La Citta Ideale

27 August 2013
Ben Pentreath

It’s strange how time flies on holiday. I’m lying in my hotel bedroom in Rome, in the middle of a massive thunderstorm (during which I could not of course resist running down to see the rain pouring through the open oculus of the Pantheon, which must be one of the most thrilling sights on earth, even if you do get completely drenched on the way)… at the end of an incredible day and a half of walking and walking, and it’s only a matter of days since we visited Urbino, and already it seems another life away. I love the time warp that happens when you take on too many new sights and sounds all in one go.

For a very long time I’ve dreamed of going to Urbino. I guess I was first told about Luciano Laurana’s Courtyard of Honour in the Ducal Palace of Urbino in my first year History of Art at University. Then again, perhaps I wasn’t told about it at all – maybe I merely knew that famous Courtyard from a book cover that I feel certain many readers of a particular age and background will remember… the Thames & Hudson edition of John Summerson’s The Classical Language of Architecture… which I have a feeling was one of those books I was meant to read again and again for various courses; but generally I just stared at the cover and daydreamed…

…of being right there.

Well, eventually it came true. Valentina and I had talked about getting to Urbino for years, but somehow it never quite happened. Always a bit too far, or perhaps we were a bit too disorganised. So this time last summer, right at the end of the holiday, we made a pact to sort it out. Back in the spring, we fixed a date, and I booked a hotel, and didn’t think a lot more about it until last Wednesday when Val, Kate and I set off early one morning for Le Marche, way over on the eastern coast; destination Urbino.

Urbino is one of those places, like Pienza in Tuscany, or perhaps, I guess, like Florence itself, which was built at a time when people were obsessed about creating the Ideal City. Of course, it’s far from that (um, for a start, it’s incredibly hilly… which makes it very beautiful but somehow not Ideal), but there’s something – something – about Urbino which is as pretty close to the idea of Civilisation as I’ve seen.  So it’s no surprise to find this painting, Laurana’s Ideal City, hanging in the Ducal Palace.  Yes, yes, I should have known that, but all I can say is I was never particularly brilliant at paying attention to the facts.

You are probably already familiar with the famous creator of it all, Federico, Duke of Urbino, whose crook nose and red hat, in splendid profile, are made famous by Piero della Francesca.

Laurana’s courtyard is one of the most perfect Renaissance spaces that I know. Everything from its scale, to the arrangement of parts, to the materials and lettering is… just right. The photographs are from our visit on the first afternoon, when the place was nearly empty; I am not sure if there are any day trippers to Urbino, but if so they had all gone home. The following morning I had a nice two hours measuring it, which is about the best way to get to understand a building that there is.

The incredible, gentle, grand staircase that runs up one corner of the Palace.

I love scenes like these, which you will find all over the Palace. I particularly enjoy the random bench shoved in front of a doorway.  But what I also love is the way the doorway is tucked in the corner.

The ceiling of the tiny lobby leading to Federico’s studiolo.

One of the more beautiful parts of what was already ranking as one of the top choices in ‘the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen list’ is the vast array of subterranean vaulted chambers that serviced the Palace: kitchens, stables, cellar, baths and boiler houses.

This is a building I must return to. I bought the heaviest (Italian, and I don’t speak Italian) text book you have ever seen, and sent it back to England with my friend Will who is driving home across Italy and France in a rather glamorous fashion.

As dusk fell we settled in to drinks in the piazza before a perfect dinner at a tiny restaurant called Le Tre Piante which you must eat at if you ever come.

And now I want to know more about this film that was playing at the Cinema Ducale Teatro, which I think has just been released.

I know it’s not a very interesting thing to say, but I love walking through Italian towns at night.

And even more, I love waking up very early before anyone is around and having a walk before breakfast.

On the long drive over the mountains from Siena to Urbino, I had joked that we would probably find the entire city under scaffolding. I wasn’t entirely wrong (you will see what I mean later). But I can’t say I minded too much watching the latest batch being installed early that morning.

You know exactly what I’m talking about don’t you?

Yes. Well… it was all getting a little bit too art historical.

I love those tiny moments of life where you blink…

and you’ve missed it.

In amongst the incredibly dense warren of narrow streets are breathtaking distant views glimpsed to the mountains beyond.

God is in the tiny details.

Try showing that photograph to a local authority highways engineer demanding 2.0m wide footpaths on either side of the road. I popped into a doorway.

And then made my way to the Piazza della Republica for breakfast with Kate and Valentina. The anciennes were watching the world go by (and if you like them, you might enjoy my post from Sicily, a couple of years ago, ‘Where are all the happy old guys?‘).

I was of course particularly liking the logo on the truck. Perfection. (quite nice fountain too?)

Anyway, the old boys weren’t just having dull chats about nothing.

Yet again I’ve gone a bit crazy for old Italian typefaces.  I suspect further blogs may follow.

But then we discovered the Botanical Garden at which point I basically died and went to Urbino heaven.

You see what I mean?

We have a rule in the office to try not to design buildings that look like faces. This one looks rather sad, don’t you think? The northernmost town gate. We walked over to the nearby fort from which extraordinary views open up over the city to the mountains beyond.

Where one has to try a little bit hard to avoid taking photographs of the crane and scaffolding that I mentioned earlier…

I remember a similar crane that lived in Siena for, I don’t know, about 10 years. I sort of don’t mind.

What we really loved about Urbino is that it doesn’t feel like a dry tourist place. Perhaps it gets reality and vibrancy from the famous University? The town is full of beautiful bookshops and even more beautiful students (enough photos already). Or perhaps because it’s just a bit harder to get to that your usual run-of-the-mill places. You wouldn’t want to do a day trip from Florence. Who knows? But it has a magic and I cannot wait to return and get to know it better.

All too soon it was time to go. One last visit to the Courtyard of Honour, with my tape measure,

and then the long drive back across the windy narrow mountain pass, and a late lunch in Sansepolcro, where we were too tired to look at the Pieros, and where I was most taken by these clothes pegs…

…And then home. Very tired, but very happy.

19 comments on this post


I have enjoyed your holiday as much as you have. Some of the photographs reminded me of young David Hicks in Florence mimicking the pose of David on Piazzale Michelangelo, Turin. While you have been having fun in the sun I have been raising money for the Cavell Trust and climbed Snowdon on Saturday. Stayed at the Bryn Twyrch Inn which was very hospitable and great food, but decor needs your magic touch. Ben

I was just browsing the Blue Guides to Italy, trying to decide where to go in February … You’ve made my decision very easy!

Deby (in Canada)says:

Thank you for sharing… we are all so lucky you have such splendid holidays!


Going there again very soon. I didn’t know about the Orto Botanico, we will try and visit. The Piero ‘Risen Christ’ in Sansepolcro is really worth seeing, as is the ‘Pregnant Madonna’ in nearby Monterchi. Go up into the little town square and see the memorial to some British and Indian troops killed in 1944.

Lovely photos and never thought of visiting THAT early but I will have to do that -i can’t bear crowds like THAT!

Pierre Bourassasays:

… and what a treat for us all! Thank you for sharing!

I finally got to Urbino about 15 years ago, and your gorgeouspost brought it all hauntingly back. The most exquisite place but I think it’s almost impossible to be allowed to live there -not to mention it is rather hard to get to. We were there the same trip I succumbed to the gorgeousness of the mosaics in Ravenna -having been sniffy about mosaics for ever.Did you get to see Raphael’s boyhood home? Should it ever become available my husband and I will move in.
Thanks again for my brief Italian holiday.

A further comment: When you mentioned that Urbino has hills and a famous university, it made me think of the setting of one of my favorite “get away” novels, Daphne du Maurier’s “Flight of the Falcon.” So I found an article about the book on Amanda Craig’s website (link below) and sure enough, du Maurier’s fictional city was based on Urbino. Ms. Craig writes, “What I particularly admire about Flight of the Falcon is the way its drama seems to spring from a geography and architecture that exists in real life. Just as the second Mrs. De Winter’s tale is indelibly marked by Manderley, and Cornwall, so Ruffano is intrinsic to Flight of the Falcon. Du Maurier’s city is virtually indistinguishable from Urbino, the remarkable city east of Florence…”
If you’ve not read the book, I recommend it. The plot is a little over-the-top, but the evocation of the Italian city, and the Italian people, is wonderful!

Hi Ben, I inadvertently left my comment for this lovely post, on your post of 24 Aug which had some of the same photos. Senior moment…!


You’re not mistaken. That John Summerson book is absolutely ‘de rigeur’. It had a thorough browsing very recently. VERY well researched – a little ramblin. On Urbino, it seems the epitome of restraint. And set against those hills, breathtaking.

Superb post, and John Summerson’s Classical Language of Architecture still in print and available from Thames & Hudson at a mere £8.95 !

Jenny Msays:

My heart yearns to return to Italy….I did throw a coin into the fountain. Wonderful photos, thank you for sharing them with us.


Your timing is perfect. I fly to Italy tomorrow morning to stay with a friend at his farmhouse 6k south of Urbino. In between riding Dom’s wonderful horses up in the Apenines, we shall be dawdling through the Ideal City as much as possible. You have a perfect eye (and not just for buildings…) – ever thought of leading art and architecture tours for sympathetic guests?

Dorothy Lindsaysays:

Hi Ben…..the northernmost town gate ‘face’ is a dead ringer for the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz!
Evocative photos; you can almost smell the heat – in more ways than one……


Beautiful! Now I understand why so many people love Italy.

I think I first discovered Urbino on one of Kenneth Clark’s Civilization TV broadcasts. I’ve always dreamed of going there and your post is a little bit of heaven for this reader. Not quite like being there in person yet a wonderful sense of the reality of the place. Thanks for another great post.


Ben, an architecture question. In the three photos following the sad face photo, I can see straight lines of black dots on the faces of the buildings, maybe 6″ square. Any idea what they are? The ends of joists?

Urbino is now on our list of places to visit – thank you for such a dreamy article.

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