Urbino letter XXII from Michele

(November 23, 2018) -- It's undeniably late November in Urbino. Almost every day the city is enveloped in fog, sometimes penetrated by drizzle. For the first time since my arrival I’ve started wearing the gloves I’ve brought with me, and I’m relieved that I threw them in the luggage as almost an afterthought.

Before I walk out to our studios behind the distant hill, outside the massive Porta Valbona, I stand at the tall windows next to the desk in my room and look out at the landscape and the rooftops of Urbino. It is a tossing sea of terra cotta, with rising waves of rosy tiles rippling in every direction. I wonder how many millions of these are washing across the rooftops of the Italian peninsula. An uncounted and uncountable multitude, stippled with moss, and today, glazed with rainwater.

We are all a little preoccupied with tiles at the moment, the student’s design project is the reclamation of a 19th century tile factory below the city’s walls in a deep valley surrounded by tidy little farms. Tile making in Italy dates back to the ancient Greek colonists of South Italy and Sicily. The probably apocryphal tale that these rounded barrel tiles were formed over the bare thighs of their makers is a good story but not as likely as simply draping the wet clay blanks over a rounded form, probably a peeled log, or in the event of large-scale production, a forest of them.

The tiles taper toward one end which makes them easy to lock together by simple friction when they are laid up on a roof. They make a wonderfully water proof enclosure that I’m appreciating in my warm, dry perch. They are over my head as well as almost all others in Urbino.

Our tile factory, with a long oval furnace once covered by a roof of poplar logs and flat tiles, here called Marseillaise, which the factory was producing when it became bankrupt, and shut down production in the early 1970s. Some of the tiles are still stacked on pallets waiting for orders that will never come.

The roof of the factory proved to be its undoing. Over forty years of neglect were too much for the wooden beams and the whole thing has collapsed. When I was a student hitch-hiker it was still completely intact. I’ve stood on the city walls looking down on the devastation of four decades, one ruin contemplating another.

The factory’s last owner was Paulo Volpone, the dutiful son who returned to take over his family business while keeping up with his private profession, he was a renowned poet. It seems perfectly natural in this cradle of humanism that the tilemaker would be a poet. His name is in his many books, and stamped on the backs of the last of his Marseillaise. Each one of them feels to me like a cuneiform tablet, barely hinting at a culture lost to those who no longer have any understanding of it.

Volpone’s poetry is full of the longing for the beautiful country of the Marche province, and the conflicted meditations of a displaced person, one who left for life in the bigger cities of the north, but who really never left Urbino.

I’ve had conversations with my students about all these things. None of us are going to feel as if we wasted a moment here. Urbino will be coming back to Texas in baggage and memory. Sometimes those are the same things.

It’s Sunday again, the 18th of November. We have very little time left in Urbino, final exams and project critiques on the 25th and then the group will begin dispersing, some to return immediately to Texas, some to travel until Christmas takes them back to their families.

I’ll have a late lunch, inside for a change on this gray day, then walk out to the studios to see how the students are doing with their labors. The conscientious ones are using their free time to debate with their design partners, draw, discard, draw more, and add to the mountain of iterations that I hope will condense into coherent ideas.

Some of their classmates are using the time to fit in a few more independent explorations of Europe. I don’t think this is slacking, I think it’s a different way to be conscientious.

We can work in studios when we go home, we’re here to fill our eyes with impressions, as many as we can absorb, and then those that we probably won’t assimilate for years, even decades. I don’t begrudge the travelers a minute of their time, it’s being well used.

I’m trying a snug little café that I’ve had some late-night coffees in, it’s a marvel of Victorian comfort, from its stained-glass clerestory windows at the street to it’s highly figured Verona marble counters, to its lion’s paw footed tables and dim and beveled mirrors.

It has a menu that has some surprises, smoked salmon and dishes with truffles and boar. The bartenders are pouring good wine and mixing cocktails for a cross section of Urbino. A professorial couple is at one table with a stack of periodicals in four languages, a huddled group of students in parkas are laughing at someone’s joke and cupping their hands around hot espressos. A lanky workman in a City of Urbino uniform leans on the bar and downs a glass of champagne, which must confuse local communist philosophers who are still waiting for the revolution of the proletariat. Here’s one comrade with demonstrably bourgeois midday tastes. If he has another glass or two I hope he’ll park his garbage truck and end his shift early.

The staff know their customers intimately, almost all of them are regulars and stop in more than once a day. One bartender has a booming bass voice that easily pierces the din. Another looks like he might be an adjunct lecturer moonlighting, he’s neatly pressed, neatly groomed, and as quiet as the other is loud. Oscillating between them is a young woman who is pouring chilled wines from bottles in a huge silver bowl, when she’s not running to the kitchen to pick up plates of this and that for the diners at the iron tables in the back.

I’ve just started on a plate of fish when my phone pings with a text, this from a student named Josh who is already at the studio. “Don’t mean to alarm you but I think something just happened, the windows and doors rattled and some dust came down from the ceiling.” My immediate reply? “Get out of the building now! If any with you, them too, wait for me in open.”

The other diners are answering their phones too. I hear the word I don’t want to hear, “terremoto” (earthquake!). Someone mumbles “Colle” which is the popular reference to the hillside University buildings outside the city walls, where my students are working. Later I’ll learn that the caller was referring to the “Colle” (hills) above Rimini where the shaking was felt more acutely than in Urbino.

I throw some euros on the bar and push my way through the crowd to the street. I’m not panicking, in the café we didn’t feel a thing, not even a ripple in the water glasses. Urbino is in an active seismic zone, as is almost all of Italy. It’s not a particularly destructive zone, which I’m counting on. The central Adriatic which is just off the nearby coast is a subduction zone, where the Adriatic plate slides below the Apennine plate. It’s the reason there are Apennine mountains, they are being pushed up while the crust under the sea is being pushed down. This activity is so deep within the earth that it rarely does damage in the environs of Urbino.

But, an earthquake is an earthquake is an earthquake.  Since it’s Sunday the buses out to the Colle campus are on limited service and none are in view, nor are there cabs, so I do something I haven’t done in some time, run.

For me the daily hike is a 15-minute walk, but my walk has been compared to a trot, so I cover the distance in a little over half that time. Part of the way is on a cantilevered walk and I’m thinking if it shakes I’m jumping over the railing into the road, but that doesn’t happen.

I pass the hillside dormitories and see absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. The Italian students who live in them are just filtering back from the Mensa which has just ended midday meal service. I come to the end of the campus drive and see my goal, the library notched into the hillside with our studios and an open deck on its roof. But where are the students? Nobody is standing on the ground in front of the building entry. Are they all still inside? They are.

The only one of them who’s experienced an earthquake is Californian Josh, who sent the text alert. He’s still in his studio at one end of the building by himself, the other five present are at the other end of the building. I start with Josh. “Wait for me on the walk, I mean it, now, don’t pick up anything, just go.”

I find the others standing about except for Andrew, an engineering student, who is sitting in a chair within a door frame with his back to me. “Easy to see who is the engineer in this crowd, everybody out now, NOW!”

I march our little band back into the city, I need to check on their classmates who are all in the student residence in a 17th century house in the city center. I find a few on the ground floor and have them summon everybody in the house, time for a meeting.  What’s the damage report? “Everything’s fine, but we felt it, the beds vibrated!”

This is part of a low energy earthquake if you haven’t experienced one, it’s a hit or miss set of sensations, persons in one street can feel nothing while their neighbors could swear the house is coming down around their ears.

I’ve borrowed a laptop and am reading local news reports, 4.3 on the Richter Scale located at a depth of 43 Kilometers in the sea off of Rimini at 13:43 (1:43 p.m.). My phone pings again, it’s students on the train returning from their weekend trip, the train is stopped, they are near Rimini. “You are likely to be there for awhile, the protocol is for trains to stop when earthquakes are reported, a moving train is more likely to derail than a stationary one, and they have to check the tracks.”  Another buzz, this time a call from students on a second train. It hasn’t left Bologna Centrale yet, and it won’t for another four hours, same explanation for them.

I’ve got every one of the students who are in Urbino in their little sitting room now. “First of all, morning classes are cancelled until Professor Montoya and I can inspect the building. Second of all, I’d suggest sleeping in your clothes tonight in case of a rapid evacuation. Here is what we know, the earthquake was very deep, 43 Kilometers down which is good news, it means damage is unlikely and we don’t see any here in the building. It started at 1:48. Trains are stopped until further notice which is standard operating procedure on the Italian railways.”

I ask for a show of hands to see how many have experienced an earthquake before. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but all of the Mexican students and our Californian hold up their hands. The questions start. “Will there be aftershocks?” “Hard to say, but this is a relatively small event, I think it’s unlikely.”

“Anything happening around us?” “No damage reports anywhere in the province according to local news, so, no.”

“Do we have to stay up all night?” “I don’t think so, if the trains start moving again that’s the equivalent of an all clear, I’ll come back when we know that.”

They are all calm, the earthquake-experienced students have a lot to do with maintaining calm for the others. There’s no noise in the streets, almost no one in Urbino felt it.

At 17.15 (5:15 p.m.) the radio announces that train service has been restored in the reported area of the terremoto on the Adriatic coast of the Marche.

More calls from the train passengers. “We’re moving!” “Are the buses from Pesaro running?” “Don’t know. I’ll check.” (They are.)

I’ll wait at the bus drop off for the late comers. The last one to arrive has been in Cairo for the weekend, and was stalled in the station at Bologna. She looks tired but otherwise fine. I think we’ll all be able to sleep tonight. Under that ocean of tile roofs.

— Michael Guarino (Michele)

View a photo gallery contributed by students studying abroad during the Fall 2018 semester.