ITALY, October 12, 2013 – This journey is not back to the beginning of time, but to the creation of modern civilization.
Cross over the Tiber River to Northern Italy and find Mercatello sul Metauro. Northeast of Rome, winding roads climb high, slicing through the Tuscan-Umbrian Apennine Mountains, revealing vibrant landscapes that disappear below cloud cover as you move ever upward.
Mercatello is an ancient medieval village that is still thriving today. Founded in 1235 as Pieve d’Ico, seven noble families moved to the town, leaving their small castles homes nestled within the mountains to live on the square.
Each family built their palazzo, or mansion, creating a square that became the center of their daily lives, much as it is now for the people of what is now Mercatello sul Metauro.
The village of Mercatello sul Metauro at the eastern base of the Tuscan-Umbrian Apennine Mountains is close to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s the province of Pesaro e Urbino, where worn rock walkways and roads lead the faithful to the churches they have strode for centuries.
It is a place of living history where family and friends sing, laugh, cook and eat the best food imaginable. Meals are simple despite the complexity of flavors that come from fresh delicate pastas, herbs and produce.
Pungent sauces and sausages, polenta, and rabbit are still cooked hearthside, as it has been done since the palazzos were built in the 18th century.
They say when you travel you find where you belong. Mercatello is simply where I belong.
One can imagine never leaving and who would possibly come looking for you all the way back here.
The town has a history that documents back to the 12th century BC when Mercatello was Umbri, then conquered by the Ancient Romans and destroyed only to be rebuilt by 6th Century Lombards as Pieve d’Ico.
With time it became known as Città di Castello during the 9th century, becoming part of the Papal States in the mid-17th Century, first being annexed to the Duchy of Urbino in 1437.
The city is mostly built of brick and stone with square columns of wood, worn and polished from the oils of thousands of years of hands. Buildings stand sentinel around the city square, each a testament to time gone past but not changed.
Today visitors can walk up to the medieval Palazzo Comunale , the Torre Comunale (tall tower); and the annexed Museo di San Francesco (13th Century) with an art museum filled with a surprisingly large collection of mostly 12th through 17th century Renaissance works including a portrait of Federico III da Montefeltro attributed to Benedetto da Maiano or Francesco di Giorgio Martini.
Frederico married Battista Sforza (1447-1472) who has roots in Mercatello sul Metauro.
Frederico da Montefeltro, lord of neighbhoring Urbino (1444), was nicknamed the “light of Italy” and is a central figure of the Renaissance known for his cultural enlightment. Within the great walled city, known as “birthplace of civilization,” and where Lord Montefeltro, a patron and supporter of the arts, painted, sculpted, and wrote, and commissioned a great library only second to the Vatican. Much of his legacy is still visible, there in his home, the The Palazzo Ducale of Federico da Montefeltro he shared with his wife Battista and their children.
Frederico and Battista believed in the importance of humanist education, including for women. As Battista was educated, so were her children, five girls and one boy.
Touring the castle, one can see how Frederico and Battista supported fine art and artists, including the early training of Raphael. The castle at Urbino hosts some of the most exquisting trompe l’loeil, not in paint but marquetry, and which is still intact in the castle.
In Mercatello, still standing is the 13th century Church of St. Frances cathedral with original fresco paintings still partially visible on the walls and ornate stained glass from the 18th century remains. The still unfinished façade dates to the 17th century.
The cathedral’s altar-front (paliotto) of chased silver dates to the 12th century, and a crosier from the 15th.
The museum holds works by notable artists from the neighboring village of Urbino. Works by Niccolò Circignani,Rosso Fiorentino and Raffaellino del Colle. A Romanesque style bell tower dates to the13th century. The Cathedral’s museum is home to the Canoscio hoard, a set of Late Antique silver spoons and plates with Christian motifs, as well as a silvered altarpiece donated by Pope Celestine V in the 12th century, a Madonna byPinturicchio (1486) and Angels by Giulio Romano.
The city has memorialized the abstract painter and sculptor Alberto Burri, who was born in Città di Castello, with the “Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri” housing a large permanent museum of his works in the former Palazzo Albizzini.
At one end of the square is the Museo del Metauro in the Gasparinin Palace (1640.) The enormous and heavy front double door has a smaller door within the massive wood edifice. The building is worth touring with many rooms still featuring scenes of the Risorgimento, or Resurgence, creating the 19th Century Kingdom of Italy.
Here in the Museo we find the Il Merletto dei Ricordi association and an exhibit of the “lace of memories.” Intricate designs are made of fine threads and the technique requires the use of a “tombolo,” a dense horsehair pillow to which a pattern is attached with “pins” that the fine cotton or silk is woven around using “bobbins.” With pillow before her, the artist quickly works the “bobbins”, and I counted at least a dozen, so fast that the rhythmic click creates a song.
After time the pattern emerges and a piece of history is created.
Across from the Museo is the Palazzo Donati’s whose doors open across the square that is always alive with activity regardless of time of day or night. The Palace is impressive with eight bedrooms offering accommodations of up to 17 during warm months. Off-season, three unheated bedrooms reduce the available space to accommodate 11.
The palace is comfortable with modern baths and showers, yet it retains the individuality that comes from generations of a single family in resident.
The owners have gracefully refrained from 21st century whitewash. Our hosts for this visit are the lovely Luisa and her brother Domiano Donati. Knowing they grew up here, that this is their home, lends a graciousness to their kind hospitality. As it is their home, it becomes your home.
As fantastic as the art, artifacts and antiques are, the true treasures of this palace are the stories of the family and friends that gather and of which the Donatis gladly share.
The home boasts a “modern” commercial kitchen (c. 1950 based on the turquoise tiles) as well as a 1700s hearth fireplace that became the centerpiece for a night of song, food, and laughter as the Accademia del Padlot, a group of nine men who commune over wine and good food, created a fiesta that was without exception the most fun one can have while eating.
Prepared hearthside-using embers drawn from the open fire, a succulent rabbit with rosemary, raisins, nuts and other savories is slow cooked. But first there is the polenta. Everything in this meal is worth celebration and two gentlemen stir the polenta, alternating between bursts of song and laughter.
Once finished the polenta is poured onto large sheets of wood, dressed with a light, tomato sauce and fresh sausage cooked on the hearth. The polenta is served only with spoons and the smells overcome any pretension of societal restraint as we communally dig in, and conversation and laughter take on new levels.
Along with the polenta, the wine has been flowing and a course of pasta, freshly made by the palace’s own Lina, the Pasta Regina of Mercatello with yet another slow simmered sauce, hearty enough to stand out without overpowering the goodness Lina has kneaded into her noodles.
More wine, more laughter, more foods, including a cheese and fruit course, and of course, freshly made deserts, leads to a fiesta that while it lasted many hours was over far too quickly.
Mercatello sul Metauro is the land of the prestigious white truffle, or tartufo, and joining in on a mock truffle hunt has our band walking over the land of the Apennines following a delightful nose to ground hound. Her job is to hunt the truffle and as we walk we learn about the varieties of mushrooms that cover a spectrum of color, smell and flavor, including the fragrant white and black truffles.
Dinner follows at Ristorante da Uto’s, located in the Mincelli Palace. This palace turned B&B dates back to the late 16th century and is named for a Florence family.
Today the Sacchi family owns the home and in addition to Uto’s offers four rooms, recently renovated while keeping in mind the time and place of the original building.
Sitting down for dinner at Uto’s begins with a display of mushrooms whose pungency induces feelings of euphoria, even without the numerous local wine options offered.
Every dish has a generous slicing of white or black truffle and each is just slightly more remarkable than the last as a parade of locally inspired dishes are served, each with the earthy smells that come from the fungi jewels of this rich land.
Food is truly at the heart of Marcatello sul Metauro.
Saturday morning transforms the square into a vibrant marketplace from the butcher to the hearthside, from the town cafe to the food trucks.
Hard to imagine a more worthy prize for the travel over the Apennines.
See the attached Travel Tour itinerary.
To make arrangments in Mercatello contact:
contact: tel: 3394016247
skype me: Luisadonati
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