Palazzo Ducale

Urbino, mid-1450s - mid-1480s

Architects:  Luciano Laurana, Francesco di Giorgio, and others





The Palazzo Ducale at Urbino is unlike the city palaces already seen due to its size and shape, which are a reflection of the long-term vision of its patron, Federico II da Montefeltro.  He ruled Urbino from 1444 until his death in 1482, and during all but the first few years of this period, he was involved with building the palace.


General Description

Several existing buildings were incorporated into this sprawling complex.


In having turrets, towers, and high walls terminating in crenellations, the palace resembles a fortified medieval castle.


Although it is located in the heart of Urbino, the palace is like a villa, spreading out over a hillside with open-air features like courtyards, terraces, and balconies.


Federico as the Motivating Force

Federico probably called for many of the palace's general features, but the specifics of the design would have been worked out by architects.


Although Luciano Laurana's participation after 1466 was crucial to the change in the palace's focus, Federico may also have been influenced by Alberti, with whom he had become acquainted at this time.


In addition to architects, Federico employed an army of craftsmen over the years to decorate the palace's walls and ceilings.  Relief carving was used to ornament trims, chimney-pieces, and other architectural features.






Many architects were involved with building the palace over the 30-some year period of its construction.  In general, work progressed from southeast to northwest.  Although the work progressed continuously, the project can be divided into three phases on the basis of its architects.


1450-66: Palazzetto della Iole

During the first phase, a three-wing palace that incorporated several pre-existing medieval structures was built.


1466-72: Main range and Courtyard

The palace's more innovative features were constructed during the second phase under Luciano Laurana.  This section included state reception rooms, Federico's private apartments, the courtyard, and the monumental staircase.


1476-85: Northern Section

Francesco di Giorgio, who also finished several parts that had been begun by Laurana, connected the main range to a medieval building on the north end.  His additions included a wing that opened onto a garden terrace, which was built over a utilitarian story containing stables, a cistern, and other practical features.


Dating According to Inscriptions

Many features of the palace's design can be dated by inscriptions of Federico's name or initials.  These note his status as a count until 1474 and as a duke thereafter.  His second title was awarded by Pope Sixtus IV.





New Wings

The Palazzetto della Iole, also called the Appartamento della Iole, is the earliest part of the palace to be built.  It is located at the southern end of the complex.  Two medieval buildings were joined and extended south to form the Palazzetto's east wing.  From its midpoint, a perpendicular wing was extended westward, and from it, another was extended northward, forming three sides of a courtyard that was built in the next phase.


Tower and Terrazza di Gallo

A medieval tower beside the new west wing was incorporated.  After the main range was built, a terrace, the Terrazza di Gallo, was added between its southern turret and the medieval tower.


Cortile del Pasquino

The Cortile del Pasquino was an open terrace formed by the palace's east and south wings in conjunction with a wall on the west side, where the land falls.  Although the wings forming its northern and eastern boundaries date to this period, the actual court was built later by Francesco di Giorgio.





Laurana's Period of Involvement

Luciano Laurana was involved with the Palazzo Ducale over a six-year period.


1466: Arrival and model.  Laurana began working for Federico in Urbino in 1466, and according to a recently discovered document, he had already prepared a model.


1468: Appointment.  Federico appointed Laurana as Chief Architect.


1472: Departure.  Laurana departed for Naples, leaving notes and drawings for others to follow.


Innovative Features

The most innovative parts of the palace were designed and begun by Laurana.


Courtyard. Laurana's courtyard was innovative in having right-angle piers at the corners and pilasters on the piano nobile that correspond to the columns on the ground story.


Staircase. Laurana's staircase, was innovative in its size and use of a wide short flight preceding two long flights at one side.


Main range. The rooms of the main range were innovative in having varied shapes and in progressing from large and public to small and personal.


Façade. The entrance façade, which consists of two wings forming an inside corner, was stylistically up-to-date in its use of smooth rustication, classically detailed trim, and rectangular, cross-mullioned windows.





Size and Location

The courtyard, the Cortile d'Onore, connects the Palazzetto della Iole, which enclose three of its sides, with Laurana's main range.  Its large size reflects the scale of the palace as a whole.



The courtyard was begun by its designer, Luciano Laurana, but its second story was probably built by Francesco di Giorgio.  The Latin inscription on the frieze, which extols the duke's virtues, is thought to have been added as a eulogy after his death in 1482.


Before the addition of an attic story in the late sixteenth century, the courtyard was only two-stories high, and this lower height would have made its generous proportions seem even more spacious.


Corner Supports

Laurana took an important step in solving the problems associated with the use of freestanding columns at the corners of palace courtyards.  By using right-angle piers instead of single columns, he created a more visually substantial arrangement that did not crowd the windows.


The Orders on the Ground Story

The columns of the arcade are of the Composite order.


The embellishment of the sides of the piers with engaged half-columns gives them continuity with the columns.


The inner corners of the piers are ornamented with pilasters, but the outer facings are left plain.


Pilasters on the Piano Nobile

On the second story, pilasters carry the vertical lines of the columns and corner pilasters upward, which links the closed upper story to the arcade below. Brunelleschi had planned such a feature for the loggia of the Foundling Hospital, but it was not finished according his design.


At the corners of the Palazzo Ducale courtyard, the innermost pilasters on each facing project higher in plane than the others.  Laurana's use of a whole pilaster sandwiched between narrow partial pilasters that are lower in relief had a similar effect to Michelangelo's  later use of pilasters flanked by the edges of piers at St. Peter's.


Harmonious Design

The courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale is considered Laurana's finest work due not only to his innovative corner-pier design but also to his harmonious proportions and sense of order.





Innovative Aspects

One of the palace's most innovative features is the scalone, the grand staircase, which was unusual for its time in its size and design.  A single, wide flight precedes a two-flight dog-leg stair at a right angle to it.


Access from Entrance

The scalone's first flight was aligned with the courtyard loggia that is reached through the vestibule.


Through the point of entry from the vestibule, the visitor can see the wide first flight at the end of the loggia, an arrangement that was later repeated at the Palazzo della Cancelleria.


Placement at Corner

The staircase was placed on the northeast corner at the juncture of the east wing of the Palazzetto della Iole and the main wing by Laurana.  Placement on the corner made it possible to use windows on two facings.


The advantages of the staircase's corner placement were gained at the expense of causing problems for the design of both exterior facings.






The most important part of the palace was the main range designed by Laurana, which runs through the palace's center.  The rooms on the piano nobile progress in size from the largest reception rooms on the east side to the smallest, most intimate of the rooms of Federico's private apartment on the west side.


Entrance Vestibule

The palace's main entrance is through a barrel-vaulted vestibule on the north side of the ground story.  The vestibule's length equals the depth of the Sala Grande, which is located above it on the piano nobile.


Reception Rooms

Three large reception rooms lay between the staircase at the east end and Federico's private rooms on the west end.


The largest of these rooms, the Sala Grande, is also known as the Salone del Trono (Throne room).  Its depth extends from the façade to the courtyard, and its width spans about half that of the whole palace.


From the Sala Grande, visitors can pass to the somewhat smaller Sala degli Angeli, and from it to the even smaller Sala della Udienze.


Federico's Private Apartments

Like the public rooms, the private rooms followed a large-to-small sequence that ended with rooms that were scaled to suit the needs of a single individual.  They varied in size and shape and progressed from formal to private.


Bathrooms using hydraulic devices were placed in the basement story, two floors below.



The most outstanding of Federico's private rooms was the studiolo. This room is famous for its trompe l' oeil decoration of wood intarsia, which is thought to have been executed by Giuliano da Maiano and Benedetto da Maiano.


The paneling creates the illusion of cabinets lining the walls.  Some of the illusionary cabinet doors appear to be open or partially open, revealing a variety of objects reflecting Federico's life and interests, such as books and musical instruments.


Facciata dei Torricini

The main range's west facing, the Facciata dei Torricini (Tower façade), is named for the palace's most distinct feature, a pair of turrets.


The turrets contain circular staircases for immediate access to other stories without using the Grand staircase at the main range's other end.


Between the two turrets, arches containing balcony loggias on three different stories overlook the road coming up the hill into the city.


The tower façade is angled so that it looks directly down into the valley.





Facciata ad Ali

The façade is formed of two adjacent wings, hence the name Facciata ad Ali, which means "façade with wings."


The entrance façade and the Cathedral together form three sides of the Piazza Duca Federico.


Before the addition of the palace to part of its site, the piazza was called the Piazza Maggiore.


Marble Facing

The wall surface on the ground story is encrusted with rusticated ashlar masonry.  The use of white marble helps unify it with the trim, which was also made of white marble.  The encrustation on the north facing was almost completed, but that on the east facing was barely begun.


It is not known how the upper-story walls were to have been finished, but stucco or encrusted marble are both possibilities.  A reconstruction of the palace as it might have been finished illustrates the difference in effect that would have resulted from covering all brick surfaces.



The positions of the rooms within the north wing precipitated some aspects of the façade's fenestration, which violates a number of classical principles.


Despite these problems, the façade remains one of the most balanced and innovative palace entrances of the fifteenth century.





Architects and Dates

The next important architect to work on the Palazzo Ducale was Francesco di Giorgio, who arrived in Urbino in 1476 and stayed until 1485, three years after Federico's death.  From 1479-82 he was assisted by Baccio Pontelli, who is best known as the probable designer of Santa Maria della Pace and San Pietro in Montorio, both in Rome.


Francesco completed the courtyard and the façade, which had been begun by Laurana.  In many places it is difficult to determine who is responsible for specific architectural features.


General Description

The west half of the main range was connected to the pre-existing Castellare (Ruined Castle) by a wing on the east side, a wall containing corridors on the west side, and an above-ground garden between them.


Wing Connecting Main Range to Castellare

The wing connecting the main range to the Castellare forms the east facing of the palace's two-wing façade.


On the ground story of the east wing, the west side of its principal room is an arcade that opens onto a garden terrace.  The piano nobile of this area is occupied by the Sala della Veglie, whose west-side windows overlook the garden.


On both stories, vestibules at the far end of this room provide access to the Castellare and a circular staircase, and on the ground story, to the piazza as well.


Circular Staircase

A cylindrical tower enclosing a circular staircase stands at the juncture of the new wing and the Castellare, where its round shape obscures the fact that the buildings are not perpendicular to each other.


The downward flight from the ground story, which leads to the level containing the stable, is a spiral ramp suitable for use by horses.  The upward flight to the piano nobile is a circular staircase with individual steps.


Giardino Pensile and Stables

The Giardino Pensile (Hanging Garden) is a paved terrace with built-up planting beds.

It is enclosed on three sides by buildings and on the fourth by a two-story high, corridor-thick wall.  Openings through the wall on the ground story provide views of the valley.


A corridor through the wall at the second-story level connects the apartments of the duke and duchess, and a walkway on top connects the third stories of their quarters.  These passages constitute family-use counterparts to the more formal Sala della Veglie at the other end.


Because the land drops on the west side, the story below the hanging garden, which is on the ground level of the entrance façade, is above ground on the west side.  This story was used for utilitarian features like a large stable, a cistern, and hydraulic devices.


Remodeling the Castellare

In 1477, the Castellare was remodeled to become apartments for the duchess.





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