Architecture and City Planning in Urbino

By Braden Preston, Staff Writer

Urbino’s roots begin during the reign of the Roman Empire. A group of Roman soldiers were escaping invaders on the river Marteas, and fled up the countryside to a large hill with elevation so they could gain advantage over their opponent. The Romans decided that the land would make a good strategic position, and as such, they founded the city of Urbino.

During the time of the Holy Roman Empire, most of the new cities were founded at two roads intersecting each other to form a cross. Lucia Vedovi, an instructor at the University of Urbino and expert in Renaissance art and architecture, said that the roads that formed this cross in Urbino are the Decumano and the Cardo Maximos.

Being a Roman town, Urbino has a unique architecture not found in today’s more modern construction in other cities like Ravenna. Because of Urbino’s unique geographical location as a city on two hills, special architectural innovations were done to preserve its position as a fortress. Later on, during the rule of Duke Federico della Montefeltro, the hill on the eastern side of the city was terraformed so that the Ducale Palace would balance the height difference on the western hill of the city.

Photo by Kathryn Jones Malone
Photo by Kathryn Jones Malone

Urbino, being a fortress in a strategic location, required city walls to be constructed. Solid walls ranging from 8 to 15 feet thick and upwards of 60 feet in height surround the city. They helped defend the city against invasion, and helped establish Urbino’s prominence in the area.

Romans typically built very short and wide structures. They were more impressed by a building’s breath, rather than height. Most all of the buildings in Urbino do not exceed four stories in height, and are very wide and very square. The structures are built primarily with clay-based brick, sculpted naturally from resources surrounding Urbino. They are mortared together, instead of using cement as in modern construction.

The construction methods changed during the Renaissance, where the flat structures of Roman roofs were replaced with terra-cotta roof shingles. Also during the Renaissance there was a more formal introduction of Gothic-style architecture, replacing some of the normally flat or arched Roman windows and doorways. The introduction of newer buildings included massive columns with carefully sculpted detail to match the rebirth of Corinthian influences at the time.

Because of the city’s unique elevation, it had to overcome many construction challenges. Elevated doorsteps, vents, and windows stay above the street level to allow easy travel on Urbino’s very steep roads. Because of their incline, many roads at the time were layered irregularly with brick, to allow safer travel for residents, and at the time, horses. There is, in the center of the road, a channel through which water may flow through to drains located throughout the city to combat adverse weather conditions.

The city feels timeless due to its preservation by the Montefeltro family. Federico della Montafeltro, the Duke of Urbino at the time, spent most of his four decades of rule bringing in many artists and engineers to decorate and revitalize the city and surrounding land. Federico wanted to make the city of Urbino into the ideale ciuidad, the “ideal city.” A painting with the same title and attributed to artist Piero della Francesca, hangs in the Ducal Palace. Montefeltro loved the city of Urbino, and as it clearly shows in the preservation of the city’s historic architecture.

Even in more modern times, Urbino has undergone many restoration projects, as well as new construction. Most of the new construction takes place outside of the city’s historic walls. One of the most modern feats of city planning was the mall and bus station at Porta Santa Lucia, which has opened the city up to a new commercial center with modern amenities and conveniences. In order to preserve the picturesque landscape, the port was built into the side of the hill, and as such is a truly unique piece of architecture.

But despite these changes, Urbino still remains a beautifully well-preserved, authentic Renaissance experience.

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