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THE DANTE-ESQUE CITY OF URBINO:

BY LUCIA MAURO

Every day at the crack of dawn in Urbino, a strange aviary battle ensues in the skies above the Palazzo Ducale. Crows and pigeons fling themselves from the ramparts of this sprawling medieval castle and fight each other in mid-air. These are vicious ritualized encounters that often send the loser crashing through the arcades or sliding down the roof’s gutters.

History quite literally hovers over this city, which conjures up images of 14th century knights and bishops from a living chessboard. Perhaps these winged warriors, eager to begin each day engaged in a brutal airborne sparring match, are the spirits of the Guelphs and Ghibellines – the famed medieval factions at war in the Italian city-states during Dante Alighieri’s time.

When my husband Joe and I arrived in Urbino during our infamous weather-challenged trip in November 1999, we felt the weight of the Middle Ages on our consciences – a weight soon made physically heavier when a big clump of snow dropped from the sky as if out of a suspended trap door that releases powdery crystals on stage during a Christmas pageant.
We had barely escaped the lashing rains of Rimini and fought heavy winds during our brisk but sunny car ride around the winding green hills and orange-brown cottages of the Marche region -- mirroring the landscape paintings of Piero della Francesca -- before entering the clustered castles and churches of Urbino. Joe and I would be staying at Hotel and Residence Dei Duchi, which we thought was in the center of town. We parked in a crowded lot outside the city’s heavy stone walls and elaborate arched gate. I got out to ask for directions at a café when the skies opened and dumped an icy talcum-like substance on me. It was mid-afternoon, and charcoal-gray clouds oozed around the now-fading sun.

An ultra-serious woman at the café abruptly told me that Dei Duchi was located eight miles outside Urbino in a residential area. We needed to follow signs for a hospital, then look for arrows pointing toward "Hotel and Residence Dei Duchi con Garage." Of course, we hit the Friday-afternoon school rush hour and found ourselves on a narrow road dodging kids with transparent backpacks, their moms in fur coats and spike heels and, since the hospital was along the route, a speeding ambulance that nearly soared over our car.

We would later realize that Urbino proper is primarily a walking town. You park your car in a massive lot, then stroll through the main arch or climb up steep rocky steps or take an outdoor elevator to the various levels for about 75 (U.S.) cents.

Joe had been driving in rain, sleet, blinding sun -- and then blinding snow! – for about four hours. He also felt like he might be coming down with the flu. So Joe was anxious to rest in what turned out to be a gorgeous marble-bedecked hotel with surprisingly sparse amenities. We took a glass elevator to our spacious room, whose crowning glory was a terrace overlooking those spectacular burnt-Siena, Piero della Francesca hills and dark-green poplar trees.

I was so moved by the scenery, now bathed in sunlight, I flung open the balcony doors only to be met with a blast of frigid air that practically turned me into an ice cube. Temperatures had to have been in the 20-degree Fahrenheit range. It wasn’t even this cold in Chicago.

Joe tried to sleep amid the constant howls of the neighborhood dogs, which must have been in pain from this unexpected deep freeze. Meanwhile, I called our friends – Sharon and Vincenzo – who drove from their home in Rome to spend the weekend with us in Urbino. I met Vincenzo, a cameraman for RAI, and his Canadian wife Sharon, a TV news writer, during the international jazz festival a few months earlier in Sardinia. They had just arrived, too, and were staying at a B&B on the outskirts of town. We agreed to meet for dinner at 8:30.

But, around 6 o’clock, Joe and I got ravenously hungry. I pounced on the mini-bar, only to find it empty. I noticed that Dei Duchi’s brochure advertised a lobby bar open 24 hours a day for drinks and snacks. I went downstairs to check it out, but it was closed. A neatly pressed gentleman at the front desk apologized for the empty mini-bar. Apparently, someone forgot to stock it and was gone for the evening. He recommended that I go into town to one of the grocery stores – at least a four-mile trek to the area around the hospital in the dark and in sub-freezing temperatures.

Joe and I also didn’t have the energy to pull out the car after squeezing into one of those impossibly narrow spaces between a pole and another car parked at a wild angle. So here we were at what billed itself as a fancy hotel in Italy, and we could not even get a bag of potato chips. Luckily, I found a few crackers in my purse.

Our initial frustrations, compounded by the erratic weather, turned into elation when the hyper-energetic Sharon and Vincenzo picked us up at our hotel. Vincenzo had stayed in Urbino before and was anxious to go to a quaint trattoria near Porta di Lavagine (named for ancient stone water basins). We parked outside Urbino’s fortress-like walls and braved the bone-cold chill – huddling as close together as possible to stay warm.

You see, Joe and I never expected such extreme temperatures in November. So we did not bring our heavy winter coats. We were then forced to improvise by layering sweaters on top of sweaters and wearing, say, two blazers under our lighter autumnal jackets. Even Sharon and Vincenzo wished they had brought their parkas, considering that this evening dipped as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit!

The winding stone-arched streets of Urbino, not surprisingly, were deserted this evening. We were trailed only by the smell of hickory-tinged fireplaces and smoke swirling through the clear night sky. After reaching the brink of frostbite, we discovered that Vincenzo’s charming trattoria was closed. Anxious to dash anywhere indoors, we bolted into the first restaurant we saw. It turned out to be the lovely Ristorante Urbino Vecchia adorned with sleek walnut-wood furnishings and delicate glass-and-gold light fixtures in the shape of star bursts.

We had the honor of being served by the proudly nationalistic owner, who reminded us of the Falstaffian actor Victor Buono. He recommended all dishes with the regional specialty: truffles – from risotto to taglioni. Then he boasted of the fine wood finishes of all his tables and plopped down a gorgeous tome chronicling the lavish theaters that dot the Le Marche landscape around Urbino. He tossed in tidbits of the city’s legendary medieval history and the powerful Montefeltro name while serving us grilled lamb and sausage and generously filling our glasses with Sangiovese wine.

The festive evening -- which concluded with espresso, digestivi and much laughter – warmed us up for the chilly trek back to the car. We could see our breath as we made plans for tomorrow.

Joe and I woke up to brilliantly sunny skies that belied the sub-zero temperatures. I was looking forward to spending the morning at the Palazzo Ducale – built for Duke Federico da Montefeltro, ruler of Urbino between 1444 and 1482. But Joe really needed to rest after feeling a resurgence of his flu symptoms. I could not walk into the far-away town center, and I don’t drive stick shift. So I inquired at the front desk about alternate forms of transportation into the city. Fortunately, a local bus stops in front of Dei Duchi and would drop me off at Urbino’s main Piazza della Repubblica.

I bundled up as best I could and ventured into Urbino while Joe got some much-needed sleep back at Dei Duchi. I waited at the deserted bus stop at 9 o’clock on this frosty Saturday morning and was soon joined by a spunky young journalism major from the University of Urbino. She immediately complained about the cold – which was starting to wreak havoc on both of our sinuses. We continued to talk – 20 minutes later – when we boarded the crowded orange bus. She raved about the Palazzo Ducale, which she claimed was bigger than Urbino itself, and recommended that I also visit the Church of San Domenico and the Cathedral.

We stopped in the bustling Piazza della Repubblica, filled with students, locals on their way to the market and Africans selling Rolex knock-offs on multicolored blankets. My new student friend waved goodbye, leapt off the bus and, even more dramatically, into the arms of her handsome boyfriend. I scampered into a jam-packed café for a latte macchiato to warm my frozen hands. But, despite the cold, Urbino exuded a magical and majestic sense of grandeur.

Those bellicose birds circled above the Palazzo Ducale, and I feared they might start boxing in the air. Instead they flew around and screeched at deafening volumes. I began snapping photos of the gloriously rough-hewn textures of the medieval buildings. Then I stopped briefly in the 15th century Church of San Domenico, with its worn travertine façade and azure-frieze portal of the Madonna and Child by Lucca della Robbia. The façade frames an Egyptian obelisk with intricate calligraphy.

A few steps away stands the mesmerizing Palazzo Ducale – a palace that houses a library, art gallery and exemplifies some of the most spectacular Renaissance architecture. A tribute to Duke Federico -- a man of arts and a humanist, as well as a soldier -- Palazzo Ducale is a monument to the high artistic and intellectual ideals of the Renaissance.

I stepped into the heavily pillastered courtyard and inquired about tickets. The guard told me that a guided tour would be leaving in 10 minutes and that it would last about two hours. Today, only an Italian-speaking guide was available. So I joined a very small group consisting of three university students (two guys and a girl, all sporting heavy facial piercings) and our guide – a very polite young man who, upon learning that Italian was not my first language, happily agreed to speak slowly so I could understand all the copious historical details.

The three students ended up spending more time flirting with each other; and I found myself essentially getting a private tour from the gentleman, who enthused about every wall fresco, furnishing and the adventurous life of Duke Federico – best known as the hook-nosed man in profile, dressed in red, in the portrait by Piero della Francesca that hangs in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. In fact, Federico was always painted in left profile after a battle wound deeply scarred the right side of his face and left him blind in his right eye.

This was one of the most spectacular castles I’ve ever visited. It consists of multiple levels, with each floor a vibrant slice of Renaissance splendor. Raphael lived in Urbino, and entire rooms are devoted to his paintings -- most notably the tranquil "La Muta," or "The Mute Woman." Visitors have the rare chance to view Piero della Francesca’s mysteriously angled "The Flagellation of Christ," with its three seemingly incongruous Oriental counselors in the foreground.

A spiral staircase leads to the Duke’s apartments, chapels, throne room, music salon, more galleries and the shimmering "Room of Angels" – not to mention the panoramic views of the boldly sloping Urbino landscape and Albornoz Fortress. There’s a whole other world underground – one of the most extraordinary examples of hydraulic engineering in the 15th century. The castle’s huge series of subterranean basins were used for food storage and were part of an intricate plumbing and sewage system. This tour provided me with a grand glimpse into a grand, harsh life.

It also reminded me of the brutal yet sublime evolution of this city. With the birth of the Papal State in the eighth century, Urbino found itself caught up in the events of ecclesiastical feudalism, which gradually led to municipal forms of government. From this political climate, the Ghibelline character of the city developed and gained credit thanks to the efforts of Antonio da Montefeltro who, in 1155, is said to have put down a revolt against Frederick Barbarossa, thus earning himself the titles of Count and Imperial Vicar of Urbino.

From that moment on, the history of the city was indissolubly tied to that of the Montefeltro family, who were of Germanic origin and descendants of the Counts of Carpegna. Dante mentions Guido the Elder, a fiery Ghibelline from the Montefeltro clan, in Canto XXVII of "Inferno" in "The Divine Comedy." Guido is among the fraudulent advisors who had been transformed into a flickering flame.

Duke Federico, who usherd in Urbino’s golden age of art and letters, remains the most illustrious descendant of the Montefeltro line – and his presence is felt at every architecturally magnificent turn. He commissioned construction of the Cathedral in 1476, but it took several centuries to complete and experienced various collapses. Today its white neoclassical façade stands out in sharp contrast against Urbino’s fairytale turrets and wrought-iron gates.

Along the way, I ran into my university friend who was walking arm-and-arm with her boyfriend. She shouted, "Signora, hai visto il Palazzo Ducale? Bello, sì?" – then disappeared into a crowd of more lively students.

I called Joe at Dei Duchi, and he was feeling much better. Then Sharon and Vincenzo called me and said they would meet me in the big parking lot so we could drive back to Dei Duchi together. But I didn’t realize there was more than one large parking lot. Here’s where we can thank our lucky stars for cell phones. I stood by what I thought was the main arch but could not see Sharon and Vincenzo. So I called them on my cell phone. We described our location and its perimeters. Then we started walking toward each other, phones plastered to our ears, reporting on each step until we met quite comically face to face on the other side of Palazzo Ducale.

We quickly hooked up with Joe at Dei Duchi and checked out, then headed once again to Urbino’s main parking lot. The sun continued to shine, and the sky was a spectacular cloudless turquoise blue. But we felt like we landed in a medieval Antarctica. Joe and I would be driving the entire Adriatic coast. We feared the cold would follow us even as we continued to head south.

So, about 20 minutes before the stores in Urbino closed for siesta, Joe and I tried on a bunch of hooded, water-proof down coats in a very crowded sportswear shop. While the fashion-conscious Sharon and Vincenzo nodded their approval or disapproval from the side lines, Joe and I made our decision. We bought two of the warmest and easy-to-travel coats for a total of $200 (U.S.). For the first time, since the start of our trip, we felt toasty and comfortable.

Then the four of us spent the next three hours huddled around a fireplace at a rustic trattoria, where we dined on various lunchmeats accompanied by crostini with duck, black olive and hazelnut pate; soup with ceci and pasta; more spaghetti and truffles; and rabbit doused in wild mushrooms, sage and fennel. We felt as if our world was condensed into this cozy cantina.

So imagine our shock when we stepped outside and right into a blizzard! The turquoise sky got blotted out by fierce black clouds and a heavy mist. Giant snowflakes swirled around us as the wind pushed us toward a pointy crag, where we hopped on a creaky elevator that deposited us in the slushy parking lot. We bid farewell to Sharon and Vincenzo in this soggy vortex; hopped in our car; and frantically clutched our new winter coats.

As Joe pulled onto the slippery serpentine road, a few errant crows stood stoically atop Palazzo Ducale’s signature Disney-castle-like turrets. Those hearty birds looked poised for battle. But this time – like us -- they would have to face their most dangerous nemesis: the elements.•
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