The Italian city unchanged since the Renaissance

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In one of the most famous paintings in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, Federico da Montefeltro gazes at his wife, Battista Sforza, as they stand in front of the landscape over which they ruled. Undulating hills rise to volcano-like peaks on which towns perch. The ragged Apennine mountains stalk the horizon, and what’s thought to be the Metauro river swirls below.

Painted by Piero della Francesca in 1472, it’s one of the iconic artworks of the Renaissance. And yet few international visitors to the Uffizi know the area which gave Piero della Francesca, the artist, his inspiration.

Piero della Francesca's portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza is one of the iconic works of the Renaissance.

Today, Urbino – a small university city in the Marche region of central Italy – is missed off most tourist itineraries. But back in the 15th century, it was a powerhouse of the Renaissance. The ruler of the area, that same Federico da Montefeltro, was one of the most cultured leaders of Italy.

Federico hadn’t always been seen that way. The illegitimate son of a previous ruler of Urbino, as the story goes, he became a legendary mercenary, commanding private armies to victory for whoever paid him the most.

But when his half-brother was assassinated – possibly at Federico’s instigation – he assumed power. And, perhaps to assuage doubts about his past, he set about turning his city into a cultural hub to rival Florence, 120 miles northwest across the Apennines.

His court not only commissioned the likes of Piero della Francesca and Sandro Botticelli; it birthed Raphael and Donato Bramante, the architect of the Vatican. His library was so important that it now belongs to the pope, and the Montefeltro court was the setting for one of the most famous books of the Renaissance.

The Palazzo Ducale of Urbino is a castle -- but a fairytale one.

The court was so famous that even after his death, people continued to flock to Urbino. One member of his son’s entourage, Baldassare Castiglione, wrote Renaissance smash hit “The Book of the Courtier” – essentially a less sneaky version of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” – about his time at Urbino.

Today, six centuries later, the town looks pretty much exactly as Federico left it.

Retro bars sit under Renaissance porticoes. Steep streets made for horses, not cars, roller coaster up and down the two hills on which it dandles. And the Palazzo Ducale – a fairytale castle built for Federico, with delicate twin towers softening its military-style fortifications – hovers on the edge of the hillside, visible for miles around.

Living in the Renaissance

Urbino's location means it hasn't been spoiled.

To get to Urbino today is not all that much easier than it was in the days of Federico.

Unusually for Italy, there’s no train station – the nearest is 45 minutes away at Pesaro. Taking the coach or driving from Florence involves switchback roads as you cross the Apennines and take in three different regions. The nearest airport is 90 minutes away in Ancona, and the closest major city is Bologna, over two hours away.

What that means, though, is that while other Renaissance cities in Italy have been swallowed up by modern suburbs and suffocated by mass tourism, Urbino has been left blissfully intact.

“A tourist coming to Urbino has to really want to come here, so it’s unique in how it’s been preserved from ‘hit and run’ tourism,” says Luigi Gallo, director of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, the art gallery which sits inside Federico’s ducal palace.

“And its [physical] position has allowed it to conserve the historic center completely, saving it from the major building projects that other big cities have seen. Here you meet the Renaissance in all its architectural beauty.”

Unesco, which has awarded Urbino World Heritage status, describes it as a place that has “preserved its Renaissance appearance to a remarkable extent… even the interventions from the 18th and 19th centuries left the Renaissance layout almost completely untouched.” What’s more, it notes, even modern building repairs have always used the same Renaissance methods.

One reason for its preservation is that the Montefeltro clan died out in the 16th century, plunging the city into decline. Another is that as a relatively small university town, it has never had to rely on tourism, with a steady economy based on its resident students. The third? Its location. Strung across two steep hills, there isn’t really anywhere for it to go.

“Sure, we have ugly college buildings and an ugly hospital. There are truly ugly parts. But the morphology and the geographical [limitations] have preserved the city,” says Francesca Bottacin, a history of art professor at the university of Urbino. Unlike many other Italian cities, Urbino didn’t have a postwar industrial boom, she says – which saved it from ugly suburbs being built.

That doesn’t necessarily make it easy to live. Only residents can bring cars into the city – everyone else has to park outside and climb the hill. Bottacin – who’s originally from the flat Veneto region – says that navigating the hilly city in the snowy winters can be tricky to say the least. And yet, she says, she’s “addicted” to Urbino.