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(CNN) — 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.
Riccardo De Luca/AP
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.
"Whoever is born inside these walls and still lives and works there, like me, builds a profound relationship with the city, that can be as contradictory as a love affair," says Tiziano Mancini, who runs pop-up escape rooms in the city, and puts on the odd murder mystery dinner in the Palazzo Ducale. "On the one hand, you want to see it admired, and full of tourists. On the other, you want it all to yourself." He recommends a night-time walk "in silence but never solitude, because you're in the company of beauty, history, and the thousands of personalities that lived this before you." Daniela Rossi, a local guide, thinks there's no place like it. "The historic center occupies little more than a square kilometer [0.4 square miles], but in it is concentrated a vast heritage that left its mark on European history, culture, art and architecture," she says.
Today, she calls it "a place of peace and tranquility between art and culture." Back then, she adds, it was "a crossroads for the best artists of the time."
Palace as propaganda
The Palazzo Ducale was made to blend with the rest of the fairytale city, instead of being a typical castle.
The construction of this fairytale city is a story that encapsulates the history of the Renaissance, in which Italian rulers turned to classical texts and ideals to "rebirth" culture, and society with it.
An unconventional rise to power requires solidification of that power, of course. And although new research is suggesting that Federico was in fact the legitimate grandson of the previous ruler, rather than his illegitimate son (his link would have been through his mother, which in those days didn't count), he needed to make his mark on the city.
As it happened, Federico was a deeply cultured man -- as a child, he had lived in Venice and Mantua and received a top notch education. But as the ruler of Urbino, along with his wife, Battista Sforza, and his probable brother, Ottaviano Ubaldini, he created a court that revolved around culture.
He had a palace built that was as beautiful as it was impregnable, softening the garrison-like walls with balconies and those delicate towers. Inside the walls, it had a pretty arched courtyard, gardens round the back, and Italy's first public library, open to all citizens of Urbino.
Upstairs, he had artists like Botticelli create artistic inlaid doors. His study, in one of the towers, was inlaid with trompe l'oeil wooden panels showing his prowess in both war and culture. And on the walls hung paintings by some of the most cutting-edge, boundary-pushing artists of the time.
They are still there today.
Raphael and Rome
This fresco in Raphael's childhood home is thought to have been painted by the artist as a teenager.
The Montefeltro court produced an extraordinary amount of culture. Famous artists came to work for Federico -- 15th-century stars, like Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello, as well as (probably) up-and-comer Botticelli. Architects, too: Francesco di Giorgio Martini built Federico's fortresses, while local lad Donato Bramante (who would go on to design St. Peter's Basilica in Rome -- Michelangelo worked from his drawings) is credited with taking Renaissance architecture to Milan, and then the High Renaissance style to Rome.
Federico hosted mathematicians, astronomers and astrologers -- the scientists of the time. Humanists and authors flocked to his court, including Leon Battista Alberti, who designed Florence's Santa Maria Novella church.
One of his local court painters was Giovanni Santi -- better known as the father of Raphael.
In fact, Raphael's birthplace still stands in Urbino. A five-minute walk from the Palazzo Ducale, it's open to the public. Visitors can see the color-smudged stone on which Santi ground pigments. In the bedroom is a fresco of the Madonna and Child -- thought to have been painted by a teenage Raphael. The Virgin Mary even wears a gossamer veil over her hair, reminiscent of his masterwork in London's National Gallery, the "Madonna of the Pinks."
Look out of the Santis' kitchen window, and the view is identical to what it was when Raphael was growing up: brick houses stacked up the steep slopes, those half-stepped, horse-friendly alleyways (called piole), and snatches of billowing emerald hills outside the city.
Would Raphael have become Raphael without Urbino?
"'What ifs' are always hard, but recent studies on Raphael say that Urbino was fundamental to his vision of beauty," says Botticin.
"His works have a 'fifth sense' of harmony and of ideal beauty -- classicism brought into the Renaissance. I think Urbino played a fundamental part in that.
"We know that the early years are fundamental [for development], and Raphael would have lived in this extraordinary court.
"He was born after Federico had died, but Giovanni Santi still had his workshop. It was an amazing climate, and maybe it was that spark that gave the extraordinary harmony in his work."
Walking in the Renaissance, 500 years on
Urbino is known for its 'piole,' steep streets that rollercoaster up and down the hills.
The court of Federico was, in short, the ultimate Renaissance environment. And today, visitors can still live it.
Just round the block from Raphael's birthplace is a rare slice of pre-Federico life: the Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista, frescoed in the early 1400s by the local Salimbeni brothers. Painted in the Gothic style, the biblical scenes are stuffed with everyday details: a dog licking its bits, a mother grabbing her tantruming child, and followers getting tied up in their clothes as they strip off to be baptized.
The confraternity that had the chapel built in the 15th century still exists today -- as do other similar ones.
"In this respect, Urbino is extraordinary -- the confraternities still exist, and they're still doing the charity work that they did in the 15th century," says Bottacin.
Tourists can visit their private chapels -- on the way to the Salimbeni brothers' work, you can enter the Oratorio San Giuseppe, complete with a 16th century grotto in which a nativity scene has been carved. You'll also notice plaques lining the street (Via Barocci) marking the former homes of Renaissance celebrities, as well as the steep piole crossing your path.
Inside the palace
The Palazzo Ducale housed the first public library in Italy.
Across from Raphael's side of town, Federico's ducal palace dominates the other hill. Today, the Palazzo Ducale is the National Gallery of the Marche region, and the 28th most visited museum in Italy. Go inside, and you'll be baffled why it's not more popular -- works of art by the likes of Raphael, Giovanni Santi, Titian, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca, mostly commissioned by Federico, hang on the walls.
There are ceramics by the Florentine della Robbia brothers, and, of course, those Botticelli-designed doors.
Even this has barely changed since Federico's time -- the original terracotta flooring sags with centuries of use, and the fireplaces and doorways still conserve his "FD" initials ("Federico Dux," or "Duke Frederick").
Federico's "studiolo," or study, was lined with inlaid wood depicting his prowess as a true Renaissance man.
Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images
Visitors can even climb one of those fairytale towers to see mist drifting over the hills in the distance -- exactly the same view as Federico himself would have had, and a similar landscape to that depicted in the famous painting in the Uffizi.
"The relationship between the city and the countryside around it is so well preserved -- from the city you see nature, and from outside, you see the Palazzo Ducale emerging in all its beauty from the landscape surrounding it. I think this makes it unique in all of Italy," says Gallo, whose favorite work of art in the gallery is Piero della Francesca's "Madonna di Senigallia."
A lasting legacy
Today you can walk from Raphael's house to Federico's palace, and nothing has changed.
Federico's influence has lasted through the centuries. As well as the artists who took what they'd learned in Urbino to Rome and Milan, his idea of a public library took off -- in fact his collection was so special that it was quickly swiped for the Vatican once the Montefeltro family died out.
For Gallo, he was a true Renaissance man.
"Federico represents that ideal of the Renaissance prince who brings together the power of a leader with the culture of a humanist, and I think that's a model for politicians today," he says.
"He was a great politician of the 15th century, and that's clearly shown by the permanence of his city."