Villa Imperiale


The name “Imperiale” comes from the Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg…

who, on his way to Rome in 1468, stopped in Pesaro by the Sforzas and probably laid the foundation stone of the building. It is also likely that the first architect of the Villa was Giorgio Orsini from Sibenik, already at work for the Sforzas.

Over the same period, in nearby Rimini, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta relied on Leon Battista Alberti for the completion of the Malatesta Temple while, in Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro started the building of the most celebrated Palace of the Renaissance.

Also Pesaro participated in this wonderful artistic season:the fifteenth century monuments in the town centre and the many paintings left by major artists in the city and now dispersed in museums around the world bear witness to the rebirth of the town.

In 1512, after the extinction of the Pesaro branch of the Sforzas, the Della Rovere extended their domains to the city of Pesaro.

They had been at the head of the Duchy of Urbino since 1508, the year of the death of Guidubaldo, son of Federico da Montefeltro. After chosing Pesaro as the new political centre of their government, the Della Rovere moved their court there; they provided the town with all the facilities worth of a capital city, the capital of a small and institutionally fragile duchy but nonetheless a capital city.

From 1516 to 1521 Francesco Maria I Della Rovere was forced to abandon his duchy (which was temporarily assigned by Pope Leo X to his nephew Lorenzo De Medici): on his return to his homeland Francesco Maria I would display (not without partisanship) the vicissitudes of his military and political career at the Villa Imperiale, on the frescoes of eight rooms in the existing Sforza mansion. The new Villa, with its gardens of delights, was born in this very period.


The entrance and the first courtyard.

The facade of the Villa Sforza, all in brick, was partly altered in the sixteenth century: the pre-existing battlements were demolished while the tower was lifted up. The entrance is through a portal in white Istrian stone, showing the rampant lion of the Sforza at the centre of the architrave. The portal is topped by another emblem with the name of the first lord – ALEXANDER SFORTIA – and a date – MCCCCLXVIII – indicating the probable year of the beginning of the works (1468).

After crossing the courtyard the staircase leads to the first floor, with its eight rooms frescoed in the sixteenth century.

The first floor.

First room (of the “Oath”)

owes its name to a painted tapestry at the centre of the ceiling: the troops loyal to Francesco Maria I pronounce the oath of Sermide (1517). This room was mostly painted by Raffaellino del Colle.

Second room (of the “Caryatids”)

shows the Duke back from a battle to regain the Duchy the De Medici had deprived him of. Part of the caryatids – a quote from Ovid –, the landscapes and the decoration of the ceiling are to be attributed to the painter Dosso Dossi of Ferrara. This room is the only one without any painted architecture.

In the third room (of the “Semibusti”)

Agnolo Bronzino of Firenze provided the cartoons for the characters that surround the central scene in the ceiling: the Duke at the coronation ceremony of Charles V (Bologna 1530). This event marks the final recovery of the duchy, also from an institutional point of view. The Semibusti are those represented in the lunettes.

The walls of the fourth room (a little “Studiolo”)

are decorated with panoplies and marble caryatids; the landscapes of the panels are lost. The central scene of the ceiling shows the Duke named captain in Firenze. The ceiling also features a grotesque decoration with four ovals showing Peace burning the Arms.

Fifth room, or Room of the “Little Cupids”,

is decorated with grotesques, vegetation, monochrome medallions and little puttos inside the lunettes. At the centre of the ceiling the Duke is named Captain General of the Church. The intertwining plants and landscapes could be a work of Camillo Capelli, nicknamed Mantovano.

In the sixth room (of the “Hercules’ labors”)

eight painted lunettes show episodes from the myth of Hercules. On the walls, above the tall basement with monochrome knights, the painted tapestries contain mithological scenes connected to love themes as: “Volcano forging arrows for Eros”, “Psyche spying on sleeping Eros”, “Danae and the golden rain”. The vault shows a grotesque decoration and four medallions with “Venus and Cupid”. At its center the doge Andrea Gritti grants the stick of command to the Duke.

Follows the seventh room (of the “Rivers”)

where such rivers as the Metauro, Foglia, Marecchia, Rubicone, Tevere, Arno, Po, Tronto, Misa are personified by monochrome lying men pouring water from vases. They were painted after cartoons by Agnolo Bronzino. The flat papier maché ceiling contains boxes with the initials of Francesco Maria (FM) and of his wife Leonora (LE), along with allegories as the laurel wreath with palm boughs, the ram’s skull, the yoke. The room also shelters the eighteenth century bust of the pope born in Urbino, Clement XI, of the Albani family.

Eighth and last room (of the “Calumny”)

was painted almost entirely by Raffaellino del Colle. This room, together with the first one, was probably used to accommodate high-ranking personalities on their visit to the Duke.
The frescoes on the walls show the “Calumny of Apelles” (the Duke plays the role of the Innocent), the Apotheosis of the Innocent (once again the Duke) in the presence of a benevolent Goddess and between Abundance – a woman with ears of wheat – and Peace – a woman burning the Arms, the three Theological Virtues – Hope, Faith and Charity – and, in accordance with all the themes, Diana of Ephesus.

The last two rooms differ from the first six for the flat ceilings and for a minor resort to organic elements in the frescoes.

In the Calumny room (or Zodiac room) the monochrome scenes painted in the highest part of the walls, have recently been read as phases of the initiation of a young woman to the worshipping of the Goddess Isis.

The visit to the eight rooms can thus be divided into three sections:

the first three rooms clearly allude to the recovery of the Duchy after the Duke’s forced exile in Mantua; the following three rooms illustrate the politico-military career of Francesco Maria I; the last two rooms show the political events of the Duke’s life but also witness the refined culture of Eleonora Gonzaga, with the many quotes of the classical world and culture, quotes also found in the first six rooms. The grotesque decoration is a further reprise of the ancient Roman decoration, that was familiar to the Imperiale painters, mostly from the entourage of Raffaello.

Each room exhibits a wide variety of vegetal species: a real botanical manual, updated to the plants just introduced in the old world after the discovery of the Americas.

In the sixteenth century the Della Rovere had other villas built in the San Bartolo hill,

today also known as a Regional Natural Park: in 1583 near the Imperiale, in the area of the present lighthouse, Francesco Maria II, nephew of Francesco Maria I, started the building of the “Vedetta” on a plan by Girolamo Arduini. Unfortunately today it can only be seen in old paintings and maps because by the eighteenth century it had already collapsed.

Another disappeared building was the Villa della Duchessa,

built by Ippolito Della Rovere, father of Livia who was the second wife of the last Duke of Urbino. The Villa della Duchessa was probably located in the present suburb of Soria. Also this building can only be seen in paintings of the time, for instance the one that Francesco Mingucci painted in 1626. This villa could be identified with the “Villa of Soria” mentioned in a map at the State Archive of Florence.


The sixteenth century Villa was built next to the existing dwelling of the Sforza, by the architect Girolamo Genga, who was also painter and stage designer. The building took a period between the third and fourth decade of the sixteenth century and aimed at fulfilling the demands of the new Della Rovere court.

The new Imperiale is a monument built to play both a political and cultural role of “representation”: many of the intellectuals who attended the Della Rovere court have witnessed the life that animated the villa in that period.

Organized on three terraced levels to follow the slope of the San Bartolo hill, the new Villa summarizes the most significant issues of Genga’s architecture: the relationship with the old, the choice of construction materials, the elements of classical architecture assembled in a new experimental style.

Genga introduces surprising architectural solutions in the new Villa: flat roofs entirely accessible and complete with balustrades, total independence between paths and places to be reached, eccentric plans of the halls, winding corridors. This intricate system of functional connections provides access both to the new rooms, mainly on the side overlooking the Foglia valley, and to the gardens. On the other side, as one climbs up to reach the gardens , architecture gradually simplifies.

All these parts of the new Villa tend to create an association between its architecture and that of the surrounding nature, recreating the intertwining paths of the forest in the combination of the paths within the villa.

The main protagonist of the cultural life of the Della Rovere court was the Duchess Eleonora Gonzaga, wife of Francesco Maria I Della Rovere.

It was Eleonora, rather than her husband, always distracted by the military events and political intrigues of his time, that followed with the necessary attention all the artists involved in the works at the Villa.

An important evidence of this are the two inscriptions provided by Pietro Bembo to the Duchess Eleonora:

on the external facade

– FRANCESCO MARIAE DUCI METAURENSIUM A BELLIS REDEUNTI LEONORA ANIMI EIUS CAUSA VILLAM EXAEDIFICAVIT (To Francesco Maria, Duke of the people of Metauro, back from the war, his wife Leonora dedicated the building of this villa for his delight) –

and in the courtyard

– PRO SOLE PRO PULVERE PRO VIGILIIS PRO LABORIBUS UT MILITARE NEGOTIUM REQUIETE INTERPOSITA CLARIOREM LAUDEM FRUCTUSQUE UBERIORES PARIAT (So that – as a reward for the sun, the dust, the sleepless nights, the labors – the military activity combined with rest may provide broader glory and greater achievements).

Eleonora Gonzaga, as her predecessors Battista Sforza and Elisabetta Gonzaga, is the true patroness of the cultural life of the court of Pesaro and Urbino.

Another inscription placed on the external facade alludes to the works started by the present owners, the Albani, in the second half of the nineteenth century to bring the Villa back to its glory: AEDES MEMORIA INSIGNES AEVO LABENTES IN INTEGRUM RESTITUITAE ANNO MCMIII.


Villa Imperiale Pesaro – owner’s official website: