The Ducal Palace: Jewel of the Renaissance

By Ashley Ford, Editor-in-Chief

The Palazzo Ducale, or the Ducal Palace, rises from the heart of Urbino at the top of a hill. This sprawling palace is a must-see for those traveling to Urbino. The palace contains a basement, ground floor, first floor and second floor. Construction of the magnificent palace begun in the mid-fifteenth century for Duke Federico III Montefeltro.

Walking into the palace doors brings a visitor into the Courtyard of Honour. Standing in the center of the courtyard, you’re surrounded by pillars connected by archways with rows of rectangle windows above them. Five other rooms join off the courtyard, the Duke’s library and three others called the North-Facing Rooms. Two larger rooms make up the North-Facing Rooms; they include 71 stone plaques covering the walls and illustrating Francesco’s di Giorgio Martini’s Arte della Guerra.

When visiting the Duke’s library, you’ll be amazed by the ceiling alone. This bare room will entrance you when looking up at the ceiling at the stone eagle surrounded by gold “flames symbolizing knowledge by Federico to those below,” according to Paolo Dal Poggetto’s Guide to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche.

While in the courtyard, you will also find the entrance to the brick basement. On a hot day, explore this area first. Walking down a “ladder road” (an elevated walk way built for horses) your skin will be chilled by the cool climate of the underground. This area was used as a water and sewage plant as it supplied water to areas of the palace.

The 23-room basement of the palace served other purposes, too: a wine cellar held their most noble wines, food was preserved in snow, which was referred to as the Ice House. The ladder road suggests that horses were kept down there where 30 stalls once stood “each of which had a liquid waste disposal system,” the guide says. Also, the Duke’s and Duchess’s bathrooms were here, comprised of five rooms. Even though their rooms were on the first floor, their bathrooms were accessible by a staircase.

The museum’s art really begins on the first floor of the palace. Making your way up the stone stairs, you will be greeted by a statue of Federico himself. Upstairs, 29 rooms are open to the public. This floor is separated into apartments of Iole, the Sweet Oranges, Guests, the Duke’s and the Duchess’s bedrooms along with a reception room and the upper loggias. These rooms consist of works of art that date back from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

The Ducal Palace fireplace is huge. Our editor-in-chief, Ashley Ford, stands in front for size reference.
This is Michele di Giovani da Fiesole’s Il Greco.                                                                                    Photo by Denise Harroff

The Duke and Duchess lived in the first part of the palace while their own rooms were being built on the opposite side. The first room you’ll enter is the first of seven rooms that make up the Apartment of Iole. Here stands the famous fireplace created by Michele di Giovani da Fiesole known as Il Greco. On each side of the fireplace stands a statue of Hercules and Iole supporting the mantle decorated by baby angels and other figures. On the very top of the fireplace are two baby angels, one male and one female holding a shield with the family crest of the eagle.

Walking through the rest of the Apartment of Iole, you will find the Master of the Barberini Panels, the painted wooden room that was used as a bedchamber Duke’s bed. This bedchamber was believed to be created by Federico Zeri. Many religious paintings hang throughout the Apartment of Iola of Madonna with her child, crucifixions of Jesus and frescos.

The next set of rooms is the Apartment of the Sweet Oranges. These rooms were intended as guest quarters. In one room you’ll find the “Master of Campodonico,” a fresco that illustrates the annunciation. On one wall hangs a polyptych, a wooden panel called “Madonna with Angles and Saints,” painted by Giovani Baronzio with many scenes from biblical history: Adoration of the Magi, Presentation at the Temple, Last Supper, Capture of Christ, Crucifixion and Annunciation.

The next four rooms are more guest apartments for “princesses, ambassadors, cardinals and bishops.” According to Dal Poggetto, these rooms “are among the most richly decorated in the building.” On display in this section of the palace are more polychrome wooden paintings such as Sculptor from Camerino, also known as the Madonna of Mercy. This gilded polychrome wooden sculpture illustrates Madonna looking down at baby Jesus as he looks up to her while people pray under her, surrounded by her cloak. This piece dates to the second half of the 15th century.

The next set of rooms make up the Duke’s Apartment, which consist of the Audience Chamber, the Chapel of Guidubaldo and Loggia Between the Turrets, the Studiolo, the Duke’s Wardrobe and the Duke’s Bedroom. This area is known has the heart of the Ducal Palace. “The Audience Chamber is where Federico administered justice,” Dal Pogetto writes.This not perfectly square room features a remarkable fireplace and beautiful doors created by Baccio Pontelli. These doors illustrate musical and military instruments that date to the second half of the 15th century.

Federico’s Studiolo is one of the most magnificent spaces in the palace, filled floor to ceiling with art. The tops of the walls are lined with 28 painting of Illustrious Men, those of biblical character, Latin and Greek philosophers and poets, theologians, jurists and two popes. The bottom half of the room is covered with art of inlaid wood in minute detail. Shelves of books, candles, awards and racks of armor look real. The works of art in this room were created by Benedetto da Maiano and Florentine.

Next on the stroll through the palace are the Reception Rooms with the Room of Angels, the Throne Room and the Room of Gatherings. These giant rooms were perfect for entertainment and were used for receptions and parties. The blue-and-gold color scheme, Federico da Montefeltro’s colors, is seen throughout these glorious rooms. The name “Room of Angels” comes from the grand fireplace created by Domenico Rosselli. This fireplace is covered in baby angels dancing and holding hands. At the top of the fireplace, two baby angels float while holding the crest of the eagle.

Displayed in this room is a famous door created by Sandro Botticelli, Triumphs of the Virtues. This large door features Apollo and Pallas Athena at the top of the door while the lower half is a fragment of the painting Ideal City on the bottom.

The enormous Throne Room is 35 meters long, 15 meters wide and 17 meters high and was “used for celebrations and displays of Signore’s military and dynastic power,” according to Dal Poggetto. Hanging on the walls is the incomplete series of Raphael’s tapestries, Acts of the Apostles. This room is now filled with other works of art that hang on giant orange blocks.

The Room of Gatherings includes some of the most important pieces of art to Urbino. Here you will find the Luciano Laurana’s elongated panel painting, The Ideal City, that depicts a well-ordered society displaying innovated architecture symbolizing the perfect city. Beside it is a three-dimensional sculpted version of the panel as well. The Saint Roch painting is also located in this room. This is important to Urbino history because it was painted by Giovanni Santi, the father of Raphaelo.

The final rooms of the first floor are the Apartment of the Duchess, which consists of five rooms. After you walk through the Through Room, you will find yourself in the Salon of the Duchess. This exquisite room has a stucco ceiling composed of festoons and medallions. You will also find Raphael’s Portrait of a Gentlewoman, also known as La Muta.

From the Bedroom of the Duchess, you can enter either the Wardrobe of the Duchess or the Prayer Room of the Duchess. In the wardrobe room there is a door that connects to the Duke’s bedroom.

Ducal Palace at Night

The second story of the palace displays a different feel of art that some might describe as a bit darker. Entering the second floor, you’re greeted by two grotesque ceramic candelabras. Works of art in these 10 rooms date to the 16th and 17th century period.

The second floor is known as Della Rovere Apartment that consists of 10 rooms.

“The first large room on the second floor is exclusively dedicated to one of the great local genius: Federico Barocci, who was born, lived and died in Urbino,” the palace guide explains. His works include some of his most famous, Madonna di San Giovanni, Crucifixion and Mourners, Madonna di Sa Simone, Forgiveness of Assisi, Entombment of Christ, Saint Francis receives the stigmata, Assumption of the Virgin and Portrait of man.

The second room of the Della Rovere Apartment entrances you with its stone fireplace with gold decoration. The next couple rooms feature art work from Orazio Gentileschi, Pomarancio, Simone Cantarini, Giocan Francesco Guerrieri and Sassoferrato. These works of art brought new ideas in art such as the treatment of light.

The final three rooms of the upstairs are known as Della Rovere Upper Storeys. Making your way through a small Through Room, you’ll find yourself in the first room of Della Rovere’s Upper Storeys. The palace guidebook describes it this way: “On permanent display is an extremely interesting topographic design consisting of 34 sheets of paper representing that State of Urbino immediately before devolution to the Church in 1631…”

The next room is filled with around 200 ceramic pieces that came from the Ducal Palace buildings as well as from the Della Rovere Duchy. Some of the ceramics are not intact and are put together like puzzles. “Display cases hold plates, vases, salt-cellars, egg cups, and other tableware, ink pots and other writing tools, religious objects, and in particular pharmacists’ jars,” the guidebook notes.

The final room, Gallery Overlooking the Garden of Pasquino, was my favorite room of artworks. The art displayed was none like I’d seen through the whole palace. You could tell the art done during this time was inspired by something that hadn’t been done before or just wasn’t popular until this time. There were two types of artworks that made up this room. Huge paintings on canvas hung closely together on a long wall. The only bareness on the walls was the windows that looked out to the beautiful Garden of Pasquino.

The two types of art were either painted mainly of blue and yellow or dark as if they were sketches that are referred to as “monochrome” canvases. These unique works of art were created by Claudio Ridolfi and Girolamo Cialdieri. These 17 monochrome canvases depict events in the Della Rovere family, including the Baptism of Federico Ubaldo.

On the ground floor is the Garden of Pasquino that can be viewed from the final room of the palace. Also on this floor, “occupying five rooms on the eastern side of the courtyard” is the Urbino Archaeological Museum. Three additional rooms make up the Rooms on the South Side while another eight rooms make up the Rooms on the West Side.

One of the best-preserved rooms is the Banqueting Hall. Also on this floor is the Chapel of Forgiveness, the Temple of the Muses and the Convention Room, also known as the Winter Garden.

The Ducal Palace is the heart of Urbino. You can see this heart no matter where you are in the city. But when walking through the rooms, being inside the building, I was overwhelmed with the grand size of the rooms. These nearly empty rooms are only left with the beauty that has been preserved with it. Gold crown molding, empowering statues, historic paintings and the elaborate, intricate fireplaces will always be engraved into my mind forever.

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