The `Count' of Urbino

IT was the end of the season on the Adriatic coast, and in our hotel only seven of us were left. We wanted to get away on our own for the last trip to Urbino, with no guide and no fellow tourists - especially the couple of teachers from Heidelberg, the other couple from Virginia and the Oxford don. Among them it was a case of elective antipathies not affinities, of positive dislike. They corrected and contradicted one another on points of history, argued, pontificated. It seemed no one else knew so much as they did about Renaissance painting and architecture. They seldom stopped talking.

Here we were, however, gathered together for our final excursion with our bus driver, Guiseppe. He surveyed his small company wryly and wearily, trying in San Martino, Venice, and Florence to coax us into harmony, whistling, joking, singing arias from Rossini and Verdi.

As we drove higher and higher into the Appenines, Guiseppe gradually fell silent. There was a profound stillness this late October day, not a leaf stirring, nothing of Browning's ``wind-grieved Appenine.''

``See, there it is!'' Giuseppe exclaimed suddenly. Rising up above us among the cypresses, were the medieval walls of Urbino; the cream-colored limestone of the Palazzo Ducale. We had arrived.

``Do we really need a guide?'' we asked Giuseppe. ``Of course you do - he goes with the trip,'' he replied. ``I've a cousin here - I'm off to visit her.''

He swaggered away, thankful to be rid of us. Above, on the pink rooftops white doves roosted with fluffed-out feathers - not the irreverent pigeons who alighted on the head of Dante Aligheri outside Santa Croce in Florence, nor the rapacious ones of San Marco in Venice. These birds of Urbino were of a different race, sunk in century-old slumber.

Now, we thought, we'll escape. A guide! We've had five of them for days on end. We planned to leave the contentious group and wander around Urbino on our own. As we left, we almost collided with an elderly gentleman in a straw hat, who was approaching very slowly on a bicycle. He dismounted with a dignity that transformed into something far nobler. Bowing to us, he doffed his hat and said, ``I am your guide.'' It was so much like being received by a prince that we abandoned all thought of flight.

``First,'' he said, ``we will visit the home where Urbino's most celebrated son, Raffaello Sanzio, was born in 1483. He died in Rome in 1520. How many of us could achieve all he did in 37 years!'' The Oxford don broke in, followed by the Virginians. They had read Vasari's ``Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,'' and knew that Vasari compared Raphael with Michelangelo, not to Raphael's advantage.

OUR guide watched us, listening, smiling quietly to himself. ``I see you know it all,'' he said. ``I cannot contend with your erudition,'' he went on, as he led us up the great staircase of the ducal palace. He had a chuckle that made us feel vaguely uneasy. Was he perhaps laughing at us? ``All I can do is give some personal impressions of a lifetime spent here.''

We paused beside the exquisite fireplace with its carved cherubs, the Camino degli Angeli. ``I like to imagine the company that stood here, warming their hands,'' he said. ``Surely only kindly thoughts would be possible as they looked up and the angels smiled down at them. Come now and meet my favorite. How strange that in Raphael's birthplace we should have only one of his paintings. Ecco! Behold this lady whose mouth will never open in speech, for she is not only Raphael's Ritratto di Gentildonna, but also `La Muta,' the mute.''

The Gentildonna gazed out at us, her beautiful hands folded against the green velvet of her dress, her extraordinary eyes appraising us, as did the guide's.

``Those eyes draw me back to her again and again,'' he said. ``For long years, in times of war and peace, we have held together the best kind of conversations: the silent ones. We all tend to talk too much, especially we guides,'' he added with his chuckle. ``La Muta and I quietly consider those great families: the Montefeltros, the Borgias, the Medicis, the della Roveres. I know them as if I had lived with them too - cruel, ruthless and yet how cultured. Well, each age has its cruelty. Look at our own. Yet against a Stalin you can set a Sakharov; against a a Hitler, a Bonhoeffer. In Italy we have our peerless Primo Levi, who, even in Auschwitz never lost his humanity. The Renaissance had its Castiglione, but we will come to him later.''

He paused, waiting for the Oxford don to begin, but he and the others remained strangely silent. ``I used to prowl round the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in a rage, glaring at Pier dei Franceschi's painting of Federigo, Duke of Urbino. You will of course have seen him there, with his broken nose, the four warts on his cheek, the background of rivers and ships, with a prospect of hills. Why didn't it hang here, along with Tiziano's other Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere? I am jealous of Urbino's honor, I would tell La Muta. Remember how the Romans called Urbino, Urbinum Hortense, the little garden town. Vespasiano boasted about her library, claiming that it was greater than that of Rome and Florence - even of Oxford,'' he added with a bow to the Oxford don. ``La Muta would gaze down at me and I would meet her eyes and be led from anger into calm, a much more civilized attitude.''

All at once he held up his hand. ``Ascoltate! Is that not the scratching of a quill pen?''

We all started, half-believing we heard the sound - it was eerie in the long gallery. Our guide chuckled again. ``It belongs to Count Baldesar Castiglione who came here in 1504, as you will know, to the most brilliant court in Europe. He wrote `Il Libro del Cortegiano,' the book of the perfect courtier, a model for manners. There it is, that mixture of cruelty and refinement; sadism along with sensibility. The poet Browning knew it well; no one could write about Renaissance Italy as he did. Remember his poem, `Last Duchess' and that chilling line: `I gave commands, then all smiles ceased....'''

We moved around the place, absorbed into his impressions. No one would have dreamt of interrupting him now; he had coaxed us into the hollow of his hand. He added a detail here, a character sketch there, portraying those civilized monsters till they seemed to come thronging around us.

Sometimes he was silent as if he had wandered off into a special kind of conversation with La Muta. Then he was back again with the Montefeltros and the Medicis, weaving a tapestry of their lives and of his own lifetime of involvement.

We had come to the end of our tour. Before we left, our guide did something quite simple yet unforgettable. Very carefully, he unfastened one of the leaded casement windows, and slowly pushed it open.

``Ecco!'' he said, and pointed out over the pink rooftops of the palace and the town. Out there in the light of late afternoon was a suffusion of old rose and gold. It surged around Urbino, touching the black cypresses, the coral claws and ruffled white feathers of the sleeping fantails, glided through the window, and twined around us. From here Duke Federigo and his wife, Baptista Sforza, must have looked out over their town, drinking in the peace of such an afternoon.

The guide smiled. ``Ecco!'' he repeated once more, lingering over that word and the closing of the casement. He knew that he had shown us perfection.

As we followed him down into the courtyard, we wished that we had some gift to show our appreciation of such a courteous cicerone. The hand of the teacher from Heidelberg, always liberal and lordly with our Venetian and Florentine guides, hovered toward his pocket, then was swiftly, discreetly, withdrawn. Who would dare tip one who stood in the courtly tradition of Count Baldesar Castiglione? Only Browning could have written such a poem about him and La Gentildonna, up there in the palace in the gathering shadows of the autumn afternoon.

`IT was good to have my last tour of the season in company with such gentile signori. I thank you,'' said our guide. He flourished the staw hat, mounted his bicycle, and rode off down the street. ``Addio,'' he called, vanishing out of our lives and into our memory.

Guiseppe appeared, whistling sotto voce the duke's song from Rigoletto. Around us lurked the Medicis, the Borgias, the della Roveres; the poisoners, the courtiers went rustling past. We had been so drawn into the Quattrocento that it took an effort to return to the 20th century.

As we drove back into the Appenines, Guiseppe glanced curiously around his small group, sensing a new atmosphere among us. What had happened to the bickering and bragging and all the feuds? ``Well, did you get rid of your guide?'' he asked us. ``Ah, that guide!'' was all we could say.

``What about him? What did he do?''

``He opened a window.'' We kept hearing echoes of his wonderful ``Ecco.'' We exchanged smiles with our fellow travelers, smiles of shared delight, of a lesson learned in courtesy.

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