Being in the ancient town of Gubbio today was disconcerting at various moments. Looking out a window and seeing a 14th century view and then turning to see texting teenagers made for a dizzying experience.
Modern Gubbio is quite dizzying enough. It seems almost vertical at times, and though cars do manage to drive through the smallest of crevices between buildings, the feeling overall is quite medieval.
The Piazza Grande is quite that. Its 14th c. palazzo houses the civic museum, with quite a few treasures. The most noteworthy are the Eugubian Tablets, discovered in 1444, and dating from between 300 and 100 BC. These bronze tablets are the best remaining example of the ancient Umbrian script used in this area. The tablets memorialize the acts and rites of the Atiedian Brethren, a group of 12 priests of Jupiter and are the only documents of the ancient religions of Europe and the Mediterranean which have come down to us in an almost complete state.
A few weeks from now, Gubbio will be celebrating the Corsa dei Ceri, a centuries-old festival where three massive posts topped with statues of different saints are carried competitively around the city and finally into the square. We saw the actual posts, and a map of the route – up and down those incredibly steep stairs. This is a religious rite suitable only for young men.
We climbed for a seeming eternity to reach the cathedral and the Palazzo Ducale of the Duke of Montefeltro. The cathedral is a late 12th century building, housing the bodies of several saints and bishops of Gubbio. There is one baroque chapel, but otherwise the church is quite simple and plain.
Directly across from the cathedral is the Palazzo Ducale, home to Frederico de Montefeltro, built in the 15th century. His portrait is not here, but in the Uffizi, and his well-known visage is a real icon of the Renaissance. I just learned that his distinctive profile was the result of a jousting accident, which cost him his right eye as well as the bridge of his nose. He was probably really a nice guy, despite his intimidating visage. In fact, he was the Renaissance man that Renaissance men aspire to be. Federico, nicknamed “the Light of Italy,” imposed justice and stability on his tiny state through the principles of his humanist education; he engaged the best copyists and editors produce the most comprehensive library outside of the Vatican, and he supported the development of fine artists, including the early training of the young painter Raphael.
His palazzo was stripped at various points in history, and therein lies the cause of another sense of displacement. Frederico had a wonderful studiolo, a marvel of carpentry and inlaid wood quite well known to us, as it resides across Central Park at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It arrived in New York in 1938 after some underhanded dealings involving its sale in the mid-19th century. But the people of Gubbio regretted its loss so deeply that they commissioned a replacement, which was just finished in 2009. How strange to be in this very familiar room and see the actual window that is only alluded to in the Met, where it is recreated with soft artificial light.
There were so many lovely moments – and long hills – in this very special city. Wouldn’t want to live here, but it was a perfect place to spend a day.
Don’s Food Corner
Yesterday, a modest meal. Today, something more complete.
And we weren’t disappointed
Since we had such a good experience with pasta cacio e pepe — cream sauce with black pepper — we thought we would try it again. Today the pasta shape used was mezzemaniche, meaning “half sleeves” and looking like big short tubes, instead of the thick spaghetti form from yesterday. It was certainly the same dish, but today’s version was much creamier, more like carbonara but without the bacon bits. Delicious dish.
Our second courses turned out to be a reminder of no matter how carefully you try to order, you can always get something you don’t expect. Jo focused on tagliata di vitello in salsa balsamica., literally “sliced veal in balsamic sauce.” But was it to be sliced from a roast or was it really escallopine? The waiter said it was roasted. OK, fine. Then he asked Jo if she wanted it “medium.” Yes. What arrived, however, looked like a large veal chop (but without a bone) that had been oven-roasted after being browned in a pan, then sliced. We both agreed it was closer to rare than medium. But there was a slash of a balsamic reduction. This was too rare for Jo, so we swapped.
I had ordered something called lombetto di maialino al finocchietto silvatico. Using our menu translator along with help from the English-challenged waiter, we came up with a literal translation of: pork loin with fennel sauce. This arrived and this time it was clear that the slices of pork were from a larger roast pork loin. It had a light gravy-style sauce that included fennel seeds, not, as I expected, a sauce made with fresh fennel as we had been served a few times in the last several weeks.
Despite the differing expectations, all turned out just fine. The house white wine was Grechetto — a very nice Umbrian wine, close to Orvieto but a little drier.
All in all, a memorable day in Gubbio. Great sights and a great meal.