Urbino letter XXIV from Michele

(November 25, 2018) -- This is the last Sunday I’ll spend in Urbino, at least for the foreseeable future. At the end of the week I’ll have three days in Bologna, then time to come back to San Antonio.

I was looking for something when I came here, and I found it again. I was looking for the sense that the world was still new, and wide open, and to be discovered. Only very young adults can teach this lesson because only they can have this experience and communicate it without artifice or guile. It’s been a daily pleasure to watch them open doors.

I am not the first person in my family to teach in Urbino. My distant ancestor Battista Guarino, who is sometimes called Guarini, was here late in his life at the request of one of the Delle Rovere Dukes who inherited the duchy from the diminished Montefeltros. He arrived here a generation after the University was organized in 1506.

Last Wednesday I was hoping to find a souvenir of Urbino at the weekly booksellers’ market that stretches almost the whole length of the loggia along the Via Sanzio. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of books and papers, maps, posters and advertisements from decades past, and sometimes, treasure.

At the end of all the tables with all their books with their spines pointing heavenward, I saw one standing as if at attention. It was not a new book, it had a hubbed and gilt binding and marbleized covers. I opened it and found it was an 18th-century reprint of some of Battista Guarino’s work. I thought I’d spend some time haggling over it but the bookseller said “venti-cinque Euro.” I think he was a little startled at how quickly I seized my 25 Euro prize and ran off with it.

I can’t think of a more important place to see the value of a liberal arts education, or any higher education for that matter, than in Urbino. From the time I first heard of Federico Montefeltro he became the embodiment of a philosopher king to me.

The times he lived in drove him to form a mercenary army which he led expertly and which enriched him and his duchy, tripling it in size. He could have continued to pile up riches like a pirate but instead he created the most enlightened court in Europe, a place that welcomed thinkers and doers of every type.

He rebuilt his city as much as the topography would permit, and even established what amounted to a large-scale publishing enterprise employing 40 full-time scribes. Printing presses were in short supply and too slow for Montefeltro’s taste. He was trying to build a library to rival that of Alexandria.

He was an early supporter of scholars and artists and welcomed them into his fold. His palace is really a city under one roof, the place that was ample enough to shelter all of this activity and ambition.

Even after his star dimmed, succeeding courts and the University continued to attract thinkers and supporters of the liberal arts, and of more civil ways of cooperating with one another.

Baldassare Castilglione was so enchanted by the Court of Urbino that he requested a diplomatic post there and wrote one of the most influential books of his time while on the job, Il Cortigiano, or the Courtier.

It is often referred to as a book of manners, which it certainly is, but it is much more, it is an encapsulation of humanist ideas and a description of a way to exchange views without shouting. While it was broadly influential in all of Europe in its time, it seems to have slipped from the guidelines of public discourse in our own era.

Battista’s great-grandfather, Guarino da Verona, was a least as highly regarded a teacher as he was. That Guarino returned from an extended trip to the Holy Land with a trunk full of Greek manuscripts that he’d purchased in bazaars. He made a career of translating them and in disseminating their contents as an instructor in Verona, Venice, Florence, and finally in Ferrara, where he spent the balance of his life.

One of his students, Vittorino da Feltre, created what was in effect the first prep school. It included playing fields and the belief in strong minds and strong bodies. Both he and Guarino insisted on scholarships for students of limited means and often paid fees out of their own pockets. This was a radical notion in a time when education was reserved for the well-born.

At some point or other all of them passed through Bologna where it’s long-famous University had been founded in 1088. It is still the oldest University in the west and the one that invented the term University to describe itself and its purposes.

All of this has been on my mind since I disembarked from a cab in the Piazza Della Republica. It’s not possible to assume the responsibilities of teaching without thinking about the very long tradition that has created the form and substance of a liberal education. I’ve never believed that seeking to enter a profession, any profession, absolved the teacher or the student of the responsibility to explore and to question. Where would we be if no one ever asked, “why?”

The students who are here with me now are straddling what is arguably the most difficult, and the most wonderful, time of life. They are establishing independence and identities as adults and they’ve come to a university seeking a pathway through that most challenging of transitions. Travel is part of that, listening to other opinions and seeing other ways of living and working is part of that. Being sometimes alone and a little homesick is part of that. And so is, with some confidence, learning how to say “this is what I think.”

Like my long-vanished ancestor, I feel that anyone should have access to a higher education, provided they will make the effort to make use of the opportunity. Guarino da Verona said that the student should desire learning, but he also said the teacher should desire teaching. It may be the most humbling of occupations, except for parenthood, but then teachers in foreign study programs act in loco parentis.

I’m about to leave to go check up on the students in the studio. I know they’re working on this Sunday because we have only until Tuesday to conclude their efforts. Wednesday they will stand before their work and defend their ideas in front of a panel of critics who will have to rely only on the clarity of the exposition and the representation of their thoughts in images and drawings.

Yesterday there was a lot of clamor in the Piazza Della Republica. A huge spruce tree was hauled up the steep streets of the city and hoisted in place behind the marble fountain. The streets are strung with lights and hung with stars that will not shine until we’ve left. Children are shrieking with laughter and shouts as they barrel into the low, soft boughs of the tree on their scooters and bicycles, or simply by running into its green arms.

I’m passing the tree on my way down to the Porta Valbona, and my walk out to the studios where lights are burning late. When I’m on the cantilevered walkway I turn back to look at the city. The fog is returning, and Urbino is vanishing in front of my eyes.

— Michael Guarino (Michele)

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