One of a kind
This beautiful book, about a tiny but unequalled city, is, in the end, an odd mixture. Despite its subtitle, The Story of a Renaissance City, it is only in a handful of fine colour photographs and a few hurried words at the end that it actually depicts the fabric of the Renaissance city. For the city depicted here is the culture of courtly life, which, for a terribly short century up until 1523, existed within its wonderful ducal palace.
June Osborne tells this story well in very intelligent and attractive photography of the palace itself and beautifully reproduced contemporary images of its inhabitants. For among its servants and courtiers, fixing this world for posterity were Piero della Francesca and later Raffaello Santi in paint, Francesco di Giorgio Martini in place-making and Baldassare Castiglione in words. (One chapter is a paraphrase of Castiglione's The Courtier, as famous in its day as its dark twin, Machiavelli's The Prince. ) Duke Federico Da Montefeltro of Urbino - patron of artists, friend of Leon Battista Alberti and a warrior who never lost a battle - is the core of this story. Much of Osbourne's text, however, is a rambling, old-fashioned dynastic history of the times.
There is really nothing about Urbino physically, and even Michael Levey's fine essay on the ducal palace in the Sunday Times Magazine 35 years ago brought the building more to life (and had plans).
I have a few quibbles. Apart from her mentor, archaeologist Mario Luni, the author's guides seem very English: Cecil Clough's thoughts on Francesco di Giorgio Martini convince me much less than lectures I have heard on site by Giancarlo De Carlo;
the beautiful little San Bernardino is now acknowledged definitely as by Francisco di Giorgio - an attribution argued by De Carlo long ago through reading stones as much as texts, on which Howard Burns' thoughts do not reach her bibliography.
The couple of pages on Palazzo Passionei constitute the only discussion of any other building or urban form, in a place that is still largely of the mid-16th century. We learn how Pope Clement XI, who never lost touch with his home town of Urbino, sent his Roman architect Fontana to repair, rebuild and unify it. But there is no mention anywhere of the extraordinary revitalisation of the city over the last half-century by the socalled 'last duke of Urbino', Carlo Bo, the late university rector after whom the university was renamed last year, nor of his Milanese architect, De Carlo.
There is no plan of the town here, nor even of a building. Readers of the city's fabric will have to go to Italian books, most obviously Franco Mazzini's heavy and handsome Urbino (second edition 2000). Or you might chance upon Urbino: The History of a City and Plans for its Development, which Giancarlo De Carlo published in 1966 (MIT Press 1970) - still an exemplary practical polemic on a historic city. Its adoption then as its urban plan and policy is precisely what has allowed Urbino to be what it is today: not just preserved, but renewed, incomparable.
John McKean is a professor at Brighton School of Architecture