Urbino letter I from Michele
I’m about to embark on an adventure I would wish everyone could share with me. Circumstances have made it possible for me to travel not only to Italy but back in time to my 21st year. After deciding to retire from partnership in an all too active practice, I was offered the opportunity to teach full-time in my adopted home town of San Antonio at the UTSA College of Architecture, Construction Science, and Planning. The school has been supporting a study abroad program in Urbino, Italy, and for as long as I’ve taught there. I’ve had to say no to the possibility of joining the program due to obligations at the office. That barrier has fallen, and 41 years after I was a student in Italy, I’m now the shepherd of a group that is mostly the same age as I was then. It’s a gift beyond price to see the world through young eyes again.
Urbino is one of the important cradles of the Renaissance, it’s Duke Montefeltro having been one of the first enlightened patrons of artists, philosophers, civil engineers, classicists, and thinkers of every stripe. His vast palace completely dominates the rosy colored hill town at the base of the Apennines, scarcely any distance at all from the Adriatic, south of Venice. It’s a place wreathed in completely enveloping fogs, all its’ distant vistas softened by clouds and the smoke of burning leaves. The flanks of the hills Urbino straddles are thick with chestnut trees, now dropping their tempting fruits and leaves in a reddish gold belt around the city.
I’d hardly unpacked before it was time to take the students on a field trip to visit two of the most extraordinary castles in Italy, one at Sassocovaro, and the other in the vertiginous hill town of San Leo. They make a worthwhile contrast, Sasso covaro became increasingly domesticated over time and evolved into a Monsignor’s mountaintop palazzo, complete with an intact 18th century “studiolo” a private study or library. By the 19th century the castle had become property of the Commune or town around it, and a wonderful little painted theater was inserted into it. When we arrived, it was being set up for an evening’s performance. One of the students couldn’t resist taking the stage and doing about ten minutes of stand-up comedy. The local crew setting up the stage indulgently let the improvisor have his less than 15 minutes of fame. Fortunately, they were unlikely to understand the completely unforgivable stream of puns that constituted the performance.
Many of my South Texas charges are fluent Spanish speakers, some are Mexican citizens. As I was herding stragglers back to the bus I found three of them chatting up a local workman in the typical working man’s garb of a dark blue tunic and loose cotton trousers; almost like hospital scrubs. It seems quintessentially Italian to go to work in comfortable duds. As we were mounting the steps and finding seats I asked the students how they’d done in their Italian conversation with a local. “Oh, he’s not Italian” one replied, “his mom and dad are from Mexico.” Globalism reigns supreme.
I had been told to be concerned about the lurching trip further up the mountains to our next and last stop, San Leo. Some of the previous faculty have had bad experiences with our lowland South Texans and altitude sickness, but we took it slowly and the serpentine switch-backs didn’t produce any negative impacts on young digestive systems. We arrived intact and excited to climb to the craggy top of the castle at San Leo. It’s perched like a bird of prey on top of a dolomitic needle which seems to be piercing the roof of Italy. The hike to the gates of the mountain village which grew up dependent on the castle reminded us that it was well past lunchtime, so we let everyone forage for cafes, not that there was a particularly large selection. A few of us found one with a loft, hearth, and homemade everything. The students, I’m happy to report, have capitalized on the gustatory opportunities in front of them and aren’t looking for hamburgers. For my part I had rabbit stuffed with sage, prosciutto, and braised livers, a recipe that was a favorite of my grandmother’s.
We spent the rest of the day exploring two very early Romanesque churches, both containing re-used Roman columns and capitals. The castle, of course, was the main event. Unlike our first stop, San Leo made a darker transition, into a notorious papal prison. It is replete with actual dungeons and an alarming collection of instruments of torture. As I expected, this drew the one word reaction from our flock… “cool.” I’d hoped that we would be able to see the three castle-keep profile of the nearby Republic of San Marino, one of the only two independent countries left on the formerly fragmented Italian Peninsula, the other being the Vatican. Clouds were descending and we were losing the light so it was time to return to the warm embrace of Urbino.
The bus was quiet all the way back, a combination of too much to absorb and the ability of young people to fall into the arms of Morpheus instantaneously. I was wide awake, however, I still can’t quite believe I’m back.
— Michael Guarino (Michele)