Castel del Monte
Castel Sismondo / Rocca Malatestiana
Palace of Urbino<
Europe in the Middle Ages
Life in Medieval Castles
Medieval Castles > Castles Italy > Palace of Urbino
Palace of Urbino
Location: Urbino, Italy
Built in: 1454
The sunset was almost spent, and a four days' moon hung above the Western Apennines, when we took our first view of the palace. It is a fancy-thralling work of wonder seen in that dim twilight; like some castle reared by Atlante's magic for imprisonment of Ruggiero, or palace sought in fairyland by Astolf winding his enchanted horn.
Where shall we find its like, combining, as it does, the buttressed battlemented bulk of mediaeval strongholds with the airy balconies, suspended gardens, and fantastic turrets of Italian pleasure-houses?
This unique blending of the feudal past with the Renaissance spirit of the time when it was built, connects it with the art of Ariosto or more exactly with Boiardo's epic. Duke Federigo planned his palace at Urbino just at the moment when the Count of Scandiano had begun to chaunt his lays of Roland in the Castle of Ferrara. Chivalry, transmuted by the Italian genius into something fanciful and quaint, survived as a frail work of art. The man-at-arms of the Condottieri still glittered in gilded hauberks. Their helmets waved with plumes and bizarre crests. Their surcoats blazed with heraldries; their velvet caps with medals bearing legendary emblems. The pomp and circumstance of feudal war had not yet yielded to the cannon of the Gascon or the Switzer's pike.
The fatal age of foreign invasions had not begun for Italy. Within a few years Charles VIII.'s holiday excursion would reveal the internal rottenness and weakness of her rival states, and the peninsula for half a century to come would be drenched in the blood of Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, fighting for her cities as their prey. But now Lorenzo de'Medici was still alive. The famous policy which bears his name held Italy suspended for a golden time in false tranquillity and independence. The princes who shared his culture and his love of art were gradually passing into modern noblemen, abandoning the savage feuds and passions of more virile centuries, yielding to luxury and scholarly enjoyments. The castles were becoming courts, and despotisms won by force were settling into dynasties.
It was just at this epoch that Duke Federigo built his castle at Urbino. One of the ablest and wealthiest Condottieri of his time, one of the best instructed and humanest of Italian princes, he combined in himself the qualities which mark that period of transition. And these he impressed upon his dwelling-house, which looks backward to the mediaeval fortalice and forward to the modern palace. This makes it the just embodiment in architecture of Italian romance, the perfect analogue of the "Orlando Innamorato." By comparing it with the castle of the Estes at Ferrara and the Palazzo del Te of the Gonzagas at Mantua, we place it in its right position between mediaeval and Renaissance Italy, between the age when principalities arose upon the ruins of commercial independence and the age when they became dynastic under Spain.
The exigencies of the ground at his disposal forced Federigo to give the building an irregular outline. The fine faqade, with its embayed loggie and flanking turrets, is placed too close upon the city ramparts for its due effect. We are obliged to cross the deep ravine which separates it from a lower quarter of the town, and take our station near the Oratory of S. Giovanni Battista, before we can appreciate the beauty of its design, or the boldness of the group it forms with the cathedral dome and tower and square masses of numerous out-buildings. Yet this peculiar position of the palace, though baffling to a close observer of its details, is one of singular advantage to its inhabitants. Set on the verge of Urbino's towering eminence, it fronts a wave-tossed sea of vales and mountain summits towards the rising and the setting sun. There is nothing but illimitable air between the terraces and loggias of the Duchess's apartments and the spreading pyramid of Monte Catria.
A nobler scene is nowhere swept from palace windows than this, which Castiglione touched in a memorable passage at the end of his Cortegiano. To one who in our day visits Urbino, it is singular how the slight indications of this sketch, as in some silhouette, bring back the antique life, and link the present with the past -a hint, perhaps, for reticence in our descriptions. The gentlemen and ladies of the court had spent a summer night in long debate on love, rising to the height of mystical Platonic rapture on the lips of Bembo, when one of them exclaimed, "The day has broken !" He pointed to the light which was beginning to enter by the fissures of the windows. Whereupon we flung the casements wide upon that side of the palace which looks towards the high peak of Monte Catria, and saw that a fair dawn of rosy hue was born already in the eastern skies, and all the stars had vanished except the sweet regent of the heaven of Venus, who holds the borderlands of day and night; and from her sphere it seemed as though a gentle wind were breathing, filling the air with eager freshness, and waking among the numerous woods upon the neighbouring hills the sweet-toned symphonies of joyous birds."
Duke Frederick began the palace at Urbino in 1454, when he was still only Count. The architect was Luziano of Lauranna, a Dalmatian, and the beautiful white limestone, hard as marble, used in the construction, was brought from the Dalmatian coast. This stone, like the Istrian stone of Venetian buildings, takes and retains the chisel mark with wonderful precision. It looks as though, when fresh, it must have had the pliancy of clay, so delicately are the finest curves in scroll or foliage scooped from its substance. And yet it preserves each cusp and angle of the most elaborate pattern with the crispness and the sharpness of a crystal. When wrought by a clever craftsman, its surface has neither the waxiness of the Parian, nor the brittle edge of Carrara marble; and it resists weather better than marble of the choicest quality. This may be observed in many monuments of Venice, where the stone has been long exposed to sea-air.These qualities of the Dalmatian limestone, no less than its agreeable creamy hue and smooth dull polish, adapt it to decoration in dull relief. The most attractive details in the palace at Urbino are friezes carved of this material in choice designs of early Renaissance dignity and grace. One chimney-piece in the Sala degli Angeli deserves special comment. A frieze of dancing Cupids, with gilt hair and wings, their naked bodies left white on a ground of ultramarine, is supported by broad flat pilasters. These are engraved with children holding pots of flowers; roses on one side, carnations on the other. Above the frieze another pair of angels, one at each end, hold lighted torches; and the pyramidal cap of the chimney is carved with two more, flying, and supporting the eagle of the Montefeltri on a raised medallion.
Throughout the palace we notice emblems appropriate to the Houses of Montefeltro and Della Rovere: their arms, three golden bends upon a field of azure: the Imperial eagle, granted when Montefeltro was made a fief of the Empire: The Garter of England, worn by the Dukes Federigo and Guidobaldo: The ermine of Naples: the wentosa, or cupping-glass, adopted for a private badge by Frederick: the golden oak-tree on an azure field of Della Rovere: thf palm-tree, bent beneath a block of stone, with its accom. panying motto, Inclinata Resurgam: the cipher, FE DX Profile medallions of Federigo and Guidobaldo, wrought in the lowest possible relief, adorn the staircases. Round the great courtyard runs a frieze of military engines and ensigns trophies, machines, and implements of war, alluding to, Duke Frederick's profession of Condottiere. The door ways are enriched with scrolls of heavy-headed flower; acanthus foliage, honey-suckles, ivy-berries, birds and boys and sphinxes, in all the riot of Renaissance fancy.
This profusion of sculptured rilievo is nearly all that remains to show how rich the palace was in things of beauty. Castiglione, writing in the reign of Guidobaldo, says that "in the opinion of many it is the fairest to be found in Italy; and the Duke filled it so well with all things fitting its magnificence, that it seemed less like a palace than a city. Not only did he collect articles of common use, vessels of silver, the trappings for chambers of rare cloths of gold and silk, and such-like furniture, but he added multitudes of bronze and marble statues, exquisite pictures, and instruments of music of all sorts. There was nothing but was of the finest and most excellent quality to be seen there. Moreover, he gathered together at a vast cost a large number of the best and rarest books on Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, all of which he adorned with gold and silver, esteeming them the chiefest treasure of his spacious palace." When Cesare Borgia entered Urbino as conqueror in 1502, he is said to have carried off loot to the value of 150,000 ducats, or perhaps about a quarter of a million sterling.
The impression left upon the mind after traversing this palace in its length and breadth is one of weariness and disappointment. How shall we reconstruct the long-past life which filled its rooms with sound, the splendour of its pageants, the thrill of tragedies enacted here? It is not difficult to crowd its doors and vacant spaces with liveried servants, slim pages in tight hose, whose well-combed hair escapes from tiny caps upon their silken shoulders. We
may even replace the tapestries of Troy which hung one hall, and build again the sideboards with their embossed gilded plate. But are these chambers really those where Emilia Pia held debate on love with Bembo and Castiglione ; where Bibbiena's witticisms and Fra Serafino's pranks raised smiles on courtly lips; where Bernardo Accolti, "the Unique," declaimed his verses to applauding crowds?
Is it possible that into yonder hall, where now the lion of S. Mark looks down alone on staring desolation, strode the Borgia in all his panoply of war, a gilded glittering dragon, and from the dais tore the Montefeltri's throne, and from the arras stripped their ensigns, replacing those with his own Bull and Valentinus Dux? Here Tasso tuned his lyre for Francesco Maria's wedding-feast and read Iminta to Lucrezia d'Este. Here Guidobaldo listened to the jests and whispered scandals of the Aretine. Here Titian set his easel up to paint; here the boy Raphael, cap in hand, took, signed and sealed credentials from his Duchess to the Gonfalonier of Florence. Somewhere in these huge chambers, the courtiers sat before a torch-lit stage, when Bibbiena's Calandria and Castiglione's Tirsi, with their miracles of masques and mummers, whiled the night away. Somewhere, we know not where, Guiliano de'Medici made love in these bare rooms to that mysterious mother of illfated Cardinal Ippolito; somewhere, in some darker nook, the bastard Alessandro sprang to his strange - fortuned life of tyranny and license, which Brutus Lorenzino cut short with a traitor's poignard-thrust in Via Larga.
How many men, illustrious for arts and letters, memorable by their virtues or their crimes, have trod these silent corridors, from the great Pope Julius down to James III., self-titled King of England, who tarried here with Clementina Sobieski through some twelve months of his ex-royal exile! The memories of all this folk, flown guests and masters of the still-abiding palace-chambers, haunt us as we hurry through. They are but filmy s hadows. We cannot grasp them, localize them, people surrounding emptiness with more than withering cobweb forms.
It is easier to conjure up the past of this great palace, strolling round it in free air and twilight; perhaps because the landscape and the life still moving, on the city streets bring its exterior into harmony with real existence. The southern faqade, with its vaulted balconies and flanking towers, takes the fancy, fascinates the eye, and lends itself as a fit stage for puppets of the musing mind. Once more imagination plants trim orange-trees in giant jars of Gubbio ware upon the pavement where the garden of the Duchess lay the pavement paced in these bad days by convicts in grey canvas jackets-that pavement where Monsignor Bembo courted "dear dead women" with Platonic phrase, smothering the Menta of his natural man in lettuce culled from Academe and thyme of Mount Hymettus. In yonder loggia, lifted above the garden and the court, two lovers are in earnest converse.
They lean beneath the coffered arch, against the marble of the balustrade, he fingering his dagger under the dark velvet doublet, she playing with a clove carnation, deep as her own shame. The man is Giannandrea, broad-shouldered bravo of Verona, Duke Guidobaldo's favourite and carpet-count. The lady is Madonna Maria, daughter of Rome's Prefect, widow of Venanzio Verano, whom the Borgia strangled. On their discourse a tale will hang of a woman's frailty and a man's boldness Camerino's Duchess yielding to a low-born suitor's stalwart charms. And more will follow, when that lady's brother, furious Francesco Maria della Rovere, shall stab the bravo in torch-litten, palace-rooms with twenty poignard strokes 'twixt waist and throat, and their Pandarus shall be sent down to his account by a varlet's coltellata through the midriff.
Imagination shifts the scene, and shows in that same loggia Rome's warlike Pope, attended by his cardinals and all Urbino's chivalry. The snowy beard of Julius flows down upon his breast, where jewels clasp the crimson mantle, as in Raphael's picture. His eyes are bright with wine; for he has come to gaze on sunset from the banquetchamber and to watch the line of lamps which soon will leap along that palace cornice in his honour. Behind him lies Bologna humbled.
The Pope returns, a conqueror to Rome. Yet once again imagination is at work. A gaunt, bold man, close-habited in Spanish black, his spare, fine features carved in purest ivory, leans from that balcony. Gazing with hollow eyes, he tracks the swallows in their flight, and notes that winter is at hand. This is the last Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria II., he whose young wife deserted him, who made for himself alone a hermitpedant's round of petty cares and niggard avarice and mean brained superstition. He drew a second consort from the convent, and raised up seed unto his line by forethought, but beheld his princeling fade untimely in the bloom of boyhood. Nothing is left but solitude. To the mortmain of the Church reverts Urbino's lordship, and even now he meditates the terms of devolution. Jesuits cluster in the rooms behind, with comfort for the- ducal soul and calculations for the interests of Holy See.
Filippo Visconti, with a smile on his handsome face, is waiting for us at the inn. His horses sleek, well-fed, and rested, toss their heads impatiently. We take our seats in the carriage, open wide beneath a sparkling sky, whirl past the palace and its ghost-like recollections, and are half-way on the road to Fossombrone in a cloud of dust and whir of wheels before we think of looking back to greet Urbino. There is just time. The last decisive turning lies in front. We stand bareheaded to salute the grey mass of buildings ridged along the sky. Then the open road invites us with its varied scenery and movement.