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Summer Studies in Urbino, Italy
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-02-02 10:04:14
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Lately I have been busy organizing and coordinating, for a local college (Broward College), a program of summer humanistic studies at the University of Urbino Italy. It is not a wholly new enterprise. I have undertaken it three other previous times, hence I can write about it with some confidence. The twenty or so college students joining the program will certainly find these comments on the program interesting. I’d like to also share them with Ovi readers, especially those who love the humanities.

The primary purpose of the program is to improve the language proficiency and the artistic and humanistic skills of its participants. Various courses of Italian language and civilizations are offered together with courses in history and theory of art, drawing, painting, pottery. The faculty consists of both Italian and American professors, mostly with Ph.D.s in their field. No doubt many of those courses are offered at liberal arts colleges in the US and elsewhere. What makes them a unique experience in this case is the setting: Urbino, Italy. There is also a travel itinerary within the program consisting of overnight stay (two nights and three days) in Rome, Florence and Venice and other minor one day excursions in the surrounding areas.

Let us briefly sketch Urbino beginning with some geography. Urbino is a small picturesque Renaissance city of fifteen thousand people in the Marche region of Italy, east of Toscana, a couple of hours from Florence. It is located on a hill amidst other undulating hills with a breathtaking view of the fertile valleys beneath it and a superb view of the surrounding Apennine mountains to the south and the Adriatic sea to the east. Pesaro, with its wonderful beaches can be reached in half hour by bus, something that many students take advantage of after finishing classes at 1 PM and lunch at the university’s cafeteria.

The university provides not only teaching facilities but also room and board; the cuisine is superb, something students write home about. Little has changed in this area over the centuries. Grape vines, fruit trees and sunflowers typically grow here. Every inch of earth has been tilled. This view is further enhanced by the sight of villas dotting the countryside and sheep grazing in the grass. The summer temperatures rarely surpass the mid-eighties. It’s what in literature and art is described as a bucolic idyllic setting.

The history of the place is even more interesting. The city was originally founded in 41 A.D. by the Romans who were attracted to its healthy air and ideal climate. Subsequently it became a duchy governed by the famous Duke Federico da Montefeltro who together with Leonardo da Vinci is considered the quintessential Renaissance man. When asked what he considered the most important accomplishment in his life, he answered: “essere umano” (to be human). And in fact, at the beginning of the Renaissance, the city vied with Florence in its artistic and humanistic output. After all, both Raphael and Bramante were born there. Raphael’s house can still be visited today.

Federico had an intense consciousness of the role of the emerging Renaissance society of  XV century Italy, wherein genius and character rather than birth were the measure of excellence. He spent his whole life in the achievement of this ideal goal. Indeed, while one of the highest goals of the Renaissance man was education and a life harmoniously lived (hence the importance of art and beauty), he was to be a gentleman first. Every detail of behavior and deportment was analyzed and discussed. Treatises were written on education, ethical conduct and politeness. It is a small wonder that the most important book ever written on the subject was written at the court of Urbino: Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) by Baldassare Castiglione, which sets the pattern for gentlemanly conduct not only for his own time, but for later generations of Europeans. Those standards concur with those in general usage today.  

Il Libro del Cortegiano depicts a group of historical courtiers assembled from various regions at the court of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro (the son of Federico) in Urbino in 1507.  The book retells four nights of artful conversation in which the group attempts to articulate the qualities of an ideal courtier, but the narrative quickly degrades into verbal sparring.  Recent critical approaches to politeness and language in the Renaissance have uncovered tensions within Castiglione’s text which threaten the surface layer of verbal refinement. 

The game becomes a contest between the society’s willingness to understand itself as a performative and artfully constructed culture, and on the other hand its desire to protect itself from such knowledge in order to function socially and politically.  Humour, specifically laughter, functions as a measure of the threat to the social surface.  Humour proves that a discussion of social norms and ideals can coexist with light hearted language, and that ‘serious’ conversation can be non-threatening to the social group. Of course to achieve that ideal one needs first to be a well rounded man, one with a holistic approach to life and experience. Cultural philistines need not apply!

In short, the court of Urbino flourished and excelled in all fields of intellectual and artistic endeavor. Sculptors were drawn there from Milan and Florence, architects from Siena and Dalmatia, carpenters and painters from Spain and tapestry workers from Flanders. Paolo Uccello worked inside the hospitable walls of the Ducal Palace, so did Piero della Francesca and Melozzo da Forlì. And of course the University of Urbino also has its beginnings in the XVI century to then become one of the best in Italy for humanistic artistic studies.

While Castiglione’s book places Urbino on the map of Renaissance literary studies, the most signal landmark of Federico’s ideal society is the Ducal Palace which in its front appears still as a castle (although even there the rounded arches betray its renaissance character), but if one walks around it to the main square where the cathedral is, one is presented with the prototype of the Renaissance palace; something that even Florence did not have at the time. A palace this dubbed by the art historian and critic Kenneth Clark in his series on Civilization (episode 4: Man is the Measure of All Things”) as “the most beautiful Renaissance palace in the world.” One walks though it in harmonious rooms full of light while admiring paintings by Raphael and Piero della Francesca. As Dante well puts it in one of his sonnets: something not understood until experienced. And that is the reason for taking students to Urbino Italy: to provide for them not only abstract cognition but the experience.

It is hoped that after seeing and studying some signal accomplishments of Italian Humanism, be it nothing else but a book and a palace as above adumbrated, they will return home as more humane and well rounded individuals, which is to say, as gentlemen and gentle ladies: people who can disagree at times and still remain agreeable. I dare say that most of them do. I have seen students crying before some of the Renaissance paintings they were contemplating. And if that is not a sign of humanism, then nothing is. Do not forget Urbino when you visit Italy.


Click here to download the two-page PDF brochure

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Emanuel Paparella2009-02-02 13:51:37


A footnote: the above links will take you to a whole gallery of beautiful Urbino photos. The second one is the so called studiolo, a beautiful wooden inlaid studio to which the Duke retired for his daily studies every day. It is so beautiful that the Metropolitan museum of New York ordered a replica which they have on permanent display in the museum.

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