The Dark Side of Urbino

Local fans explore the genre of “noir” through treasure hunts, plays, and mock murder.

The dining room of Ristorante Cavaliere is packed. Overhead, six crystal chandeliers clink as the room vibrates with the presence of two hundred celebrating Italians. At the head table sits a family of 12—here to honor a member’s graduation from the University of Urbino. A warm summer breeze sends the room into a split second trance.
Suddenly the silence is broken by a gun shot and blood-curdling screams. A man is face-down in his spaghetti dinner, blood slowly mixing with the sauce.

It looks like a scene right out of a murder mystery.

UrbiNoir audience members at the dinner table

Audience members race against the clock to select who they think is guilty of murder. The first to turn in the correct accusation wins a 200 euro check handed to them by none other than the character who committed the crime.

Which is exactly what it is: a murder mystery dinner theater production put on by TesHorror, an extension of Urbino’s “dark side” group–UrbiNoir.

“Who is responsible for the murder of this man?” asks Gioseppe Biancalano, an actor in the theater troupe. Tonight he is playing the role of the detective assigned to this case, addressing his questions to everyone in the dining room, fellow actors as well as audience members.

Urbino’s celebration of the noir genre began with three University of Urbino professors huddling occasionally in the office of Alessandra Calanchi, an American Literature expert, to discuss Sherlock Holmes. Calanchi officially established the UrbiNoir Project in December 2010, and soon it unexpectedly gained attention from faculty in other university departments as well as local administrators and even a few colleagues from England.

As Calanchi explains it, noir invites us to teeter on the line dividing the mundane from the sick, corrupt society lurking just beyond the shadows. It shows us how easily we could stumble into that darkness.

“Did you still work for Vanity Fair in 1999?” the detective asks the victim’s fashion photographer nephew back at the dinner in Ristorante Cavaliere. “Of course! I remember it clear as day!” replies the nephew. “But did Vanity Fair not discontinue in 1992?” says the detective with a sneer–exposing the nephew’s lie.

UrbiNoir’s informal meetings in hallways—“and often in bars,” Calanchi explains with a laugh—soon gave way to more organized sessions held at the Atabulus Café. There were group discussions of the genre, film viewings, and readings by guest authors.

One program even served as a catalyst to create a new work of noir fiction. The group invited author Marcello Simoni to speak about his novel Il Mercante di Libri Maledetti (The Merchant of Bloody Books). Simoni, who said he was inspired by Urbino’s Renaissance heritage, went on to write the award-winning novel I Sotterranei della Cattedrale (The Basement of the Cathedral), in which a university professor is found dead within Urbino’s own historic Duomo.

Before long, students discovered UrbiNoir and began joining in large numbers.

“The fact that young people find UrbiNoir so interesting is something that goes beyond our expectations,” says Tiziano Mancini, an UrbiNoir member and a playwright for TesHorror’s murder mystery dinners. “The ‘noir side’ of Urbino was always there. It just needed something or someone that would bring it to light, and UrbiNoir did just that.”

“Who killed grandpa?” shrieks the only American relative in the dining room drama. She bangs her fist on the table as her cousin rolls his eyes.

In 2011, the group began staging events that enabled the public to interact with the genre rather than simply discuss it. A treasure hunt was organized, with riddles leading a group of 15 active participants and 10 observers around Urbino in search of scenes depicting fictional crimes set in the city’s Renaissance past. The hunt was produced under the new TesHorror label; the name combines the Italian word “tesoro,” which means treasure, with the English word “horror.”

Some fans wanted still more. They wanted to be a part of the noir. The result: TesHorror murder mystery dinners.

Gioseppe Biancalano

Acting as case detective, Gioseppe Biancalano strikes the arm of a potential murderer, diverting a fired bullet aimed at a character.

Mancini started producing short plays depicting events that are dark but still well within the realm of reality. “It’s as if you went to a regular restaurant,” he says, “and somebody got murdered.”

Dinner guests watch the plot unfold between courses, getting clues to the culprit along the way. To further blur the lines, TesHorror contacts select audience members beforehand, enlisting them to play small parts in the production.

The sound of a knife rapping against an empty wine bottle shifts the room’s attention to a man in the audience. He stands to address a nun who is sitting at the front table. “As a nun, you must be aware of God’s presence tonight, yes?” Folding her hands in her lap, the nun looks up at the man and nods slowly, never once breaking eye contact.

Including the public in such noirish dramas has been a huge success. Mancini says that the group’s dinner mysteries have been attracting around 200 participants. And there is a steady stream of phone calls inquiring about the next event.

Both Calanchi and Mancini say that UrbiNoir’s future looks—ironically—bright.

“You have ten minutes to agree on and submit your accusation,” the detective announces to the crowd. The diners at every table lean in to whisper assumptions and double-check clues. The ice cream dessert, untouched, slowly melts as the minutes pass.

“Noir is everywhere, not only in Urbino,” says Calanchi. She believes it is important to embrace the genre. “Otherwise you can’t understand the difference between light and darkness…and that’s a problem.”

“Congratulations to our winners, the ‘Sam Spade’ table”, announces Mancini. The savvy team members squeal as they race to the front stage to accept the 200-euro oversize check from tonight’s murderer. It was the Bulgarian grandson; his motive was purely monetary. Just after midnight, the victorious amateur detectives prance out of the restaurant, check in tow, leaving the metaphorical darkness of the dinner for the literal darkness of the night.

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About Myra Krieger-Coen

Traveling abroad is always an incredible experience, but to sum up Urbino as ‘an incredible experience’ doesn’t quite do it justice. Spending a month surrounded by the striking renaissance architecture and rolling green hills that make up the Marche region is one thing – wandering through it all next to some of the most gifted, driven and personable individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting is another. I will bring invaluable memories, journalism experience and friendships back with me, but I am certain a piece of me will always remain in Urbino.