Apr/May 2012 Nonfiction

Urbino: A Summer of Renaissance Harmony

by Julia Braun Kessler

Photograph by Jascha Kessler

Photograph by Jascha Kessler

That June, we sped out of Rome like the wind, crossing the Apennines and into the Marché province, to arrive in San Cipriano, a town just a few kilometers southeast of Urbino. This was still wild country, and it was a drive that took us over hill and dale, through farmland and forest, to the Adriatic side of the boot. There, we were to find another Italia altogether. Moreover, that journey's end came just in the nick of time, since a recent exposure of our youngest to the chicken pox at his asilo (play school) had already caught up with him. We barely got him to bed before those pox were all over the poor kid.

Our arrival came so late in the night that it meant awakening a whole household to get into our quarters. It was only after much knocking and shouting that we were finally able to get a response. Appearing to greet us were two shriveled vechiette (ancient ladies). Raising their candle holders high to gaze upon those bedraggled Americani facing them, they let us in. The priest in charge, Don Gino, had assigned them to await us and to welcome us to our quarters for the summer. This was, in fact, at the canonica (the church house) where we were to be lodged for that season. The little dwelling was connected by one of its walls to the 16th century chapel beside it.

The tiny church had long served the village of San Cipriano, and always been the residence for its residing clergy. These lodgings had been chosen for us by the Italian professor who had offered the invitation to my husband. And indeed, they were to prove the strangest of any rental I'd yet encountered in that country.

No doubt our children were terrified by all they saw that night! Even we were somewhat taken aback in observing this new circumstance—by its dreariness, darkness, visible decay, and more particularly, the strangeness of these surroundings.

Despite the sense of anxiety—even dread—that overwhelmed us, we had wearily ascended those ladder-like steps to the upper story, led by one of the old women, lugging our gear up as well. Electricity in Italy had ever been costly, and never used when unnecessary, so we went on bravely in the dark, trying to encourage our children, who clung to us trembling in fear.

Thus, we followed, from room to room behind her, each leading into the next, in an apartment that had been fashioned from the upper-story of the ancient house. We were shown the beds and a bathroom of sorts, a distance down a long hall. These rooms had been long-used and had histories of their own.

During that first night, it felt like this past had come alive to haunt us. And, with our innocents in hand, who could predict the outcome? Yet, exhausted we were, and what with one feverish child, we ploughed on and got to bed quickly. Still, we could but wonder what we might have let ourselves in for. Exactly where might we find ourselves the next morning?

Sleep mercifully overtook us. And the marvel of all of it was what we did awake to that next morning. We saw a bright, blue-sky with green hills surrounding us all around, and then gazing to the East from one window, we could see the swirling dark hues of the Adriatic, an ocean stretching out into the horizon from 40 kilometers away. This was to be a divine location.

The vechiette had vanished into the air, or so it seemed. We descended the steep-ladder-steps to find an ancient kitchen for our use. To our surprise, already upon the table, there were the fixings for a fine Italian breakfast. We could even open the huge kitchen door of our canonica to see the world about us and to discover how the little church was attached.

Our children were looking less anxious, even beginning to relax and enjoy the scene. The older two, already content, ran happily out into sunshine and meadow. Even our chicken-pox-ed little one could be bundled up and taken outside for short spells to get some light and sunshine on the bench next to our little house.

All was private, quiet, and splendid to contemplate. And though we soon learned that our primitive kitchen downstairs was to be shared with les vechiettes, we found that they were seldom seen, moving about silently and careful to keep out of sight. Our spirits rose as we attended to our immediate comforts, brought in some groceries and our supplies of those little gadgets we'd used in the kitchen during our stay in Rome. It seemed much like it had for our earlier forays into the ways of Italian life, only this time we were to live in the campagna, that lovely Marché countryside, with its natural wonders, its wildlife everywhere to be seen, and the air so delicate it seemed like a discovery with every breath.

We'd yet to experience that nearby marvel, Urbino—the city Kenneth Clark, the late, great scholar had dubbed as poster child for them all, his "ideal" Renaissance town. But for a while, we remained content to stay put with our little one, to enjoy the brilliant landscapes before us. There were the fields to walk in, streams to wade into, and endless birdsong to entertain us.

Hardly had we finished our first leisurely breakfast, when there before us to introduce his genial self, was Don Gino, the priest who had agreed to lease his house for our use that summer. Despite his long robes and white collar, there was nothing solemn about this cleric, and his jovial expression came forth with a warmth, even a devilish aspect, that could delight us all. We were soon to discover that our country landlord was just as willing to raise up his cassock to kneel down and repair the sink as he was to deliver his sermons to his flock!

Immediately, he led us about the property to introduce us to our neighbors, and to the farm hands, who were certainly among the friendliest of all the Italians we had encountered as yet. What with our current year in Roma just ended, our own skills in the language had been so improved that we could make our way about this little community with ease. Before long, the welcoming contadini (farmers) would come by each afternoon to bring us their freshly made goat cheeses, a treat we soon came to regard as a daily necessity.

Only much later did my husband and I come to note a quaint circumstance about our little San Cipriano enclave. We could not help observing how several of the local children seemed to resemble our saintly Don Gino. His pink cheeks, his wide-set eyes were, in fact, there to be seen on the faces of a sampling of such youngsters. Together with this, we often heard the praises of several of the most attractive young matrons for their religious leader. Ah, yes, the Don was a charmer!

Then, before we knew it, our youngest had made his recovery. The pox had vanished, and he was once again hale and hearty. We could jump into our Volvo to explore those grander surroundings nearby. Even at the moment of entry, Urbino filled the eyes with its regal Palazzo Ducale. The imposing structure was always in view, towering over its windy hills, with an elegance overshadowing every corner of that beautiful town: a forceful display of the splendors of Montefeltro's era.

In the late part of the 15th Century, that benevolent ruler hosted one of the most celebrated courts in all of Europe. Frederico da Montrafeltro had brought artists of the Renaissance in every variety, poets, painters, and scholars, to his remote Palazzo. Among such were Paolo Ucello, Melozza da Forli, and Piero della Francesca, born in a nearby township. There was as well a local painter named Giovanni Santi, who was to become the father of a new and extraordinary talent, Raphael di Santi, himself Urbino born. Nor was there an end to Montefeltro's benevolent patronage during those times.

On that first encounter with this Renaissance marvel, we sat in its fine main square, the Piazza della Republica, to enjoy our capacinos along with the lively conversations about us, and to savor the grand view of the Palazzo Ducale. All the while, we could allow our children to run about freely among the groups assembled. Inevitably, this being Italia, there were adults to engage and admire them and other children to join in their revels. And certainly, language was no longer a barrier. So all was ease and pleasure.

We next walked our way up the Via Raffaelo, essentially their main drag, up the great hill to the park at the top. We strolled up to gaze at the striking beauty of the surrounding countryside, to view that fine prospect, a splendid landscape sweeping over the orderly greens and yellows of the farmlands and all the way to the brilliant blue of the Adriatic Sea. The open country was breezy, yet tranquil and fragrant.

Then we walked through Urbino's narrow lanes nearby, examining their angles, turns, archways, and alleys where the populace had ever resided over the centuries, well-hidden from the grandeur of Montefeltro's Palazzo.

Soon , we walked through the Raphael di Santi's house, now preserved for posterity, discovering his early paintings still hanging on its walls. Urbino was like that, a winding maze of narrow lanes, each with it secrets to be revealed!

My own particular treat came some days later with the discovery of the frescoes of Jacobo and Lorenzo Salimbeni, along one of those back streets. And what wonders these were! Who might the brothers be? They, who had painted with such passion? There, hidden away in a tiny byway, was the Oratorio de San Giovanni, in which their frescoes, the visions of St. John the Baptist, resided, along with their fearsome "Crucifixion." These seemed to present such faces, staring at us as if they might speak to us today. As for the Padre in attendance at the Oratorio's, his own demeanor was more in keeping with that world than our own. Down that little street, life, it seemed, had not altered one iota since those ancient times.

Once we had exhausted these outdoor scenes, we turned back to the Urbino's true glories: above all, the remarkable representation of Renaissance art in the Palazzo Ducale, now housing the Galleria Nationale della Marché. Of course, there was its native, Raffaello, together with the masters Della Francesca and Uccello there to be seen (since De la Francesca had himself been born not far from Urbino, many more of his frescoed masterpieces could be sought out and discovered still inside the tiny chapels in which he'd painted them nearby). Within that impressive architechural structure, we could gape at the Duke's studiolo with its stunning trompe l'oeil of woodwork paneling. Such were our leisurely wanderings in those early summer days.

We next raced towards the Adriatic sea, to the fine beaches at Pesaro not more than 40 kilometers distance. Yet again would we sample another sea and discover how calm, how warm were its waters.

Before we knew it, however, the time had come for my husband to take up his summer University commitments. We accompanied him that first day of classes to the far side of the town. University students were everywhere to be seen in auto-free lanes, strolling about, chattering idly, sitting in cafes in front of their cappucios, or slurping their pasta. Later on, I noted that towards evening, they sat yet again with colleagues, this time favoring their local wines. My own choice for those hot summer evenings was a frizzante, which was to become a favorite.

Despite all of Urbino's artistic grandeur, our kiddies preferred the open country to the town. They sought out the company of the local children, steering me back to our farmland in San Cipriano, where they could roam free. I joined in their enthusiasm for the pastoral, walking the country roads, or sauntering in the woods during those light-hearted days.

Among my most vivid recollections that summer was the children's growing attachment to a young piglet named Michele. The creature was being raised for slaughter by the contadini (rustics) over those spring and summer months, when it was allowed to run about free and joyful. Michele was a playful young beast. They fussed over that animal as they might a new puppy. And the wonder of it was how quickly the not-so-little fellow responded to their loving attentions. He was soon following them about everywhere, gently nudging them and making all kinds of porcine grunts and grimaces which they, of course, immediately translated for their purposes. How they insisted upon his intelligence, his comprehension of their wishes! Piggy Michele was even better than their pet tortoise (dubbed Mattei), which we had carried with us to Urbino all the way from our Roman apartment (and then later still, far more stealthily, all the way home to California!). Yet, here in those open fields, they had jolly, prancing Michelé escorting them about merrily and doing their bidding for most of that season. Our children became entwined with the local farmers, familiar with the cottages, invited to join along with the farmers in their work, and they came to adore all the families nearby.

Then, out of the blue, along came the day when it was poor Michele's turn to serve his family's true needs, to provide for them the food they ate during the long winter months. Alas and alack, city folk that we were, we had not foreseen this event! Not anticipated the inevitability of it, nor had ever experienced such a casualty. Devastating, indeed. How the children wailed and wept when they learned of it. They would not, could not forgive the treachery of their country friends. No matter what we said, or how we explained the nature of farming, their needs, their customs, we couldn't mollify their rage. The realities of country life had revealed themselves, and the effect was devastating. Our American children were simply unwilling and unable to accept them.

And talk of being city bred—how might I leave unspoken here our crowning embarrassment of that summer? We, those naïve Americans, "i semplice Americani," as they began to refer to us, would soon become the talk of the neighborhood. It all began when my husband and I, during one of our late night walks under the stars, had noted the many lumache that boldly showed themselves in the late night darkness all around us. As great lovers of snails—and those marvelous concoctions made from them that we'd enjoyed in the restaurants of Rome that year, or, my husband's own seafood feasts during his travels on the Adriatic shore—we thought, why not gather some up for ourselves, cure them in a barrel, and then cook them for our own lavish dinner, right here in the country?

Few secrets could be kept in San Cipriano, but when our vechiette noted the old barrel we'd brought into the kitchen that we shared, there was some merry chatter over it. Their subdued mockery for such an undertaking began on the instant. Following that came their giggling—chuckles behind palms as they observed our attempts to purge these huge mollusks, stark white and almost the size of a tangerine. We'd learned this process was necessary to get out all the slush and sand and render them edible. The large, makeshift barrel we had found had a cover upon it, presumably fitting securely enough to allow them to be purged for the night and complete the task.

The bother, apparently, was that our lumache giganti, in typical country-style, had notions of their own, as we soon found out. That large barrel we'd set them into to cleanse themselves didn't hold these hardy specimens for long. In the old kitchen that night, they managed to raise the the keg's lid and wriggle their way to freedom. You can be sure, our ancients were right there to enjoy the show that morning as those snails slithered about on their way back to the outdoors!

Thus were we to become the laughingstock of the little community. And they could hardly hide their delight. Ah, they would sigh, "Americani, come sempre, vogliono fare i miracoli!" (Americans, as always, want to perform miracles!) Fast word of the spectacle spread, and we were at the butt of it. Worse, when finally we did manage to fix a little dish with those of the snails that remained in the barrel after we'd secured the lid with a rock. They turned out tougher to chew on than nails and altogether inedible.

All the same, fine times these were, with the fresh breezes reflected upon our children's faces. They were happy campers by now. On weekends we grabbed our swimsuits and headed to Pesaro to bask in the warmth of the welcoming shore. On Sundays we followed our days with memorable meals in its restaurants—those were the sea food marvels we could devour with our enlivened appetites. And there were always musicians performing in the local establishments. This was, after all, the town where Giachino Rossini, the great opera composer, had been born.

By the middle of August, the hunting season had opened, and before we knew it, our pastoral bliss, our summer idyll, was at an end. We began to hear intruders soon enough, all round us. We could sense the danger. Italians have ever been keen hunters, passionate for their sport of la caccia. Annually, they would comb the area for rabbit, pheasant, deer, wild sheep, and boar. And these hunters were even more ardent in their pursuit of birds—partridge, woodcock, and most particularly, quail. The sportsmen were ever accompanied by their dogs, their valued spinone, a versatile creature with long hunting credentials. The breed was said to be especially reliable in the field—not too fast in speed—and ever gentle in recovering its catch.

Their noisy arrivals at dawn each morning made our surroundings less than agreeable. All activity grew closer, restricted, and our concern over our children's daily wanderings grew. Above all, we feared those hunter's shots going astray.

Our own enthusiasm had certainly never waned for such lavish dishes as coniglio in potacchio or fagiano a la cantadino, yet, here and now, in this near autumn at our peaceful canonica in the countryside, the furor, the constant noise, the barking of the spinone, together with the hazards of wayward gunfire, terrorized us. So we recognized that we must pack up promptly and find the nearest road out of San Cipriano.

That was that, and we'd have to get going. With some of our possessions stashed into the trunk of our car, with the rest tied on top of the Volvo, we started rambling once more. During that summer we'd already visited in the neighboring provinces to the North, making day-trips to find such stunning wonders as those in Ravenna, with its mosaics going back to the 6th century and out from them looking upon us those intense faces of their Byzantine emperor Justinian and his lady, Theodora.

We had gazed at a city below with even earlier glories. Rimini's celebrated Roman arch of Augustus went back to 27 BC. There, too, we found the later creations of another of its rulers, the malevolent Malatesta in his sumptuous Tempio Malaestiano, with splendid works of artists like Donatello residing in them to this very day. We had wandered through the Marché, working our way down into the Abruzzi over that leisurely season.

Yet now, with so little time left us before we need leave Italy behind altogether, we chose, in that late August, to keep close to the sea and to meander down the Adriatic shore. The weather was still balmy as we drove Southwards towards the heel of the boot. There existed yet another unknown Italia to emerge, which would climax our Italian adventure.

For there, we found ourselves surrounded once more by that land's mysterious cultures. Throughout most of history, Italia had, after all, been a mere union of city states, each with its diverse civilization and variety of customs and practices. In the town of Alberobello, for example, we came upon those dazzling round houses of the Triulli, scattered as they were among the orchards—hundreds and hundreds of them—with their domed, white roofs and curious mortar-less construction. They signaled a civilization believed to be over 5,000 years old, and one of which little is known of among Italians even to this day. So it went as we moved onwards to the port cities like Bari and Brindisi, and even further through the olive groves of Lecce and sparkling shores at Galipoli.

Vivid still is that brilliant light everywhere around us in that landscape on that blessed southern coast of the Adriatic and all the roads down towards the Ionian Sea. And clear, the recollections of how idle we were, as we swam or sailed out on the fishermen's vessels, only to dine later on that fresh fare the waters offered us.

With the fishermen we would try our luck, though, to tell it true, the best we could boast of at the end of the day was having purchased an ample-sized peche from among their catch. We carted our fishy prize to a restaurant and delivered it to the chef, who took care of the rest.

During one such afternoon's excursion, we'd encountered a group of kindly priests with whom the children began chatting amicably, so we joined in as well. Then, as I wondered aloud about the notion of such an act for clergy, I gently chided one of these monks. I had watched his enthusiasm a he witnessed another fisherman's victorious spearing of a huge peche spada (swordfish) from that water. Such willingness to sacrifice another creature for sport seemed unbecoming for a man of the cloth.

He responded unhesitatingly and with a flourish, "Non, non, cara Signora, questo non dev essere una problema. Veramente, si puo comprende che il mondo e fatto proprio per noi!" ("No, no, Madam, this needn't be a problem, for surely you understand that this world is made especially for us!")

'This world is made especially for us!" Even today, that priest's remark remains indelible! And it has forever characterized for me the carefree temper of all those spirited Italians we encountered everywhere we set foot within that blessed land.


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