I’ve just finished a 4-week spring term class at W&L on “The Magazine,” and here’s the blog for that class.
See our students’ work from Urbino this year at: http://2012.inurbino.net/
Final post this chapter: Three nights at the Pulitzer Hotel in Rome. Two & a half days, stuffed and stuffy.
Here’s where we went. Trastevere, Rome’s Left Bank, accessible by bus and trolley and lots of strolling through old alleyways. Piazza del Popolo. Peek in at Sunday service, bake through Villa Borghese to Etruscan Museum, tram back to Piazza. Trek down del Corso (no cars). Basilicas of SS. Ambroggio e Carlo and Ignatius Loyola. Argentina dig of four Roman temples. Crypta Baldi, the city’s least know national museum, where a Roman theater evolved for over 15 centuries into layers of family home, lime kiln, workshops, etc., each layer exposed, Rome explained. The steeped pyramid taken from Egypt by an emperor. The final EuroCup game on our hotel’s restaurant TV. Piazza della Repubblica. Church of Galileo Galilei (actually, it’s something like Santa Maria di Angelos & Martyrs, but this ancient basilica is a beautiful reconciliation with the cosmos of Galileo and of science). Church of Maria Maggiore. Church of San Giovanni in Laterano, by the old Roman gate. The Pantheon. Lunch outside Vatican City at a Rick Steves recommendation called Tre Pupazza. St. Peters (Libby climbed the dome; not I). Bernini’s Colonnade. Castello d’Angelo. Its footbridge across the Tiber. The Colosseum & Constantine Arch.
Scenes of Rome. On the subway, an American couple is standing near where we stand, staring at the void we stare at in subways. I’m looking at a man seated across the way who looks like he has no irises, just the foggy eyes of a blind man or a zombie. He must be staring at something far to his right, but I look and look and he doesn’t change that zombie look. Then Libby says the American man has just been pick-pocketed. Or rather, he just realized it. I look at his baggy shorts, pockets agape. I hear him say “Son of a bitch.” He and his wife look stunned silent, calculating how mad to be, and at whom – all Romans? Themselves? I look over at the man with the milky eyeballs, glad to see his irises have appeared, swung to the left in the same attitude of a saint in agony. The couple gets out at the next stop, to contemplate their loss in stillness.
The beggars on the street seem to be imports from India. Outside each church, there’s a figure, usually female & Hindu-looking, gazing up from her squalor with pleading eyes, or face bent down to the pavement with hands in prayer. Then there are the beggar men sitting on the busier walkways, showing missing hands, arms, legs, or a foot bent up against a shin. And the urchins that stand close watching as you put money into the machine to buy a day pass on the a subway. I gave one woman a euro outside a church. Walking away from the piazza there, an older Indian woman approaches us rather insistently, despite my waving her away with no, no. Then a younger Indian woman – her daughter? an apprentice? – approached from my right. Suddenly she is fumbling her hand into my pocket. I remove it. (Later, I will reconstruct this scene in my mind with a more forceful response, grabbing her thin wrist and giving her a deep reproachful stare that converts her to Christianity on the spot). Outside the Vatican, I see a priest pass a beggar, and I think I see them smile slyly at one another, as if to say, “We two are in the same enterprise, aren’t we, Mack?”
The fortress-like Botanical Gardens fools the impatient by appearing closed at all times, with spiky cacti on top like archers guarding a castle keep. But Libby told me about the secret entrance on the other side of the Santo Spirito church (perpetual adoration of the Eucharist inside). You walk halfway down the brick scalette (leading down farther to the fountain pool where our favorite Greek restaurant serves diners in the open air). In that halfway place I found the wrought-iron gate in a hole in the wall that lets you peek into the secret garden, and the gate pushed open for me.
Suddenly, the blaring sun is mottled and sweetened by a tribe of trees, each tagged with its Latin name. Flower beds (aiuole) in this garden (orto) have themes. Here are plants that stimulate or depress the peripheral nervous system (parasimpatico). Here are plants that work on the musculoskeltal system (antirhumatics, rubifacients, smilax).
Nature knows it all. The Botanical Gardens is one of the ways Italians attend to that truth. Slowly walking the pathways between these flowerbeds, in a respite of solitude (after three frantic days of editing 14 of our course’s 40 multimedia stories), I felt as if I was in for a tune-up, up on the lift. These plants must be working their healing magic on my peripheral nervous system.
So much help is right there in the natural world, if we only attend to it on its own terms. Water, for instance. The Colorado wildfires, online, remind us of Dante’s Inferno. Bob, who has been out West for environmental stories, says it comes back to Americans not attending to natural limits. There’s only so much water in the world, he says. Yes, but look, say I: Look at flushing toilets. Bob insists on regulations; I’d rather harness the monster of the market by making inefficiency cost a lot more. Here, you don’t flush so much, you can semi-flush, and every toilet has a brush for scrubbing if needed. (Bob’s so quick, having the natural metabolism of a good reporter. . .Slowing down under the shade of the Botanical Gardens, I ponder the dilemma of journalism: If reporters weren’t so damn quick about everything, they might be more nuanced in their conclusions – but speed is what makes good reporters learn so much from so many sources. Is this post too jumpy. I was a reporter once.)
And the sun, for another instance. Photovoltaic solar panels are spreading over fields all over sunny Italy, replacing (I suppose) the fields of sunflowers. But thoughtful Italians don’t like them in the fields. On top of buildings, yes, but not in the fields, says Luigi Moretti, president of the Benelli shotgun factory. This gentleman is telling me this after our tour of the immaculate, highly automated plant where all the Benelli shotguns in the world are made, right outside old Urbino. He cuts a most elegant figure, in his hand-stitched suit, silk Hermes necktie and Oxford-cloth shirt with “LM” tastefully monogrammed well below the pocket. I’m wondering if this is just the position of industrial bigwigs – to restrain solar power. But Roberto Podgornik tells me the same thing: solar panels on rooftops, yes, but not in the fields. It spoils the beauty, he says.
Roberto is as far from an industrial bigwig as you can get. He and his family run a farm that over the past 25 years has grown into a nearly self-sufficient utopia of traditional organic farming methods, no pesticides allowed. This is the Farm of the Singers, La Fattoria dei Cantori, that was the subject of our daughter Sarah’s multimedia project last year. We finally visited and saw this embodiment of the philosophy of Gandhi and Maria Montessori combined. They sing. They bind books. They work hard. They seem pretty happy. (Montessori, by the way, is from this region.) In a rustic classroom with pre-industrial strains of wheat in sheafs overhead, Roberto showed us his explanation (clear as crystal, even in broken translation) of all the ways that industrial farming has diminished the nutritional value and taste of bread, for time-saving convenience of consumer and producer alike. Yes, it’s a tradeoff – Roberto and family were up at 5:30 a.m. to prepare the bread that was ready by noon for markets in Urbino. But Roberto is rustically scientific, discovering old-fashioned solutions to modern problems. For instance, through experimentation, he found that he could protect his queen bee from the parasite that is implicated in the world-wide colony collapse syndrome not with pesticide, but with a carefully timed two-week imprisonment. While other beekeepers are experiencing loses of 40 to 60 percent of their hive, he lost none of his bees over the past year. You can read about this in Emily Harmon’s story, which won the “Raffy Award” last night for best story – http://2012.inurbino.net/bee-keepers/.
Another example of the Italians looking to the natural world for beauty, guidance and even scientific knowledge is Padre Alessandro Serpieri. Turns out, this 19th century Ben Franklin of Urbino ran the free religious school housed in the palatial building where we have held most classes. My student Stephany Holguin, a JMU graduate, wrote about an effort to revive an appreciation of Father Serpieri. http://2012.inurbino.net/father-serpieri/
Our frequent twilight feasts on the rooftop of our dorm command a panorama of rolling gold and green farmland, mountains and (when the air and tide are right) the distant Adriatic. This past Monday, that Renaissance landscape became transformed into something almost mystical as the sky, richly brushed in high clouds, turned pinkish and bluish and weird. Expensive cameras went into hyperdrive, photojournalists and amateurs among us shooting in all directions, a final shootout. To the west, beyond Serpieri’s little weather observatory and the restored steeple of the Church of St. Francis, the darker sky developed an even more dramatic theme. A cloud over the Adriatic was pulsing with heat lightning. This theophany was amazing enough the first few times it made the dark cloud glow every second. But it kept going like that for about an hour. We lost track of time in our wonder. Michael Gold brought out his alto saxophone for the first time. Dennis was flat on the floor to get the shot nobody else could get as Michael played the kind of jazz we’ve missed for all this time in Italy, and the half moon came spiraling down to ring the bell tower at whatever time it was.
Early tomorrow, we’re off to Rome.
Who are the true philosophers of the world today?
About 10 years ago, a couple of influential gentlemen in Urbino asked themselves
that question, thinking of “philosophers” in the sense of those Renaissance humanists that Duke Frederico da Montefeltro brought together in his palatial court here in the 15th century. Being only about 100 cobblestone yards away, we’ve seen the Duke’s personal study, minutely inlaid with dark wood marquetry “so rich with symbols that the visitor is obliged to pore over every centimeter of all in order not to miss any of its secrets,” as our guidebook says. We’ve seen the palace’s empty library, ransacked by the Vatican after the fall of the Montefeltro line but described by Castiglione in The Courtier as “the supreme excellence of the great Palace.” And we’ve walked through the empty Great Hall, the size of a large basketball gym and hung with tapestries of New Testament scenes.
The two influential gentlemen realized who qualified as the true philosophers of our age, the thinkers who needed to fill this Court with wisdom once again. It was that special breed of professional who is called to seek the truth without fear or favor, to bear witness in the 21st century, to speak the clear common language of the people, to tell the great true stories of the day, protected in principle by the First Amendment. . . In other words: us. American journalists.
Actually, they were thinking of only the very best and bravest of the species. They decided to create the Urbino Press Award, and like old Montefeltro, to summon the winners to be honored in Court in grand style. So for the past seven years, the winners have been treated royally – announced and feted by diplomats and these gentlemen in Washington D.C., then in Urbino. Winners in the past three years have been Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Helene Cooper of the New York Times. They came, they saw, and they conquered. I hear Helene (a former colleague from the Providence Journal) is coming back here July 4.
Ok, so the two gentlemen happened to be connected to journalism. Gabriel Cavalira, the spokesman for the mayor, had been a reporter for Italian TV and radio (as you can tell from his rich basso on a wireless mic). Giovanni Lani is the Pesaro-Urbino reporter for the national daily il Resto del Carlino. They’re both a big help to us here. Gabe’s wife Francesca, originally from New York State, is our students’ Italian teacher.
Yesterday was the big day in the Palazzo Ducale. It was surreal – serious journalism as a kind of Faith of the True Church (which it is, in a way) wrapped in a Renaissance dream out of a storybook. Sabastian Rotella, the winner, is a dashing Italian-Hispanic-American who does international investigative reporting at the hurricane eye of the big stories – the Latin American drug wars, terrorism since 9-11, and most recently, connecting the Mumbai attacks to Pakistani intelligence and dirty secrets of U.S. policy. He reported for the Los Angeles Times in its golden years, and now works for the foundation-funded experiment in non-profit journalism, ProPublica. With that Latin name, ProPublica teams up with mainstream media to keep serious investigative journalism alive as ad dollars vaporize in the digital haze.
So Urbino evoked its glory days in Renaissance costume. Two horsemen clomped up the Piazza. A quartet of drummers battered the air. Lords and ladies entered the Ducale courtyard to hear a concert band play variations on American patriotic themes. Then the entire entourage, Renaissance and modern, filed into the Great Hall, where the Duke and his young consort, Battista Sforza, kept straight faces in their royal (and probably hot) robes, enthroned on the stage against the tapestries. After lengthy introductions in Italian by a series of serious men in dark suits (including Gabe, Giavanni and the press liaison from the U.S. Embassy in Rome), Sabastian Rotella delivered his lecture. . .entirely in Italian (in a Spanish accent, Francesca told me). He was the first winner of the Urbino Press Award to give his lecture in Italian.
I will assume that the gist of his lecture was the same as the inspiring message he gave our students two days earlier in our classroom in the Collegio Raffaello. At least I, for one, found it inspiring. It was that combination of the ideal and the practical that all good reporters live by. Have sources in high places and low places. Talk to them in person, not by email or phone. Stick with a story until you see how things connect, for the whole world connects now. Don’t be satisfied with conclusions like terrorism being the scariest danger, or terrorism being exaggerated as a danger – it’s both. Read everything, history and great books, because journalism is both the world of ideas and the street.
Afterwards, at the reception, I met Sebastian’s parents, and could see how he could rise to a journalism of ideas and the street. His father is Italian and a retired political science professor. His mother is Spanish and a retired literature professor. In his lecture, Sebastian used the Italian word “storia” a lot. I asked his mother if he meant “history” or a story, as in literature (a newspaper story is an articolo, but storia can also be the work of reporters like Sebastian). The same word means both, she said. Literature and history can be confused in Italian or Spanish.
A little history: The kiss was invented in Italy around 1264 A.D. Or discovered. Anyway, Dante describes one of the first kisses in Canto V of the Inferno. Il bacio: “. ..la bocca mi bacio tutto tremante,” he kissed my mouth all trembling, says Francesca in Dante’s cheap purple poesy. Francesca and Paolo, her husband’s good-looking younger brother, were reading the first gothic romance paperback (Southern France, circa 1200), getting stirred up by Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s first kiss, and that was it. Paolo’s brother killed them both. And Dante puts them in the second circle of hell – not nearly so bad a place as where Giovanni, their murderer, spends eternity. Still, the lovers kiss in hell, and the Church has been ambivalent about the Kiss ever since.
In the wonderful 1988 Italian film “Cinema Paradiso,” the bumbling 1940s Sicilian priest screens all the movies that come to the village so he can have the heavy kissing snipped out. But the tender-hearted projectionist, Alfredo, secretly keeps all those love scenes. And the adorable mischievous little boy who hangs out with this projectionist – his surrogate father figure – is returning to Alfredo’s funeral about 40 years later, which evokes all of the flashbacks that make this amazing movie we saw, students and faculty, on Monday. It’s not giving away too much to say that at the end, the protagonist watches an old film that he was given at the funeral, a gift from Alfredo. It’s all those kissing scenes, one after another, spliced together. He watches with a smile and tears, like Dante’s emotional reaction to seeing Francesca and Paolo.
A guidebook Libby bought, Pesaro e Urbino: Itineraries within the province and in Montefeltro, makes a good case for us visiting one more fairytale hilltop town in Le Marche – Gradara. The 12th century town is less than an hour from here — Bob’s renting a car again today — and four km from the Adriatic. It’s a heavily fortified castle-fort-town where the famous kiss took place. Giovanni and Paolo’s family line – named Malatesta – defended itself in these fortified walls against Duke Montefeltro of Urbino, against the Church and against every other assault of history against the myth of Love. I think Malatesta means, literally, headache.
The touristy cities of Italy far from here – like Venice and Florence – pull our students away on weekends. We would go too, but there are too many tourists there. That’s the report from Ron Hollander, the Montclair State journalism professor on our faculty this year, returning with his fiancée Judy after three days in the city of Dante, Machiavelli, Michelangelo’s David and long lines. Here, in beautiful Urbino and Le Marche, it’s the opposite problem.
This morning, I spent an hour in the one-month-only exhibit called Illustr@zione, selected works of graduates of the School of the Book (Scuala dei Libro di Urbino) from its founding in 1930 to today. The elegantly framed illustrations and imaginatively designed books on display tables drew me through several rooms that some contemporary architect has set beautifully into “the Stables,” or “Ex scuderia ducale della Data.” I’m not sure what that means, but it’s what they call the space behind tall arched windows in the magnificent sloping brick wall that forms the lowest level, rising about 100 feet, of the many levels of Urbino’s architectural glory. Higher up are the soaring brick walls, cathedral and palace that Francesco di Giorgio Martini built for the square-nosed duke, Frederico da Montefeltro, in the 15th century. So I’m the only one walking through this exhibit, having been loaned the thick catalog by the lady at the door. Then in come five more – my fellow faculty members all. At the video screen at the end, where we watch an animated film made of thousands of etchings sequenced to move through a vibrant dreamscape, I spy one old local man with a boy. Well, the exhibit is free.
As I drift out with those works in my head – from a 1939 book of Edgar Allan Poe stories to Simone Massi’s video “animatore resistente” – I stroll up the gorgeous stairways and down the cobblestone alleyways around the Ducale palace, musing: Not enough tourists! It’s a serious problem here, though in the Italian spirit, all the locals seem to go about their business without despair. I see them around these familiar streets, a man restoring a 16th century painting just inside an open door, a lone cashier waiting for customers in a shop crammed with the most beautiful majolica ceramics, a couple of old men drinking espresso at a table among eight empty tables, a locked San Agostino church that (we read) for about 500 years has seen the sun hit a meridian line in the floor at noon on June 21. That’s tomorrow, the summer solstice, and we can’t find anyone to let us inside to see it. Locals are bearing up, but I feel the waste of it, like the figure in Fuseli’s drawing “The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments.” Look, there’s that drawing among the tables of books outside in the Ducale piazza, on sale. “L’artista disperato di Fronte alla Grandezza della Rovine antiche.”
One of my students is writing about the workshops that for centuries have been keeping alive the Renaissance art of Casteldurante majolica ceramics in nearby Urbania. But many of the workshops are closed now. That’s what her story is focusing on. Another one of my students gave up the idea of writing about weddings. No weddings were taking place all June, the archdiocese told her. Another is writing about an exhibit of the notebooks and scientific instruments of a brilliant priest-educator who ran the school where we have a classroom, the Collegio Raffaello. His name is Alessandro Serpieri (1823-85), and he was as inventive as Ben Franklin, in a field called phenology (blending meteorology, seismology, ornithology, botany, electromagnetic technology and about 10 other –ologies). But the exhibit can only be shown on request, by volunteers. No funding.
Don’t go to church in an earthquake, Padre Serpieri advised (as Ben Franklin joked about the stupidity of Americans who went into church bell towers to ring the bell during thunderstorms). Go outside. (An earthquake had destroyed Urbino’s Duomo in 1789). And in one of Serpieri’s walks outside, like those we’ve taken into the hills around here, he recorded in his journal how beautiful and wise nature shows itself to be. He added something from St. Augustine that is now the motto of the exhibit nobody can see: “Omnia in spacienza facit. Superba giornata!!!”
Picture a house with solid brick floors, ceilings and walls, the walls and ceilings plastered, four stories of gothic-shaped rooms muffled by five centuries of wear. This is Raphael’s childhood home, which I walked through this morning in my new leather-soled Italian shoes. I broke down and bought the black deer-leather shoes in the Saturday market yesterday. I enjoy the sound they make on the reverberating brick floors, and the coolness of the place around a small courtyard open to the cloudless Italian warmth. And of course, the art on the walls.
But we are post-Raphaelites, teaching multimedia journalism. There’s a full-page story on our program in the Urbino section of today’s Pesaro edition of Il Resto del Carlino. The article carries a photo-montage of images of, and by, the students and staff. It highlights the fact that Bob and Dennis are Pulitzer winners, which seems to mean you’re like a famous American artist. I’m more impressed with fact that three of the teachers are heads of their journalism departments – Dennis at Iowa State, Steve at JMU and Greg Luft at Colorado State (remember him from Ft. Myers, Maureen?). Nobody knows where journalism is going, but hanging around with these friends is a good way to sense the drift of things.
Pawel, the youngest and only European, speaks the lingua franca of journalism ethics – you don’t mess with independence or a photo image (like swiping a Facebook picture, flipping it, or putting it into a montage). But he’s left “journalism” as a business for new forms of documentary photography, helping create a non-profit of visual journalism called Testigo (Spanish for “witness,” http://www.testigo.pl ) to cover issues “that don’t always get published in the mainstream media.”
And then there’s the corporate vandalism currently ransacking the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other newspapers owned by Advance Publications. Bob Marshall watches the bombardment of his newsroom in dismay from here, while Marie emails articles to us about the decision to ax four days a week from the newspaper’s publication cycle. One of the best was by a columnist named Peter Finney Jr. writing for the New Orleans archdiocese newspaper, The Clarion-Herald. Finney writes:
“New Orleanians don’t like to be told, ‘Tough, get over it.’ Especially since Katrina, we have long memories and fierce loyalties. Many print advertisers who have spent a fortune on the T-P in the past may not want to spend a penny going forward on a tone-deaf media company. . . .The ultimate loser is the citizen. When a daily newspaper cannot find a workable business model to pay for its bread-and-butter newsgathering, we are left with Vinnie sitting on his sofa, with a laptop, commenting anonymously on the state of the City Council.”
Returning to Urbino Sunday in our rented Fiat 500, Libby and I discussed how to describe in as few words as possible the Sibillini mountains, which we had been exploring since Friday. “Middle Earth,” would do. The Sibillini National Park is a 170,000-acre fairyland of sky-cutting mountains and deep grottos and gorges, the wild side of Italy that for centuries drew (or grew) hermits, magi, visions, saints, wolves, wildflowers and pagan prophetesses – hence the name sibyls.
We had hiked up the upper Tenna River, along its deep cuts through limestone immensities that pilgrims called Gole dell’ Infernaccio (Worse-than-Hell Gorge), to the ascent that led to the high chapel of San Leonardo. In both the gulch of the rushing snowmelt pure-as-air river and in the high beech-forest leading to the hermitage, our ears were filled with white noise: The white noise of the river, and then the dramatic tree-whipping wind. These must have been the sibilant, oracular voices of olden times, but in a lost language we could no longer read.
“You can only see what you can read,” Libby said later that afternoon, from our vantage up the grassy, tranquil flank of Monte Amandala. Yes. Only a geologist can really “read” the rock faces in the Valle di Tenna or Valle della Ambro. We don’t know these birdsongs (that must be a cuckoo we hear), or wildflowers, or the stories of all the hilltowns of Le Marche we could see into the haze toward the Adriatic, or the Italian words of the children’s voices carried up to us with surprising clarity. And so we lack the vision to take it all in.
But we are learning some of the language and so, seeing more. Our hostess at the B&B where we stayed, in the cliff-clinging swallow-fretted town of Montefortino, is from Rome but fled the tumultuous 60s there for London. After 30 years in London, Anna Rita Cella found this spot to run her Italian real estate business. Her English, her cosmopolitan Italian perspective, and her love of Le Marche all made her a wonderful tutor over breakfast each morning. These Marchigiani are slow to change, but care about their work, whether farming, food or art, or laying clay tiles on rooftops with the older ones on top and stones along the peak and gutter to keep the fierce mountain winds from unzipping an entire roof. We watched the care with which the residents of Montefortino placed fresh ferns, flower petals, ferina and other colorful natural matter (oh beautiful world, ti amiamo!) along the main cobblestone street in an artful pathway of Catholic symbols (and Masonic?) for the festival of Corpus Domini (a light breeze, spiritus domini, tickled but did not disfigure the artwork). We can read the words incised in the lectern of the hilltop chapel of San Leonardo – Io sono la via, verita e vita. There, the wind was scary.
Marchigiano is also a term of derision in Italy, meaning “tax collector,” Anna Rita says, because Le Marche was a papal state and collected tribute for the Church. On our drive back, we see the ultimate family connection to the Church of Rome in a museum in Matelica, the former palace of the Piersanti family. The woman in the gift shop let us in alone, to roam the art-stuffed rooms. We gathered that several generations of Piersantis in the 18th and 19th centuries served as the Karl Roves of the Vatican.
Back in Urbino, I get better at reading the people, the steep narrow streets and the 15th century mathematics of its brickwork by sitting in on our photojournalism classes. Susan, Dennis and Pawel show slides of their work – from Eastern European revolutions and the White House, or from the piazza in Urbino shiny from yesterday’s rain – to talk aperture, depth of field, light sources, composition, moment, “specular highlights” (the reflection in the eye in portraiture). . . Photojournalism, at this level, is also a way to read the things you see, and see them more fully.
The Festival of the Patron of Urbino, San Crescento, filled the old city Friday with celebratory balloons, competitive runners and a religious processional that Libby watched heading back to the cathedral Duomo. What she saw was almost exactly the way it was done on June 1, 1939, in this Mussolini-era film on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIjz_NSJaPc
Afterward, we sat around a table in the Caffe Basili, under those high vaulted arches full of indirect light and the sounds from the piazza, over drinks. A couple of runners, still a little winded from the 8 K race five times around the steep cobblestoned streets, came by to greet us in the warm Italian way. One was the owner of our hangout the Sugar Café and the other was Professor Eduardo Fichera (the Dante scholar who explicated Italian film for us last year). We’re treated like honorary consuls, legates from New World.
It’s great to be back with fellow faculty. Dennis, Steve, Pawel, Bob, Heather, Susan and Michael are all here, back on the rooftop of the Collegio Internationale Thursday night at dusk, feasting on fine cheeses, olives, prosciutto and wines. The swallows dart in closer and closer as light fades, and everybody’s shooting pictures of one another in the fading light, examples to show students later – in the photo lecture on composition, aperture and shutter speed. These refugees from the heights of journalism’s quixotic days are an inspiration. I designed “A Sense of Place” because I was so turned on by this kind of multimedia reporting, even if Rockbridge County isn’t quite Le Marche. That website (mentioned in an earlier post) just got launched, http://senseofplace.academic.wlu.edu/ . Two of my four students in that class are here now, Hamlet Fort and Elizabeth Steitz. In Urbino, we have 41 students in the multimedia class and 10 in the magazine class. They all arrived on time Friday night, and got through the first day of classes today looking eager and alert. Amazing: no snags, no tears.
Catching up, Marie tells me about the kayak trip she and Bob took through a bayou with Roy Blount Jr., who was staying in Curtis Wilkie’s home in the French Quarter (Curtis being at Ole Miss, teaching). You can read about it in Roy’s column in Garden & Gun this month. Talk about magazines, Susan and Michael are helping start one out of Halifax on mindfulness. Their Urbino Now magazine will be art-directed this time by Bob Ciano, a cool New Yorker (in casual arty black and shades) who has art-directed every big magazine you can think of, from Esquire to Life, and now teaches illustration in San Francisco. He’s here, as well as Steve’s friend from long-ago Broadcast Educators Association conferences, Greg Luft , chair of the journalism department at Colorado State. And a couple of more new teachers for the enrollment explosion: Susan Biddle, a former official White House photographer and Washington Post photojournalist, and Ron Hollander, who teaches journalism at Montclair State.
Things are flowing well, with planning and work easing into coffee and vineyard visits. This weekend has been Urbino’s time of festive outbursts. The day after the patron saint was celebrated, the city jumped on Italy’s Festa della Repubblica, its independence day from 1946. Our students were getting their first tour of the city, and suddenly they see a marching band and about 12 branches of the military flourishing swords, automatic rifles and plumed tri-cornered hats. That night, an amazing band on the piazza called the P-Funking Band. You have to see them on YouTube, although Libby got a better video right here on the iPad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2909sHIQhdg&feature=related
Nobody wears Panama hats anymore. On a trans-Atlantic flight, the brim makes sleeping more of a problem than it is anyway, where having a head wider than your neck is trouble enough. I was careful to protect my Panama hat in the overhead compartments on our flight from Roanoke to Atlanta, then on the nine and a half hour flight to Rome. This was the birthday present Libby had bought for me in Urbino last year, at the end of our four weeks in residence there. It was my dash of Italy. I was determined to reenter Urbino with this hat, uncrushed, on my head.
The Leonardo Da Vinci-Fiumicino airport has every sort of style moving through it, from Indian nuns to weepy wizened Italian grandmothers hugging each other, all in black. A year ago, about a dozen faculty and staff had gathered at a café in this airport before boarding a chartered bus to Urbino, with time to get to know each other and plan our four-week course. Libby and I easily found the café, but this time it was just us two, and my Panama hat. Heather showed up soon, but Greg was missing. It turned out, he was looking for us around the same time and same place. But we had never met, so we must have looked past each other for about an hour before giving up – we on him, he on us. This time, everybody was on his own. No chartered bus. No leader.
Turns out, it’s no simple thing getting from FCO airport to Urbino. It would take Libby, Heather and me another 13 hours — a train into Rome, hours of walking and killing time near the bus station there, and finally, the bus trip across Italy. As if you could kill time without injuring eternity, as Thoreau says. Lugging our luggage around from place to place, it was no surprise that Heather had her Nikon stolen from the train. We found an office at the bus station where we could leave our suitcases for a few hours for a few euros each. When we were ready to retrieve them, the office door said it was “aperto” but it was locked, and we had no ticket stub for the luggage. We waited about 15 minutes, growing increasingly nervous that we’d have to wait another day in Rome, or leave our luggage. But the lady returned from wherever she had been, and we made it onto the bus. By the time it pulled into the Mercatale in Urbino, we were in a happy daze, ready for bed. Which may be why I failed to realize until halfway up the suitcase-rattling cobblestoned via Mazzini that my head was bare. I’d left my hat on the bus.
This was my first test in speaking Italian again. Perdo? Ho perso. . .mi cappella. Io smarrisco . . .? (Dante begins the Inferno when the straight way, diritta via, was lost, era smirrita.) Libby advised piu piano – a phrase we learned nearly 10 years ago from a Tuscan shepherd that has become a family motto – take it easy. The next morning, I returned in a rush, no handkerchief in my pocket, to the Mercatale, the place where the buses come just outside the towering walls of the ancient city. The man in the tobacco shop where they sell bus tickets told me, in Italian, that I should ask at the tourism-and-bus-information office across the way. At least, that’s where he was pointing. I cut across at a diagonal, dodging a worker who was weed-whacking a small plot of grass. In this maneuver, I hit my head on a hanging metal sign I didn’t see at all. It didn’t hurt much, because it was a loose sign. In fact, it seemed to spin 45 degrees from the impact. But palming the top of my head, I could feel blood. And it kept coming. By the time I reached the wall where the giant spiraled stairs ascend about 100 feet to the base of the ducal palace, my hands, face and spots on my shirt were too bloody for me to present myself in public. I found a private nook in the fortifications at the top of the stairs to call Libby for a rescue. For a damp handkerchief.
If I’d had my hat, this wouldn’t have happened. Piu piano. I got my hat back last night. It was on the bus from Rome, neatly wrapped in a plastic bag. I put it on, and went to look for the sign that hit me. It was gone. Maybe I dreamed it. Maybe it said something like “Men working; do not cross this little space of grass.”