urbino in this period is all merit of Federico. His refined choice of decorators, mainly brought in from Florence and Lombardy, as well as of vanguard artists and architects, such as Piero della Francesca and Leon Battista Alberti, meant that Federico was able to leave a definitive mark on the cultural and urban landscape.
The Ducal Palace was built in several stages; a significant part was designed by Dalmatian architect Luciano Laurana, responsible for the fairy-tale twin turrets. In 1459, Federico had already begun the works to extend and decorate the existing modest residence belonging to the Montefeltro counts.
Work commenced on the wing overlooking the modern-day Piazza Rinascimento, featuring a long front decorated with mullioned windows, behind which are the Apartments of Iole [Appartamento della Jole], so called because of the large fireplace in the first room, which is decorated with carved figures of Hercules and Iole. The rooms in this part of the palace are decorated with extreme finesse and are the work of Tuscan craftsmen, including Michele di Giovanni da Fiesole, known as “Il Greco”. This wing contains the only frescoed room in the palace, which otherwise had walls “covered in simple white plaster, according to modern usage,” (Bernardino Baldi, 1587), and not decorated but covered in fabric or more often, in embossed, gilded leather or tapestries.
The structure of the palace is practical in the sections designed by military architect and engineer to the Duke, Francesco di Giorgio Martini from Siena. The “technical” appearance of the building and the modern nature of the residence can be best appreciated by visiting the basement, the kitchens, the ice house and the other services, all of which reveal the organisation of a building able to accommodate a vast number of servants and an extremely rich court.
Next to his own rooms in the centre of the palace, between the twin turrets, the Duke had a splendid study built using wood inlay; a work to advertise his erudition.
From his rooms, the Federico could also reach the small Chapel of Forgiveness, attributed to Bramante, as well as a small temple dedicated to the Muses, painted by court artist, Giovanni Santi, father of Raphael.
This part of the palace – a small, elegant synthesis of the qualities and interests of Renaissance man (arms and intellect) – strongly contrasts the grandiose elegance of the apartments and the immense Banqueting Hall, later known as the Throne Room in the period of papal rule.
The palace’s extraordinary Renaissance balance is most perfectly showcased in its stupendous courtyard, where the stunning colour combinations of pale stone and brick define the calculated harmony of the arcade composition. The inscription running along the top of the arches commemorates the glory of Federico, condottiere and prince.
One of the palace’s greatest treasures was its vast library of illuminated manuscripts, the most splendid of the period, and for which Federico spent a large amount of the money he was paid for his military services. At the time of Federico’s death, the library contained 900 codices; the collection was acquired by Alexander VII for the Vatican Library in 1657.
In 1474 Federico was named duke by Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere, and the proud inscriptions “FE-DUX” commemorate this fact in many parts of the palace.
On the duke’s death in 1482, the refined, cultured court of Urbino passed into the hands of his son, Guidubaldo and the wife of this latter, Elisabetta Gonzaga. With them, the Montefeltro dynasty ended, passing via the female line to the Della Rovere branch of the family.
The second floor of the palace, which was rebuilt and raised in the mid 16th century, at the wishes of Guidubaldo II Della Rovere, now houses the collections of 17th-century paintings, graphics and ceramics.
One part of the initial 16th-century additions to the palace is the King of England’s Room, where a gilded stucco ceiling by Federico Brandani depicts all of the emblems, feats and honours awarded to Federico da Montefeltro and to his family.
The duchy prospered until 1631, when it passed under the rule of the Church. Vittoria della Rovere, the last of the dynasty, took all of the ducal “Collections” to Florence, where she was to marry her cousin, Ferdinando de’ Medici.
The astounding collections from the ducal palace are now, for the most part, to be found in the Uffizi Gallery. The Illustrious Men from the duke’s study joined the Barberini collection (a part of which is now in the Louvre).
The presence of an important number of archaeological finds, collected by Cardinal Francesco Stoppani in 1756, has led to the creation of a Stone Museum on the ground floor of the Gallery.
For more information, please see the official guide to the National Gallery of the Marche, on sale in the ground floor bookshop.