Federico da Montefeltro’s perfect palace
by Giuseppe Frangi
To build the Ducal Palace in Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro first hired the Dalmatian architect Francesco Laurana, and then entrusted the final stages of construction to a star of Italian Renaissance, Francesco di Giorgio Martini.
The result was a prototype of what may very well be the perfect palace, able to convey infinite beauty yet seem immediately livable. A few details of the structure reveal a perfection that is far beyond simple aesthetics. The palace was built on one of the two hills that overlook Urbino, and was meant to be a fortress – except the architects who designed it obviously followed an incredibly free interpretation of this idea.
The façade facing the valley, for example, is reminiscent of a stronghold with two great towers, but Laurana turned the towers into the famous ‘torricelli’: swift, narrow, and so completely inefficient as a defense they only looked welcoming from below. Some have said that this façade was a reflection of the person who lived within those walls, because although Federico da Montefeltro gained his immense riches by skillfully guiding armies at the service of whoever made the best offer, he was a completely different man at home. Even on the other side of the palace, facing the square, the portal is devoid of any real defense. Instead of providing it with a couple of guard posts, the Duke had the jambs decorated with bas-reliefs representing weapons. That was all the protection he needed.
Passed the threshold, the courtyard is open to the light and harmonious – more than you would ever expect. On the four sides it is surmounted by an elegant inscription, set in magnificent capital letters, telling the story of Federico’s fortunate life. Some say that hundreds of people once visited this courtyard every day, because the Duke – when not at war – was surprisingly open and friendly. The courtyard leads to the downstairs servants quarters, with a large kitchen area, laundry facilities and the stables, all provided with perfect hydraulic systems to guarantee hygiene. On the same level as the courtyard there is also the Federico’s legendary library, his favorite room in the palace.
And finally, through a wide corner staircase, from the courtyard you could reach the first floor – the most wonderful of the palace. This is where Federico had his rooms, designed to be pleasant and welcoming, not to represent his power and authority. This is also where he had a fantastic small office carved out between the bedroom and anteroom: a microcosm covered in inlaid wood – veritable masterpieces of the Quattrocento – which with their perspectives offered the intimate, limited space of the smallest room in the palace a whole range of vanishing points. Today’s visitors, not used to such precious details, are often disoriented by this endless exchange between real and virtual space.
Another surprise awaits upon exiting through a very narrow vestibule: a window opening right on the balcony that stretches between the ‘torricelli’ – perhaps the first balcony in the history of architecture. From here, Federico dominated the beauty of the valleys, confirming his role of peaceful prince, so powerful that extraordinary measures of defense were unnecessary. Furthermore, Laurana added spiral staircases inside the towers: the servants used them to get around the palace, but they also led to Federico’s bathroom in the basement. This special room, designed by Francesco di Giorgio, was outfitted with advanced water and heating systems: cleanliness was a strict rule in the palace, a principle the Duke had taken from the lifestyle of classical antiquity. Back in the bedrooms, another discovery: an opening beside the wardrobe leads to a walkway that connects the two wings of the palace. On the other side, Federico could reach the rooms of his beloved wife, Battista Sforza –portrayed next to him in Piero della Francesca’s amazing diptych, now showcased in the Uffizi. This passageway of love allowed the Duke to visit the woman he adored, and who finally bore him a long-awaited son and heir, Guidobaldo, in 1472.