The Ducal Palace of Urbino, described as a “city in the shape of a palace”, according to the famous definition of Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier (1528), was built in several stages in the latter half of the 15th century.
Federico da Montefeltro’s grandfather, Antonio (1348-1404) had already moved into the Palazzo dei Priori, then refurbished by his son, Guidantonio (1378-1443), who built a two-storey building that would become known as Iole’s Palace [in Italian, “Palazzetto della Jole”].
Federico (1433-1482) came to power in 1444 and began work on the new palace in 1454, starting with the long east-facing facade that incorportated some of the existing mediaeval constructions. The first-floor “Apartments of Iole” were rebuilt in this period, under the supervision of Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini, known as Fra’ Carnevale (1414 ca.-1484). The work was carried out by the Florentine Maso di Bartolomeo (1406-1456), who, together with his collaborators, was responsible for the decorations in the rooms.
The Palace had already become quite large when, in around 1464, Dalmatian architect, Luciano Laurana (1420 -1479), whose training had been influenced by Leon Battista Alberti, took over the direction of works.
Under his guidance, in the period 1464 to 1472, the parts that express the height of the building’s light and space were completed. Laurana is responsible for the famous facade with the twin turrets, for the courtyard, the monumental stairway and the library on the ground floor. On the first floor, he designed the Throne Room, the Angels’ Room and the Audience Chamber.
In around 1474, Sienese architect, Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501) took over the work on the palace, which he oversaw until 1485. He completed whole areas in the building, created new ones and finished the interior decorations of many rooms (doors, windows, fireplaces, capitals). He also provided designs for the wood inlays on the doors, for the majority of the famous tiles with the Frieze of the art of war, originally walled into the so-called “winged facade” of the palace, which he designed, opening northwards towards the city and overlooking the modern-day Piazza del Duca.
Francesco di Giorgio Martini also designed the loggia in the Pasquino Courtyard, the Hanging Garden, as well as the different rooms and all of the plumbing system in the basement, for which the palace was renowned at the time.
After the deaths of Federico and his son, Guidobaldo (1472-1508), very little was built or finished under the Della Rovere family, who had taken possession of the duchy, if not the rebuilding of the palace’s top floor. In particular, architects Bartolomeo Genga (1518-1558) and Filippo Terzi (1520-1597), were responsible for different stages of the modernisation of the “Della Rovere Apartments” on the second floor, raising the “terraces” on the southern side of the building and removing the 15th-century battlements.
In 1631, after the death of Francesco Maria II della Rovere, the last duke of Urbino, the duchy passed to the Church and from that time, the palace was slowly stripped and left in decline.
In 1912, the National Gallery of the Marche was finally established inside the Ducal Palace, and the building itself was completely renovated.