Arrivederci, Urbino!

June 25, 2015

RaffiesWe wrapped up this four-week course with an Awards Ceremony held Wednesday afternoon in a catacomb-like room bee-hived in the grand brick wall beneath the Palazzo Ducale. It echoed nicely for the jazz Michael and I played on our soprano saxophones, for the two beautiful, funny, elegiac videos of already-tender memories from here, and for the 38 students’ cheers and applause.  This is where the “Raffies” (souvenir busts of Raphael) were handed out to students for best multi-media text, best photos, best video, best magazine feature, etc. These were hard decisions for the faculty, there was so much good student work.Sunlight from Mercatale

Here is the site with all the feature stories. It would be worth your taking some time to read them.

If only this experience could be transferred to the classroom. Well, Italy is Italy. You can’t compete with that in covering a Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors meeting. But there is also in this ieiMedia course an intensive one-on-one attention from instructors who hold students to high professional expectations. These are relaxed, fun folks, these colleagues, but they bring real bell-ringing standards from their work in news reporting, photojournalism, broadcast news and documentary video. I always feel I learn as much from them as I teach to the students.

After the Awards Ceremony, we wound our way in a bus and several cars to another hilltop town, Sant’Ippolito, for a banquet feast of decadent proportions at a sweet rustic restaurant called Casa Londei.

The last of our days and hours here touch us deeply. A last evening on the rooftop terrace. This afternoon: Libby and I making a quiet visit to the animated 15th century murals in the Church of San Giovanni. And tonight’s last supper at the friendly Sugar Café.

Raffie winners

Raffie winners, outside Casa Londei

Ciao, a piu tardi, Le Marche. On to Bologna.

Rooftop sceneSusan Biddle camera 2

An Urbino graduate

A University of Urbino gradate, crowned with laurel. (Not an ieiMedia student.)

Me & Lib in SenigalliaExpo band


In the footsteps of saints, popes and tour guides

June 20, 2015
Basilica di San Francesco

Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

St. Francis started his career by deciding not to go into his father’s successful cloth business. A fool and a fighter, he didn’t have much of a head for business anyway. He once sold his father’s cloth to pay for building a church. His papa decided it was time to take junior to the woodshed for a tough, private talk. Instead, Francis met his father in the square of Assisi with everybody in town watching. He took off all his clothes. He had decided to be like Jesus.

In Assisi, we thought we’d be walking in the footsteps of St. Francis. We found we were walking in the footsteps of Rick Steves, that tall host of the travel video series’. He had just been there two weeks before on the Corso Mazzini. That’s what Senore Grimaldi told us, pulling us into in his Gallaria d’Arte. Never mind that Pope Francis I had also passed by his art shop in October 2013. A little further up Mazzini, we’re letting Friendly Fabrizio Pagliaccia fix us a couple of plates of local food from his Bottega dei Sapori, right in the piazza where Francis disrobed (not the pope; the other one). He also wanted to tell us about Rick Steves’ recent visit.Assisi Bottega dei Sapori pranza

That was last weekend. We also drove up into the magical Sibillini Mountains from the west, climbing up part of a ski trail while the chairlift took mountain bikers the whole way. And that was a week after we’d had a day at the beach town of Pesaro on the Adriatic.Mare Adriatico

Now comes the hard part, getting the students’ stories in shape on deadline. But this third week has allowed time for more adventures (besides scrambling to get our rental car back to Pesaro exactly one minute after it was due Monday at noon).

Furlo - Libby Maryann & Barry

Libby, Mary Anne & Barry Janes at Furlo Gorge. The river Metauro runs below the university town of Urbino and cuts this gorge through the mountains. Reminds me of how the Maury runs below Lexington and slices cliffs in the mountains.

Tenuta Ca Sciampagne Leonardo & Bob

Leonardo, our host at Tenuta Ca Sciampagne, serves and discusses his vineyard’s spumata with Bob. Susan, of course, is shooting pictures.

We’ve been to the tunnels and cliffs of Furlo Gorge with another ieiMedia professor and his wife, Barry and Mary Anne. And we’ve been to another wine tasting with students and faculty, this one at a gorgeous vineyard surprisingly close to Urbino, the Tenuta Ca Sciampagne.

Last night, a group of us elders drove way out past Fossombrone and up a tiny, winding country road to see if Il Gatto e la Volpe really does have the best pizza in Italy. Maybe so. Light, thick crusts filled with all kinds of goodies. And artisanal beer. Mine was called Susi and came in a blue wine bottle. Our corner table gradually became less conspicuous as the place filled with noisy groups at every table, still going strong when we left around 11 p.m.Me on soprano

Mona Libby

Mona Libby, with da Vinci background, dusk at the Ca Sciampagne vineyard.

Mi Scusi

June 15, 2015

Our Sette bedroom Trevi Trevi chamber detail

Dear Italy, I’m sorry.
I am sorry I can’t say anything
to your hazy mountainside of olive trees
rising outside our Romanesque window
opened like the door of a confessional.
I’m sorry I have
no words, not even in English,
for the colors in the roof tiles,
floorboards, and nicely chilly tiles underfoot
in the bathroom, where another window
is an open door on me,
sitting sorrily on la toilette.
Walls of biscuit-color, pinkish chalky
hues of timeless art in clay,
baked or raw. I’m sorry I can’t put this
in terza rima or Dante’s words
when I can’t even ask where to park
our rented Fiat after the hair-raising drive
up to another one of your little ancient towns.
Mi dispiace. It displeases me.
That’s how your people say they’re sorry–
a brief fermata in the sensual melody
of life, sitting outside a cafe all day
in the piazza of a hilltop town in Umbria.
There, last night, children were kicking a soccer ball
that landed, splat, on the outdoor table
of grownups at dinner and a man yelled in Italian
and the children scattered like mice.
I want to say, for those children,
how sorry I am. And I’m sorry that
I couldn’t help smiling,
and sorry I am not worthy or wordy enough
and so, so sorry.
Put that in italics. Underline twice.

Out window in Trevi

Goings on About Town

June 7, 2015

Seems there’s something going on every day in Urbino.

Duke & a ladyLast Monday was the feast day for Urbino’s patron saint, San Crescentino, his polychrome likeness parading out of the Duomo and through the streets. That night, hundreds of serious runners pranced tensely around the cobblestone streets, their standing at each lap brayed out by a loud announcer. The next day was Repubblica, their national independence day. Shops were closed, and a concert band played in the Raffaello courtyard.

Friday night, coming back from our class bus tour to FratteRosa, TerraCrude vineyards and a feast in the shade of ancient trees atop Mondavio, we find Urbino preparing for a night-time fashion show down the steep Via Mazzinni. It’s not quite Milano or the red carpet at Met Night. The carpet is a mousy gray and the models are all locals. Still, well, it’s Italy.Woman archer

Today was the birthday of Duke Frederico Montefeltro, the 15th century warrior-patron who connived to make little Urbino into a Renaissance bonfire to outshine Florence and Rome. The brightness faded, but not the memory.  We were drawn out of our building by parade drums, and found the Duke and his court making a royal peregrination from the Ducale to the Piazza and back. Quarttrocento crafts were being made and sold, and an archery contest filled the street in front of the palace.

This is the same palace that Frederico Montefeltro filled with artists and philosophers in his day, and a little later, where Castiglione set his aristocrat’s guidebook for education and courtesy, The Courtier. A Raphael painting, La Muta, has been returned to the palace. Also, the other half of the 28 panel paintings of the great thinkers of the world the Duke commissioned for his little study – from Homer to Duns Scotus to Dante. These are two of the stories our students are working on.

PalazzoWe browsed the artwork in the palace – free admission on the first Sunday each month – and wished the Duke a happy 593rd birthday.

Here comes the sun

June 3, 2015

Something prompted me to rise at 5 a.m. this morning (11 p.m. Eastern Daylight). It seemed like I had the whole town to myself, just me and all the singing birds (even a few owls and doves) and the sun rising beyond the eastern hills out of the Adriatic. The language barrier is still a brick wall to me, as high as the ancient walls around Urbino, but the nonsense Italian of the Beatles played in my head, Quondo mi amore tanto mucho te que feri parasol. Or whatever they’re singing in harmony to “Here Come the Sun King.” I had only my cell phone to take these pictures.

Urbino dawn   Urbino alleyBasiliUrbino houses vertical

Decisive moments

May 31, 2015

I am no photographer, but the photography teachers in this course, Dennis Chamberlin and Susan Biddle, always give me a fresh respect for the art and humanity of their practice.


Brittany Dierken and Dennis

Dennis spent about 10 years in Eastern Europe shooting the historic transitions that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Susan worked for the White House, then for the Washington Post.

From their slide lectures when I was here before, I brought back home a loyalty to the cause of good photojournalism, just when the Web was flooded with selfies and newspapers were shrinking their photo departments.

I needed a refresher course. I didn’t want to miss their “Introduction to Photojournalism” this afternoon. Once again, I  have new eyes for the art, patience and poetry of good realist photography.

Urbino, Dennis said, is a photographer’s paradise.  True. And although I brought a Nikon 3200 from my journalism department, “The best camera to have,” Dennis said, “is the one you happen to have when you shoot the picture.”Susan Biddle1

Like I say, I’m no photographer. But after class, I climbed up to the old Fort to take pictures of people enjoying their Sunday afternoon, and pictures of people walking up and down the steep cobblestone streets between the puzzles of brick walls and overhangs. The light and the surrounding landscape and the faces of the old and young, their vivid hand gestures and sudden smiles, can only be captured in a freeze frame with wild random luck, patience, and a lot of technical skill I need to work on.


Man and fort wall

kid on the ropesClimbing Raffaelo

Return to Urbino

May 30, 2015

Ciao bella, y’all tutti.

5-36 us selfieThe students arrived last night on a bus from Rome, a new chapter in this our Third Year. So I better say something about the first phase now closed, covering the last four days.  Chapter 1, wherein we are absorbed back into the ieiMedia Urbino faculty (“docenti”)  and reacquaint ourselves with this beautiful old city.

Urbino faculty 2015

Prepping at Sugar

At Sugar Caffe, immobilized by mobile devises.

We recognized Susan Biddle waiting in the crowded gate at Dulles, and traveled with her through Bologna (where Libby & I plan to play in our final days in Italy in a month), to Pesaro by train, then by bus to Urbino. Piecemeal, the old gang gathered and got right to work. Unloading video and editing gear. Going over the schedule and plan. Bonding around open-air dinner at Tre Piante. Touring the Le Marche wine country Thursday. Trying out our Italian, like the water that coughs and dribbled out of a spigot rusty after being turned off for a long time (and never mastered in the first place, in our case).

L:ibby winetasting Ylice Verdicchio (2013) at Poderi Mattioli

L:ibby winetasting Ylice Verdicchio (2013) at Poderi Mattioli

Poderi Mattioli VineyardThe landscape all around Urbino looks so much like the background of Renaissance paintings. I’ve learned why, from a feature done by a Brazilian student in this program in 2013, one of the two years we’ve been away. A professor in Urbino had just co-written a book arguing that the landscape behind da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is from Le Marche (while another book argues that the painting’s mysterious subject is an idealized version of an Urbino woman who had died in childbirth and whom da Vinci only imagined as a gift to her lover, Giuliano de Medici). “Every single painter from the Renaissance period came to Urbino to paint and study its landscape because this was the ‘factory of landscape’, a place to learn how to paint,” according to the professor.

Our wine-country tour, in four black rental cars, took us south of the city to two vineyards specializing in the exquisite Verdicchio grapes– the modern Poderi Mettioli, opened just two years ago, and the more established CasalFarneto cantina and winery, which was expecting a few thousand visitors this weekend.Tasting at CasalFarneto

We ended the day back at the restaurant called Gallo, filled with a thousand pictures of roosters. They wouldn’t let us leave until we’d had more than our fill, topped off with a dessert wine and the strongest lemoncelli ever made.


Poderi senora


Poderi senori 3

New classes

May 16, 2014

I’ve just finished a 4-week spring term class at W&L on “The Magazine,” and here’s the blog for that class.

Stay tuned. This summer I’ll be blogging from another ieiMedia class I’m teaching in Armagh, Northern Ireland.DOC among cobblestones

Good-bye, Roma etc.

July 4, 2012

See our students’ work from Urbino this year at:

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?”

Professors Cumming, in Urbino, rooftop at sunset

Organic Italy

June 29, 2012

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 Podgornik holds up a sheet for a beehive frame.

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 –

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.

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.