In search of: Federico in Urbino

He had a lust for power, an eye for a good painting and one of the most extraordinary noses in history. Adrian Mourby goes to Urbino, powerbase of a Renaissance warlord

Federico? Who he?

Oh, you know him. You may not recognise the name but, really, you do know him. Federico da Montefeltro was Duke of Urbino back in the 15th century and he got all the celebrity artists to paint him – Piero della Francesca, Joos van Ghent, Benedetto da Maiano, Cristoforo Landino, Pedro Berruguete. With his extraordinary hooked nose and distinctive red hat, Federico is one of the best-known faces of the Renaissance.

He's particularly famous for the diptych (two picture panels hinged together) that shows him on the right facing his second wife, Battista Sforza, on the left. This portrait of Federico's brief but happy marriage was one of at least two ducal portraits commissioned from Piero della Francesca and it shows off the famous nose in brutal detail. Federico was always painted in profile. In fact, he was one of the first public figures to recognise that we all have a good side and a bad side. In his case it wasn't difficult to work out which was which as he'd lost the other eye, along with part of his nose, in a youthful jousting accident.

And... ?

Federico was the illegitimate heir to Urbino, a medieval hill town to the east of Florence. There are pictures of him everywhere, and, in the Palazzo Ducale, a portrait of, so they say, Oddantonio, the legitimate heir whom Federico deposed. He can be seen, it is said, in The Flagellation of Christ, also by Piero. It is a famous curiosity because our attention is focused on the foreground where a youth and his two advisers are taking not a blind bit of notice of Jesus's plight. The effete young man is thought to be Oddantonio, with his two ineffectual advisers. All three were thrown to their deaths in 1444 in Federico's palazzo coup.

But was Federico any better?

Oh yes, for all that he had made his fortune as mercenary and come to Urbino as a usurper, Federico brought prosperity and culture to the city. He created a splendid brick palace whose twin towers (by Luciano Laurana) can still be seen rising dramatically over the approaches to the town. He also filled his library with enough books to make it one of the largest in 15th-century Europe.

Federico was a great patron and friend of the famous. His study is entirely decorated with inlaid wood, much of it designed by Sandro Botticelli, and he received the order of the garter from Edward IV. You'll see it ostentatiously displayed in a full-length portrait by Pedro Berruguete, hung in the Ducal Palace.

So, he had everything going for him?

In some senses, yes. He lived well and ruled well. In 1462 the Pope made him Gonfalonier (Supreme Commander of Christian Forces) and he was responsible not just for bringing the Renaissance to Urbino but for turning it, briefly, into one of the cultural centres of Europe.

And yet there was also great sadness, too. In 1472, Battista, who was very much Federico's intellectual equal, died, leaving him with a young son Guidobaldo. A poignant picture of Federico painted in 1476 by Berrugete hangs in the palazzo showing him reading while four-year-old Guidobaldo leans against his father's knee, holding the ducal sceptre. Although the portrait celebrates Federico's award of the garter from England and ermine from Naples, its tone is domestic and brings home the loneliness of father and son. Guidobaldo succeeded to the throne in 1482, but was always sickly. Upon his early death the dukedom passed to cousins and in time the court moved to Pesaro. Urbino's brief golden age was over.

What is there to see today?

The palazzo truly dominates Urbino and is well worth a tour. It's a fine building with one of the earliest Renaissance courtyards. Amazing to think that Luciano Laurana was creating this kind of refinement for his patron, Battista, at a time when all the British were capable of was walloping each other in the Wars of the Roses.

Look out for the hanging garden that separates the Duke and Duchess's apartments, the fabulous view from Federico's balcony between those twin towers, and the many coats of arms. The diptych is currently on loan to the palazzo (from the Uffizi in Florence) and is well worth seeing, as is The Ideal City, ,although the authorship of this empty Renaissance panorama is unclear. There are also Titians within, and paintings by local boy Raphael Sanzio.

The Raphael?

Yes, indeed. The artist was born here while his father, Giovanni, was organising feasts and ceremonies at the courts of Federico and Guidobaldo. Urbino is built on two hills. The palazzo and Duomo sit on the southernmost while Raphael's birthplace can be found on the road that leads from Piazza della Repubblica up to the northern summit. To make things really easy Urbino has rechristened it Via Raffaello.

How do I get there?

Ryanair (0870 333123; www.ryanair.com) offers daily flights from London Stansted to Ancona, from £38 return. Car hire in Le Marche is essential. Holiday Autos (0870 400 0000) offers one week's car hire in Italy from £200. Cottages to Castles (01622 775217; www.cottagestocastles.com) has a new property 10 minutes' drive from Urbino, available from January for £330 per week and sleeping two.

For further information about Urbino contact the Italian Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.antor.com/Italy/).

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