By Sarah Titus, Staff Writer
What looks like a medieval castle from times long ago looms from the intersection of two hills in the Marche region of northern Italy. With sunlight glistening off the stone walls of the city surrounding this castle, one cannot help but get swept away and feel as though they have surely stepped back in time. This is the city of Urbino.
After flying into the Bologna airport, one can take a two hour train ride and then a 45 minute bus ride, to reach the city. Being so secluded from the larger cities in this region of Italy and seemingly nowhere near the more popular vacation destinations such as Rome or Venice, it is easy to wonder why so many people make the trek to Urbino. One of the reasons art lovers travel from all over the globe to this small, quaint rural town is because of an artist who came from Urbino and the legacy he left behind within the stone walls.
Urbino is the birthplace of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, often referred to by English speakers as Raphael. Raffaello grew up surrounded by many artists, and was eventually hired by the Duke of Urbino himself to decorate the Palazzo Ducale, the Ducal Palace. The Ducal Palace is the building one immediately sees upon laying eyes on Urbino, for it is the palazzo that the wall around the city was built to protect. The hills were chosen on which to build the palace for the Duke to better view his surrounding properties in case of attack.
Raffaello grew up in Urbino, born in a home that visitors can tour. After working for Duke Federico da Montefeltro, Raffaello took his talents to Firenze (Florence) where he worked with both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Some of his more famous works are displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, including the Portraits of the Grand Dukes of Urbino.
One of Raffaello’s more famous pieces, known as the “Portrait of a Gentlewoman” but translated into Italian as La Muta, is currently housed in the Ducal Palace. Raffaello created this masterpiece in what is known as his Florentine Period which ranged from 1505-1507. After seeing the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, which is housed in Paris at the Louvre, it is evident where Raffaello received his inspiration for La Muta.
Lucia Vedovi, a visiting assistant professor at Kansas State University as well as a professor from Lingua Ideale with the University of Urbino, explained how Rafaello was able to study art and architecture. “It was during one of his many visits to the Ducal Palace that Giovanna, one of Federico’s daughters, realized how talented Raffaello was, and had him sent to Florence, first, where he could study Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s works, among many others; and then Rome, so that he could complete his artistic education, not only as a painter, but also as an architect,” Vedovi said.
The house where Raffaello was born and raised is not far from Urbino’s city center. If you are walking up the hill towards Piazzale Roma, it is located off of Via Raffaello Sanzio on the left hand side of the road. The house has undergone little restoration, making it all the more meaningful for art enthusiasts to be able to witness the actual environment of which this great painter received his artistic inspiration during his youth. In one of the rooms, there is a large fresco painted on the wall, titled “Madonna and Child.” It is said that Raffaello is the artist of this painting, but experts cannot determine if it is the work of him or of his father.
The home also opens up onto a small courtyard where there is a water well as well as a grinding stone that both Raffaello and his father used to create their own paints. It is clear that the family highly valued artistic expression, a value that Raffaello would carry with him into adulthood.
After exiting the house, there is the Piazzale Roma located at the top of the hill. There stands a larger than life statue of Raffaello. He seems to be looking out over the city, admiring the very streets of which he was raised and first learned his artistic talents.
It is truly stunning to walk the wide hallways of the Ducal Palace, stare out the windows that overlook the terracotta rooftops of Urbino, and know that Raffaello himself painted in these very rooms so many centuries ago. However, Raffaello did not spend too much time in Florence before he was chosen by the Pope to travel to Rome as an artist as well as architect. This is where he would contribute to the creation of the Basilica of St. Peter.
So why is Raffaello so important to this small Renaissance city? When asked if Raffaello had an impact on the city itself, Vedovi exclaimed, “He surely did! Not so much when he was alive, as Urbino already was one of the most important courts in Europe, and many artists and noblemen regularly traveled to the Montefeltro territory, hosted by Federico; but, Raffaello definitely contributed to making Urbino famous again, in the whole world, after the Renaissance, and his works still do, today.” She went on to explain that he is “known as ‘Raffaello da Urbino’ (Raphael from Urbino), and Urbino still is a must-see place for contemporary artists, scholars, and art lovers, who greatly admire his paintings.”
Artistic Guide to Urbino