One could spend weeks zig-zagging between bewitching towns along the path laid down by the Metauro river in the northern Marche region of Italy. In spring the rolling hills are verdant with shoots of grain and laced with wildflowers. The food is distinctive; the isolated valley has its own way of cooking and eating.
Even without noticing the traces of Renaissance art to be discovered in this compelling valley, you could be happy just wandering the hills and valleys as thousands have done in the past, pausing only to gain sustenance from its soil and the labor of families who care for it.
But there's more here than meets the eye. Let's welcome Rosetta Borchia and Olivia Nesci into our idyllic landscape, two women who have taken on the task of identifying the landscapes behind famous paintings of the Renaissance. Imagine the "needle in a haystack" quest they've undertaken! But if you come to the little hill upon which Pieve del Colle sits, park you car and take the white trail down towards the valley, there it is, the fruits of their labor, one of the Balconies of Piero, a place Piero della Francesca, one of the most famous Renaissance artists to ply the valleys between his home in Tuscan Sansepolcro and the courts of Urbino, came to paint one of his most famous works, a Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino.
It is right here, at the end of the gravel path leading down the flanks of a hill planted in organic hard winter wheat to a placard marking the view spot of the exact landscape behind the famous rendering of the distinctive profile of the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, he of the right eye and bridge of the nose gouged out in a joust.
As you can see from Piero's rendering, the background of the painting is rendered distinctly. The artist, after all, is said to have been a mathematician and geometer as well as a celebrated painter. Details are rendered exactly as they are.
But why not just paint a background from memory?
It's likely that the Diptych was meant to be folded and carried you see. The landscape was, perhaps a map of the landscape owned by the Duke of Urbino to be shown off. It was important.
Even today the profile of Monte Fronzoso--which you see under Federico's chin--appears exactly the same as it does in the painting. Taken in context with the other visible hills, the location is undisputable.
But there's a lake in the background as well. What's up with that? This lake was once thought to be Lake Trasimeno, but the landscape around it is decidedly wrong. History tells us that damming rivers to make lakes was done frequently in these parts, and and this was a well-known instance of creating a lake fed by the Metauro River. According to the studies, the lake was "created by means of a couple of sluice gates and by a lock on a bridge called “Ponte del Riscatto”, one of the bridges used to get to the town of Urbania and to the Ducal Palace." The lake has since disappeared, absorbed by the landscape.
Of course, if you are only slightly interested in art, why would you come to this remote part of Le Marche? You'll be happy to know that Piero's balcony is only a part of an experience you can partake of in this idyllic landscape.
At the top of the hill (the "colle" in the heading) you'll see a complex that includes a church which is undoubtedly built upon an older, pagan temple. A "pieve" is a country church, and this certainly is a good example of one in quite a view spot, shadowed by towering oaks.
Next to the pieve is a parking area, then further on is the Agriturismo Pieve del Colle, signs for which have led you to this spot. I encourage you to stay at least a night here. You will be rewarded with a meal you will likely have trouble forgetting. It's all organic (biological) and if it doesn't come from the farm you've traipsed over on your little excursion, then it's been sourced from other organic farms in the area. The Silvestrini family is as hard working as you'll find, and you can depend upon them to make your stay a memorable one.
The agriturismo is a "didactic farm" meaning they'll teach you the methods used by the friendly people of Le Marche to produce traditional food on family farms.
You can see pictures of what's atop the hill in our gallery below.
If you are planning a trip to San Leo in the Marche, there are tours offered at a very reasonable price for tours of San Leo and transporation to Piero della Francesca's Renaissance balconies. There is also one from the town of Urbania. See: Walk in a real art place.
You may have to zoom out the map to see all the markers. You can see that everything is compact, and the view area is just a short walk of a few minutes. Pieve del Colle is about 5km southeast of Urbania and northeast of Piobbico in Le Marche.
The Agriturismo Pieve del Colle serves lunch and dinner to guests who aren't staying at the agriturismo, but you're requested to phone ahead. Tel: 39.0722.317945. You can leave out the "39" if you're calling from Italy.
If you wish to stay the night you can reserve from the website (prices here) or book through booking.com if you prefer not to use the contact form on the website: Pieve del Colle. One small apartment is available in addition to the rooms.
If you go to the office of tourism in Urbania on Corso Vittorio Emanuele 21, pick up the brocure called The Discovered Landscapes of Montefeltro, which gives a bit more detail about the project of finding "invisible" landscapes in Renaissance paintings. Read more about Urbania.