Anniversaries are a time for special initiatives and there is an important one coming up in 2022: the 600th anniversary of the birth of Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino (1422 – 1482). Unquestionably one of the most iconic figures of the Renaissance, which is why I think it is worth proposing a short tour of Marche. Firstly, a stroll through Urbino, which most people surely already know, but most of all a trip through the area around it, which instead has a few surprises in store.
To appreciate the moral legacy of the Urbino Renaissance that developed around Federico, one obviously needs to visit the city’s Palazzo Ducale, with its collection of art treasures, but I also think it is important to see the places where the influence of the taste of the Montefeltro court was felt for centuries. Like the second ducal residence, devoted to otium (Latin for leisure): Casteldurante. Now known as Urbania, it was renowned in the Renaissance for pictorial (istoriato) majolica, exemplars of which are now the pride of the world’s greatest museums, from the Hermitage and the V&A to the Louvre and the Met.
The twenty or so kilometres that separate Urbino and Urbania, along state road 73 bis, is an experience in itself and, when the weather is nice, popular with walkers and bicyclists. Above the hills, which alternate between old oak trees and farmland, the view opens onto the Apennines and a flourishing countryside that produces such delights as white truffle and cave-aged cheese. The first stop in Urbania is also the Palazzo Ducale, to visit the museum and city library. Built by Federico, it was altered by his successors in the 16th century and is worth a visit not only for the important works of art but also the view over the Metauro river from the loggia, which must have brightened the days of the dukes and their guests.
I think that the river itself is a good start for a less conventional celebration of Federico da Montefeltro, who was to be sure a great military captain and man of culture but also first and foremost a man of his time, who dedicated his leisure to the favourite activity of noblemen like himself: hunting. The Metauro river rings Urbania’s old town on three sides, and there are numerous little trails that run from the walls down to the riverbed, amidst sandstone cliffs, the very same paths taken by the dukes to get to the hunting reserve, Il Barco. What remains of the original oak wood is now a public park, in the middle of which one finds the Franciscan complex of San Giovanni Battista. A vast 18th-century monastery with Vanvitellian symmetry, brick surfaces and simple, harmonic volumes, standing alone in the green and brown countryside. Together with the grounds, it is a monument to the fragile, invaluable balance between humanity and nature that only history can teach us. A lesson that, in my view, we dearly need to learn.