Sono Londinese dell’Alpe della Luna
I am a Londoner in the Mountains of the Moon, from a family of artists and writers, among them Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book, who gave us a love of wild adventure. Our great great grandfather, the painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, was enchanted by Italy, so we grew up steeped in Italian painting, architecture and sculpture.
“My favourite painting is Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation in Urbino,” said my art dealer uncle one day.
“Never go there!” exclaimed my aunt in horror, “I was warned by a fortune teller, something terrible will happen to you, you may never come back!” She was right.
One autumn in the early 1990s, I went to Urbino for the day. My guide book announced this was enough to see its splendid palace, the frescoed Oratory of Saint John and the house where Raphael was born. ‘There is nothing of architectural or historical interest in this wild countryside before San Sepolcro,’ it went on. I sipped a Campari while the owner of the bar sang to his mandolin. I asked him if this were true. “Ah,” he said, “your book appears to be completely ignorant of the magnificent renaissance culture of Montefeltro and the Dukes of Urbino.”
The next day he took me and my companion on a magical mystery tour of the high Metauro valley. We visited palaces and castles designed by legendary architects Francesco di Giorgio, Girolomo Genga and Laurana and walled renaissance towns whose churches contained exquisite paintings. We were enchanted by the blue white glory of Della Robbia reliefs, copies of which our great great grandfather had brought back from Italy to hang in our bedrooms. We gazed with joy at the brilliant coloured paintings on renaissance Castel Durante ceramics, standing in dusty oblivion in a bar window.
“Now we are going to the valley of a the wizard and a hundred castles,” said our guide, “the Mountains of the Moon.” The journey included a shedload of bars, one run by three ancient witches who gave us hand made spells and foretold that we were going to a place across a river. Up we journeyed into dark green mountains rising in a living sea. We passed a Francesco di Giorgio palace being used as a stable for cows and a painted chapel which contained a few sheep. We were in the magic kingdom of the Mountains of the Moon and the famous renaissance wizard OttavianodellaCarda.
The sun was still hot, the sky an impenetrable celeste, the slopes feathered in brilliant green. It seemed a fairy tale valley, very high like riding a great eagle and you couldn’t see out. The eye was carried to dark heights where jagged peaks rose ghostly out of their green garments, perhaps rocks, perhaps the ruins of feudal watch towers that guarded the peaks, and lone farms were misty postage stamps. By the river were clearings with round pyres of burning charcoal worked by nimble shadow men, their faces and clothes sump oil black. Smoke clouded the road and we braked suddenly for a lorry loaded wide with wood.
The river rushed under a pointed stone bridge like a bishop’s mitre pouring down from mountains that seemed to close off the world with a great curtain wall. Now the road degenerated to a dirt track overhung with branches and grey creeper like giant spiders’ webs. It juddered in craters and roughly cleared land slips. Two lope eared hunting dogs sitting on a hay bale watched us pass and barked enthusiastically. On a little rise our friend stopped the car and pointed across the valley.
On the far side of the river, a heap of ruined stone houses descended an escarpment in glorious profusion. It shone luminescent reflecting the late sun, lit to translucence by the water that ran around it, the Aurowhich feeds the Metauro, a silver girdle below small glittering falls. The landscape was stupendous, the village floated on the swell of mountains sweeping along like dark waves. The houses were stacked in confusion, their roofs sloping at all angles collapsing under stone tiles in backdrop of magical beauty. Below them bright emerald fields fell to the river, surrounded by thick dark forest.
Here in this wild abandoned valley had once run the main road between east and west across the Apennines to Florence. Castles and palaces had stood along the way, great armies had passed, lords had built strongholds and large villages had once survived in this wild border country of smugglers and wolves. Now all was abandoned but the past was everywhere to be seen in sudden glimpses of a carved stone, a painted church, and it was rumoured Roman gold found by a metal detector.
The road went across the border between Le Marche and Tuscany and on over the dramatic peaks to Badia Tedalda, where it divided to run along the Marechia valley to Rimini or descend to the Tiber valley and Rome. Beautiful old Badia, Roffelle, Monte Botolino, below them the land became more pastoral, warmer and softer, the wild Mountains of the Moon were left behind and their secret valleys.
I have lived under the enchanted spell of the romantic ruined village for thirty years now. I speak Italian, though first I learnt the local dialect, rough and very colourful. The secret valley seems a living song, where the full moon bumps along the mountain tops flooding the mountain flanks with gold and the wolves sing Mozart arias. Wild boars grunt in bass notes, stags roar like trombones, the waterfalls are the percussion of this orchestra, the birds of prey the trumpets and their victims the flutes. I love the paintings of Piero della Francesca which I go to see as if they are friends.
I know the danger of visiting the magical city of Urbino now, it might just send you to paradise.