The origins of the city of Urbino in northern Italy begin with the Roman city of Urvinum Mataurense (the little city on the river Mataurus). The region is rich in Roman history. During the Second Punic War, during Hannibal the Carthaginian’s invasion of Italy, his brother Hasdrubal followed him with another army.
However lacking the military skill of his sibling, Hasdrubal faced the Romans under the consuls Livius Salinator and Claudius Nero in battle on the banks of the Metaurus River in 207 b.c.e. Hasdrubal was defeated, and his severed head flung into Hannibal’s camp.
Urbino was one of the battlegrounds after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. During the efforts of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) to win back imperial territory in Italy, Urbino figured in the campaigns of the emperor’s great warlord, Count Belisarius.
In 538 Belisarius seized Urbino from the Ostrogoths, but he was forced to confront an attack by the Persian Empire in the east before the reconquest of Italy was complete. Justinian’s other great general, Narses, achieved this by 552. Thus, for a time at least, Justinian succeeded in recreating a unified Roman Empire through the successes of his two great commanders.
However the eastern empire was unable to maintain its hold on Italy. With the collapse of the Ostrogoths, the Lombards became the dominant power in Italy. They would rule until the eighth century, when in 774 their realm fell to the future emperor Charlemagne.
In 800 Charlemagne became emperor of the new Holy Roman Empire, reigning until his death in 814. His empire fractured after his death amid dynastic squabbles among his sons. Finally in 839 Louis II, as Holy Roman Emperor, became supreme in northern Italy.
During the Middle Ages, with the decline of the Holy Roman Empire in Italy, Urbino became involved in the wars of the Italian city-states. In 1200 Urbino came under the power of the local lords of Montefeltro, with Bonconte de Montefeltro becoming the effective ruler.
Although Urbino rebelled against the Montefeltros in 1228, the family restored their rule by 1234. While Italy was riven by the struggle between the Guelfs, who supported the papacy, and the Ghibellines, who sided with the Holy Roman Emperors, the Montefeltros generally supported the Imperial Hohenstaufen dynasty.
At the dawn of the Italian Renaissance great cultural activity occurred in the same time as civil strife. Federico of Montefeltro, who reigned in Urbino from 1444 to 1482, established a court that could give him claim to being one of the first great princes of the Italian Renaissance.
He was a successful condottiere, or mercenary captain, and lavished the riches he gained on his court. Piero della Francesca studied art with the precision of a mathematician, doing ground-breaking work in the application of perspective to the emerging Italian art. Federico’s court was centered on the grand Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, which was built over a period of 30 years.
Northern Italy at this period also benefited from economic prosperity. Commercial elites from the middle class grew wealthy on trade and sometimes were the equals of Italian nobility through their trade, which literally moved through much of the known world.
Sometimes Italian nobles who had fallen on hard times would marry daughters of the emerging mercantile class. This not only meant a needed infusion of wealth into their depleted coffers, but also added the cachet of nobility to the merchant families involved in these marriages.
The Renaissance was marked by a rediscovery of the knowledge of the ancient world, which the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire had kept alive for over 1,000 years since the fall of the western half in 476.
Byzantine scholars like Georgius Gemisthos Pletho and his student Manuel Chrysoloras brought learning to Florence; from there they spread it throughout Italy. When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, while Federico ruled in Urbino, many refugees including scholars fled to Italy.
The Montefeltro dynasty and Urbino as a vibrant city-state ended in 1502. In that year the murderous Cesare Borgia deposed Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino. Thereafter Urbino became part of the Papal States.