Urbino letter II from Michele

(October 20, 2018) -- Italian universities maintain schedules that those of us who teach in the U.S. find to be bafflingly leisurely. Classes are not offered on Fridays, and rarely before noon in any event. The fall semester doesn’t begin until mid-October, and this is marked, oddly, by awarding degrees from the previous year.

I’d just returned to the early Renaissance college town of Urbino from my first field trip outside of the town with my own architecture and civil engineering students. Happily, there are two other faculty members representing the Engineering program, so I don’t have to invent projects for the budding structural designers. They add a lot to our experience, looking at the great achievements of Roman engineers, and the fascinating complexities of the design of renaissance fortifications and machines of war. Despite the traditional separation between architects and engineers, peace has seemed to have broken out in Urbino.

The students have been travelling interspersed with design charrettes since the end of August. We’re hardly hermetically sealed off from the Italian students at the University of Urbino, since we share meals at their Mensa, or cafeteria, and live among them in quarters literally at the heart of town. Our students haven’t had much opportunity to interact with the native matriculators since we’ve been here longer than they have, and we’re frequently on the road. We do follow the Italian schedule however, leaving our students a long three-day weekend to explore on their own. There’s even a mid-term break which is specifically intended for longer distance travel. I’m a mid-term replacement for another faculty member who has returned to San Antonio to take over my studio, we’re swapping geography and students. I suppose, in Texan parlance, this makes me the fresh hoss as a change of team for the Urbino Stagecoach.

There is an audible buzz in fall air. It’s the sound of animated conversations overlapping in the central Piazza Della Republica, and on every side street in the city. It is reunion time as the Italian students begin to flood back into the city from their protracted vacations. The drowsy peace and quiet of summer is gone, replaced by the shouted greetings of the young invaders who have breached all of the Duke’s former defenses.

In Italy, when one graduates one is said to be “Laureato,” literally one who wears the laurels. To prove the point, the new graduates begin appearing at parties in the evening wearing laurel wreaths around their heads. Photos are made with the family, and efforts are made to keep the crown (called a coroncina) upright as evening toasts multiply. A group of tall undergraduates are cheering their friends with rounds of spumante, Italian champagne, and pro-secco, then smashing the glasses on the confetti dotted pavement. Confetti here isn’t like the little bits of color in our cascarone eggs, in Urbino it’s the size of dimes.

Classes won’t resume until every degree is announced and every bottle has been drained. The Spazzini, municipal street sweepers, start work every morning before five, encountering revelers who still won’t go home. I suppose part of the design standards for street sweeping equipment here is the capacity to collect glass, confetti and wine corks, all of which are found in abundance at every curb. The congratulatory revelry has been more or less non-stop for the three days since my arrival and is accompanied by the slurred but not quiet singing of the graduation song… “Dottore, Dottore, Dottore del buco del cul, Vafancul! Vafancul! and, no, I’m not going to translate that.

I’m billeted on the top floor of a hostel specifically for professors, a thing not unknown to the singers in the narrow streets below. The serenade in this direction is anything but accidental.

Their long coats and scarves apparently provide them enough warmth to remain in good voice until dawn. They are milling around down there, shoulder to shoulder, filling the street so completely that I can’t see the pavement beneath their feet. At least this circus will strike its tents tonight and be replaced by less intense partying until everyone has located and greeted their friends and no one has the energy for more hugging and cheek kissing.


Tomorrow is the first Friday of the new term, and consequently, the first long weekend when most of the students will vacate the place and turn right around and go home for the weekend. Tonight, however, bands are set up in the Piazza Della Republica and on the rampart next to the Teatro Raffaello. 

The mostly male bellowing has ceased and been replaced with amplified cacophony, and the ritual of twenty-somethings making eye contact and rapid- fire conversation from the safety of same-sex gangs. As much as Italians boys like to cultivate the impression that they are suave lotharios, they are just as awkward at initiating approaches to potential dates as their age-mates anywhere else in the world. I’ve been startled to see how little has changed in four decades. The girls feign aloof disinterest while remaining in securely impenetrable groups. The boys roam around as arm-in-arm gangs staging largely unsuccessful verbal face offs, but it’s all in good fun and everyone is laughing and smiling. The edge of the piazza is ringed with professors and their spouses looking on in loco parentis, seeming every bit like the chaperones at a middle school dance. Their number includes one aging Italian-American who remembers what it felt like to be not on the margin, but in the middle of the Piazza.

— Michael Guarino (Michele)

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