You, dear reader, have suffered through too many dripping descriptions of fried this or grilled so and so, served by a charming man who would give up his life to defend your right to eat a particular dish so long as it was garnished with extra virgin olive oil from trees growing within view of his restaurant, which his family has run since the time of Pope Leo.
Of course you are bored to death with all this culinary minutae, thinking to yourself when will these people stop eating and go do something worthwhile? We hear your complaints and have resolved to do something about it. We have decided to completely omit any references to food from today’s report.
Except that we had a fantastic three hour lunch today in Urbino, despite our resolution to rise early and visit the National Gallery of Art of Le Marche.
A confluence of forces led us to swear off food, if only for a day. When we arrived in Urbino late the previous evening, we were entranced by the town even before we had a chance to fully get the lay of the land. We knew we would only have a day in this renaissance jewel and resolved to learn everything we could about this fascinating, little visited corner of Italy. And, on the heels of our umpteenth unforgettable meal, we felt as though our spleens and our psyches could and very much should take a break from the trough for a day, substituting cultural sustenance for our usual caloric over indulgence.
Suzy has a round stuffed pasta, called medaglioni, tossed in a cheese and walnut sauce; Bill has a plate of fried scamorzza cheese covered in strips of prosciutto.
We spend the morning catching up on business and enjoying our comfortable room at the Albergo San Domenico. As we make phone calls and reply to emails the wind is howling in the courtyard outside our window. However, we cannot see how foul the weather may be, as the windows are sealed tightly with pairs of hyper efficient Italian shutters. Window shutters are something that the Italians do extremely well. They come in a variety of types, some consisting of giant metal slats, rolled up outside the window casing like an overhead garage door, summoned closed by pulling on a fabric strap that when released eases the slats downward, where they fit one on top of another, eventually closing off the entire window. The shutters at the San Domenico are of the multiple interlocking wooden type, the closing of which requires some level of engineering smarts. With this type of shutter, a pair of simple outer shutters, which in their natural state are secured against the outside of the building, can be swung shut on the outside of the window, partially darkening the room with their partially closed horizontal slats. The full darkening effect comes from closing the inner shutters, which are full window affairs that fold inward and clasp together with a metal rod that attaches the two halves to one another and, at the bottom, contains a spur that rotates around a small stud at the bottom of the window casing, and pulls the two connected inner shutters flush with the window casing. The inner shutters contain a pane of glass, however, so to completely darken the room another set of panels must be closed over these shutters, which requires lacing these outer flaps through other tabs before the two inner shutters are hooked together and pulled shut, a process that requires great thought and deliberation but the effect of which is a completely dark room. This super effective darkening encourages oversleeping, as it always appears to be the middle of the night inside a shuttered room, even when the rest of Italy has been awake for hours, awash in bright sunshine. And because your room is pitch black, it makes for a difficult time finding the shutter hardware and figuring out how to reverse the closing process in order to open the windows.
The result of this is that while we get ready to start our day, the only inkling of we have of the weather outside is the sound of gusting hurricane force winds, which keeps us from rushing headlong into the day. When we finally throw open the shutters all is calm, all is clear. There are wind gusts to be sure, but these are rushing over the top of the hotel, far from ground level so that the only people affected by these gales are window washers and chimney sweeps. Because Urbino is built on a tall hill, the winds rushing across the valley buffet it constantly, but perhaps because the town is laid out in a bowl shape, with the center of town at the bottom of extremely steep streets, the wind seems to blow over the top of the city, leaving the main streets relatively unaffected. When we climb up to the city walls, we feel like Al Roker reporting from some Florida hurricane, barely able to keep on our feet. Below in the main square, however, we are warmed by the bright sun and warm gentle breezes.
Urbino itself is quite small and we walk from our hotel through the main square and a couple of blocks beyond to the house where Raffaello was born. Urbino, we learn, is the birthplace of the great renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio, who along with Michelangelo, Leonardo and Donatello make up not only the fab four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but also four of the great artists of the Italian renaissance. In addition to Rafaello, monuments to Piero della Francesca and Bramante (of St. Peter’s fame) honor these local hometown heros.
The casa di Rafaello is an interesting museum that is part gallery, part monument to the artist and part restored renaissance home. We wander up the stairs from the ticket office to the bedroom of Giovanni Santi, Raffaello’s father and himself a noted artist of the court of the Duke of Urbino. In his room are a number of paintings by Giovanni who died when Raffaello was quite young. Nonetheless, our highly trained eyes see that the son inherited much of his skill from the father. Across the hallway is the room where Raffaello was born and a fresco, painted later in life and elsewhere by the artist has been added to the room. The window has two small seats built into a recess below, where presumably young Raffaello sat each morning, spying across the street at the Paneficeria di Raffaello (Rafael’s bread store), to check out the day’s specials. When we leave we, too, look in the window and several loaves that may have been baked in Raffaello’s day are displayed behind the counter.
Of particular interest to us, who run a ceramics store, is a display of some renaissance ceramic pieces. The pieces on display include several patterns that are still being produced or which have been adapted, either by using similar shapes or animals designs or color combinations, in many of the popular patterns that we sell today.
Not a great deal is made of the house itself, but to wander through the rooms and to imagine how they might have been used and furnished is itself worth the price of admission (€ 3). The bedrooms in particular are larger than we would have imagined, spacious enough for an Xbox 360, an iPod with speakers or any of the other necessities of the renaissance adolescent. A kitchen, on the lower floor, includes a hearth with some protruding chains and spikes looking like devices of torture, but we imagine them to be some sort of device for hanging cauldrons or joints of meat.
We leave Raffaello’s house and head back to the main square. The day before classes and exams have ended for the students at the university and a number of handwritten signs have been xeroxed and posted on lampposts or columns, each written by a friend of a student who has just graduated and making a joke and congratulating farmacista (farmacist) or dottoressa (doctor) on their graduation. It is a sweet gesture that makes us look even more kindly on the hordes of students that are milling around the square.
After a brief search we find a nice place for lunch. [Editor’s note. This section has been removed pursuant to editorial policy].
After our delicious lunch we wander back toward our hotel, our final destination being the Ducal Palace, which houses the National Gallery of Art of Le Marche, as well as an archeological museum. We pay our admission and expect to spend an hour or so wandering around the museum, but are asked to wait until a group assembles for a tour. We dread this prospect, imagining that it will be a half day affair focusing on the difference in palettes used by the painters of the court of Urbino as opposed to the Sienese or Florentines, and are already planning several escape routes. The tour begins a few moments later and is not a tour at all, but simply a way for the museum officials to watch over all the visitors at once, presumably in order to reduce the security payroll.
Perhaps what is most memorable about the museum is not the works of art themselves, although they are truly amazing, but the building that houses them. While everyone knows of the wealth and power of the Medici of Florence, few realize how much influence the Dukes of Urbino, particularly Federico da Montefeltro, exercised over the development of renaissance art, and the size and glory of his palace is overwhelming. The place is massive, with marble staircases wide enough for two Hummers to drive through and apartment after apartment in which to show off the Duke’s latest acquisition. We admire the paintings, chapels and furnishings, which could fill an entire freshman art class curriculum and once again are wowed by the exhibition of antique ceramics, which includes not just plates and other tableware, but a number of intricate sculptural pieces such as naked figures leering at one another. Our biggest disappointment is that we are unable to find the famous Piero della Francesa portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, in which the Duke is shown in profile with his horrible hook nose, this side being painted because the other side of his face is so disfigured (why would the Duke commission a painting of his disfigured side?). Perhaps we missed the painting because it is hanging (and has for hundreds of years) in the Uffizi gallery in Florence.
As the sun creeps toward the horizon we retrieve our car from the parking lot of the San Domenico hotel and head out of town. But if getting a car into a renaissance walled city is difficult, it is nothing compared with attempting to leave. We exit the car park and ease into the square directly in front of the Ducal Palace, the Piazza Rinasciamento, one of the two most important (and pedestrian clogged) squares in Urbino, the other being the main square, the Piazza della Repubblica. Avoiding heading in direction of the Piazza della Repubblica we scare a handful of pedestrians and find a street leading away from the square. Spotting what appears to be a street leading to the city gate, but for the fact that it is a one way road heading into, and not out of town, we do what any red blooded Italian would do – we ignore the Do Not Enter signs and drive the wrong way down the road, an old Italian man gesturing at us with his hands which is either an Italian version of a thumbs up sign or, more likely is an Italian version of a middle finger up sign. We make two more quick turns, once more salmon-like swimming upstream and presto, we find ourselves in the Piazza della Repubblica, which at this hour is mobbed with students and local residents, out for their late afternoon stroll, once again proving that all roads do indeed lead to Rome, or at least to the Piazza della Repubblica. In any event we patiently wait for the sea of humanity to part, spy a direct line to the city gate, follow the interference of an orange painted city bus which is only slightly larger than our car and at last slip out through the city gates, leaving Urbino behind until we visit again.
The hold that so many places in Italy have over us is difficult to explain and perhaps it is best not to try to analyze this phenomenon. But consider this for a moment. We live in Washington, D.C. and have visited the great city of Philadelphia on several occasions. When there we have visited the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art, which houses a truly great collection of art from many periods. We have eaten in a number of outstanding restaurants in that city as well, and our memories of our time there is very positive, very pleasant.
Over the course of less than 24 hours we have just visited two museums in Urbino and seen a few works that are truly memorable. We have eaten at two restaurants where we had excellent meals, great wine and glass or two of grappa. Yet as we leave Urbino we rack our brains for some excuse to return as soon as possible, even if just for a day or two. We would gladly visit Philadelphia again if business or some other reason necessitated a return, but feel no such imperative to return. Why is it that these Italian cities have such an attraction to us? Is it simply the grappa or is it more? We ponder that question as we weave down the winding highway toward our next destination, another ancient hilltown, but this one in neighboring Umbria. We will arrive shortly at the studio of our hosts for the next day, the Biagioli family of Gubbio, a family whose lives and fortunes have been tied to the ceramics industry for three hundred years. Tune in tomorrow for that story.