To reach Le Marche from anywhere else in Italy, sooner or later one must scale the Apennines, so it is with eyes washed in snow and dazzled by peaks that one comes to the rolling hills of Le Marche, especially in winter.
Even Urbino, the masterpiece of Renaissance architecture described by Baldassare Castiglione in the opening lines of The Book of the Courtier as a city in the form of a palace, would be hard to imagine without the surrounding landscape, which is visible from every balcony and window of the Palazzo Ducale.
Like other Italian "capitals," Urbino is a small town that someone, in this case the Duke of Montefeltro, suddenly envisioned as the center of the universe. The duke, judging from Piero della Francesca's portrait of him, must have had an appetite for the truth, for it is not a flattering picture—his beaklike nose appears broken at the bridge, and he has a wart beneath one ear, dark circles around his hooded turtle eyes, thin lips. But the red hat the duke decided to put on does ennoble the whole and is as brilliant a solution as any he made in the course of transforming Urbino into a Renaissance hub. He was the Lorenzo il Magnifico of this part of Italy. An admirer of Macchiavelli, he arranged to have his half-brother killed in a court intrigue, after which the people of Urbino called on him to be their ruler. We may have his guilty conscience to thank for one of the most wondrous commissions inside the exquisitely unusual ducal palace Francesco di Giorgio Martini designed for him: the very moving Cappellina del Perdono, or Chapel of Forgiveness.
His study, the Studiolo del Duca, is a cubicle completely paneled with intricately inlaid wood depicting arches through which you see unlimited landscapes—one shows a squirrel devouring a nut, another a cupboard stacked with books in haphazard piles. In that inspiring cell he may have thought up his plan to invite Piero della Francesca to Urbino to paint his Flagellation of Christ and portraits of his wife and of himself. (At his court lived another painter whose son, Raffaello Sanzio, became known to the world as Raphael, and whose house is only a few blocks away.) One can also visit the immense vaulted spaces of the stables, the kitchens, and the duke's bathing chamber in the basement.
I asked Remo's friend Nello, the pharmacist of Moresco, who still mixes his own remedies and collects Byzantine icons, to characterize the cooking of Le Marche, and he said, "Not chiles." So if not chiles, I pressed him, then what?"Cloves," he replied. A recipe for the most typical local dish, a lasagna called vincisgrassi, invented in 1799 in honor of Prince Windischgrätz, an Austrian general stationed in Le Marche, also includes cinnamon and nutmeg in a sauce of sweetbreads, calf's brains, prosciutto, porcini mushrooms, and, naturally, béchamel. Driving from Moresco to Ascoli Piceno, home of the Venetian Renaissance painter Carlo Crivelli (and of the stuffed and fried green olives called ascolane, which you eat with creme, dollops of sweet fried custard), the rhythm of the rippled landscape becomes hypnotic. The first glimpse of Ascoli is of its many bell towers (there were once 200), a surreal gathering one can imagine holding a rarefied philosophical discussion when no one is watching. In the restored Art Nouveau Caffé Meletti, we had a tuna-and-artichoke sandwich on white bread, which seems to be a staple at most cafés in Le Marche.
Between hill towns, we visited Pesaro, a genteel turn-of-the-19th-century beach resort with tree-lined avenues and freestanding Art Nouveau villas, and ate at Il Cortegiano, a restaurant set in a neo-Gothic palazzo, where we were given a table with a view of a shaded garden and a wall inset with majolica. This town's reigning spirit is Gioacchino Rossini, who is celebrated every August in a festival exclusively dedicated to the performance of his operas.
On our arrival in Le Marche, we had driven up the highest hill overlooking the Adriatic, to the medieval Cathedral of San Ciriaco. In it, aside from the saint's relics, was a painting of the Virgin said to protect travelers from storms at sea. Then we headed toward Iesi, the hometown of the composer Pergolesi. It started to rain. We wanted to stop for lunch but could barely see the road, and then, on an incline, the engine flooded and we stalled. Suddenly a car appeared, overtook us, then stopped. Using a nylon rope he happened to have with him, the driver hitched us to his car, then hauled us up the hill till our engine started again. We asked for directions to a restaurant, and he said we should follow him, since he was on his way to lunch. He led us through the deluge to the middle of a flat plain and a trattoria that looked nothing like a restaurant: it was hidden, like most treasures of Le Marche, for all to see.