While the formidable hilltop city of Urbino may be better known and more visited, I was disappointed with the history and sights to be found there. The Ducal Palace was merely an empty shell for housing a large gallery of religious art and while I enjoyed the detailed marquetry of the study, the most famous paintings had been spirited away to exhibitions in Milan and Paris. The cathedral, though large, was antiseptic and unwelcoming, and even the chocolate slabs displayed on the stalls for a weekend festival seemed unappealing, having attracted every bee and wasp for a 10km radius.
Although similarly named, and site of the hunting lodge of the Duke of Urbino, Urbania is a world apart from its larger neighbour. It has a friendly atmosphere and an intriguing history which I discovered as I wandered the streets on a quiet Monday afternoon.
I was struck by the sudden appearance of some rather ugly, modern buildings in the centre of town. They seemed very out of place amongst the 15th century palace and cathedral. I found the answer to this mystery in the small church of Spirito Santo which features a monstrous, modern mosaic and a series of black and white photos showing the destruction of the town centre after a WWII bombardment.
A comic book, created by the local Libro Art School and using first hand accounts of the bombing, gives me a better idea of what happened. On 23rd January 1944 at 12.42, just as people were leaving church and meeting in the local square and cafes, a German bomber released its load and the population of 6,000 was reduced by 250. The names of those who died that day are listed on plaques in the church and included several families.
The following day, at 11.30, I am waiting patiently outside the small church of Cappella Cola, otherwise known as the Church of the Dead. The guardian, Giovanni, arrives and collects my €2 before taking me behind the altar for a private tour of the mummies. He spends the next 45 minutes telling me about the sad stories of each individual body which has been mummified by the mould spores that were present in their underground burial site.
There is the young woman who died from caesarean section, the young man who was stabbed at an evening dance, the well-fed priest who passed away with gout, the thief with the broken neck who was hung for his crimes, the child who had rickets, the tall man with lung cancer and the man who was buried alive. Giovani suggests that this was not uncommon during times of epidemic. In the centre, dressed in his priestly robes, is the man who took it upon himself to ensure that each poor soul had a decent burial. Though I wonder how he would feel about being put on display for ghoulish tourists and the fact that his mummified souls have a 5* rating on Trip Advisor!