Urbino’s Hidden Museum

A man’s eclectic collection becomes Urbino’s most unusual museum.

A narrow yellow house sits unnoticed on the edge of Urbino’s Borgo Mercatale, where the Marche buses pick up and drop off their passengers.

But if someone were to take notice and to look into the rectangular window of the door, she would see a room full of motorcycles, small racing cars hanging off the walls, and shelves filled with trophies and posters. Then, if she looked carefully at the bottom of the left-most window, she might see an index-card sign that reads: Aperto Su Prenotazione, Museo 100 Anni di, Ingresso a Offerta—Open by Appointment, Museum of 100 Years, Entrance Offered.

This is not just a house. It is a four-story time machine. It is the culmination of one man’s passion for automobiles, war history, and antique local craftsmanship. “I was moved,” said Stefano Pivato, a recent visitor and professor of contemporary history at the University of Urbino, according to a university blog post.

Guidubaldo Balsamini

Guidubaldo Balsamini demonstrates the rust-printing stamping process, holding a mallet, stamp, and piece of cloth.

Two years ago, Guidubaldo Balsamini inherited the yellow house from his grandmother. Built in the 1500s, it had been a bakery for an inn on the Mercatale. For Guidubaldo—a 49-year-old librarian at the university who calls himself “a collector of pretty much everything”—the house was the perfect place to display all the historical objects he had collected over the years. “Everything was in boxes and going to ruin,” he says.

Because Guidubaldo works, the Museum of 100 Years is only open to those who know to call him for a tour. Those who do manage to book a visit discover seven astounding rooms, each “like a small piece of our century’s history,” he says.

Guidubaldo opens the front door to reveal the room full of motorcycles and the shelf of awards and trophies. The trophies are his, won for the five antique cars he owns.

The next room is dedicated to World War I. A wooden cart—used to carry the wounded as well as weapons—holds a collection of medals from armies across Europe. Guidubaldo’s father, Guiseppe (“Pepe”), rebuilt the cart.

Nearby is a wine cellar set up like a shelter where Italian and Austrian soldiers might have taken cover. Guidubaldo takes a broken object off a shelf and places it on his head to show what it is: a German helmet.

On the second floor is a collection that Guidubaldo says is his “first passion.” Model cars fill a large glass display, and Guidubaldo opens it to show his most prized possession, a Jaguar E-Type. Guidubaldo estimates he has more than 2,000 model cars; Pepe used to buy him one a day.

A sign in the window of Museo 100 Anni Di

A sign in the window of Museo 100 Anni Di

Across the hall is the oldest part of the yellow house: the kitchen, complete with a bread oven from the 1500s. Guidubaldo rushes to turn on a light inside the oven, to show it off.

On the third floor, Guidubaldo has re-created his grandfather’s shoe-making business and woodcarving workshop. A picture of his grandfather, Umberto Ontani, hangs on a wall of the dim room, with a hand-written note that reads Maestro Calzolaio, Scultore Naïf—Master Shoemaker, Primitive Sculptor. One of the first television sets ever brought to Urbino sits against the back wall.

In a room dedicated to World War II, a mannequin wears a uniform that belonged to Ontani.

At last the tour comes to a tiled room with one small window. Here, an ancient Urbino craft comes alive—and so does Pepe. A giant handloom sits in a back corner. White tablecloths, aprons, a handkerchief, and a pillow cover, all printed with reddish-brown decorations, drape across one wall.

Making Stampa a Ruggine, Renaissance-Style
To make the ink for stampa a ruggine, soak rusted iron in vinegar for a year. Then remove the iron and mix the extract with flour and more vinegar. Dip a stamp in the ink and press it onto the cloth. Leave the cloth in the sun for a day. Next, soak the cloth in caustic soda (lye) until it becomes almost black; then rinse. Leave the cloth in the sun again until the stamped decoration once more becomes reddish-brown. When the rust color bleeds through to the back of the fabric, the stamping is permanent.

The art of printing fabric with dye made from rust—or stampa a ruggine—is an Italian technique from the 1500s. Some say the craft came from Romania, but Pepe, who researched the technique for 20 years and taught himself the painstaking skill, says defiantly, “Nothing could be further from the truth. The rust print was born here in the Montefeltro, in Sant’Angelo in Vado.”

The decoration, based on Renaissance motifs, is what makes the material precious, he explains; the fabric itself is inexpensive. The dye takes more than a year to make, Pepe says, and the whole process is “all-natural.” Pepe flips over a piece of fabric hanging on the wall to show that the dye has bled through. This, he says, is how you know a rust print is real. He picks up a square stamp made from pear wood—“sturdy and elastic at the same time”—and smacks it with a heavy mallet to demonstrate how he used to stamp the material. Pepe once owned a shop in town called L’Ordito, where he sold his stampa a ruggine fabric.

Now, only one shop in Urbino, Das Andere, sells rust-print fabric—but it is imported from Romania. “Here in Urbino,” says Pepe, “all artistic craftsmanship is doomed.”

Fortunately, there’s a museum where visitors can still see the real thing.

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About Casey Wagner

Studying in Urbino for the past month has been incredible. I loved being in a small town, surrounded by Italian culture and language. Urbino is a beautiful place where I learned to push myself out of my comfort zone, and take the time to appreciate the world around me. You will be dearly missed Urbino, but your memories will stay with me forever.