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A Timeless Brew: The Secret History of Urbino’s Oldest Caffè

Chloe O’Hallaron

Marco Sanchini, 58, Caffè Basil’s owner, greets customers from behind the counter of his historic establishment. [Photo: Kathryn Talley]

URBINO, ITALY — The clinking of coffee cups, the ruffling of a pigeon’s wings, and the roar of a Vespa scooter can be heard rumbling down the cobblestone streets. These are the sights and sounds observed from the portico of Caffè Basili, the Renaissance town’s oldest caffè.

Day to day, through the windows of Basili, one can spy on graduates crowned with laurel wreaths, lovers sharing a gelato, and local shopkeepers tending to their small businesses. Caffè Basili offers a bird’s eye view to the piazza, and over the years, it has emerged as a cultural hub of this quaint town.

Behind the counter, Basili’s 58-year-old owner and manager, Marco Sanchini, quietly keeps watch over the town’s square. Sanchini is a tall, stoic man whose brooding demeanor is juxtaposed by warm eyes and a soft, toothy smile. Sanchini is a fixture at Basili, you can often find him toiling behind its counters day and night, as he presides over a steady stream of customers. 

“My favorite part of the job is making people happy, talking with them and doing everything I can to make them satisfied,” Sanchini said. 

Seated in Basili’s back room on a Monday evening, Sanchini grew pensive as he reflected on the earlier, perhaps more pleasant, days of his youth in the piazza. Born in Pesaro, a beach town just 20 miles away on Italy’s east coast, Sanchini has called Le Marche home for 58 years. In 1986, at 21, Sanchini moved to Urbino and found work at Basili. 

“Basili is [Urbino’s] oldest bar, that’s what makes it unique,” Sanchini quipped. 

Indeed, the building that houses Caffè Basili is hundreds of years old. 

Caffé Basili, circa 1920. [Photos provided by Marco Sanchini]

The famed Urbino coffee shop actually used to be a church, according to Comune di Urbino, the city’s tourism department. Known as the Palace of the Scolopi — or Collegio dei Nobili — its walls were erected in 1705 by order of Pope Clement XI in an attempt to return the city to its former glory after the Italian War. The building was constructed over existing medieval homes and two churches, Santa Agata and Corpus Domini. The structure was completed in the year 1741, under Pope Benedict XIII. Today, a portion of the original church, Santa Agata, remains visible in the middle of Basili’s facade.

Maria del Basili serving a young customer, circa 1940. [Photo provided by Marco Sanchini]

The property later housed the Collegio dei Nobili, an elite college operated by the Scolopi Fathers religious order. In 1808, however, French general Napoleon Bonaparte, amid his conquest of Italy, turned the college into a royal boarding high school. Napoleon, who, according to some historical accounts, was obsessed with the masterpieces of Urbino-born Renaissance artist, Raphael, named the school after the painter. The school hosted students such as Cardinal Annibale Albani, Luigi “Louis” Bonaparte, Giovanni Pascoli, and Francesco Puccinotti

Caffè Basili’s origin story, tracing back more than a century, however, is murky — and historical accounts regarding the specific year it opened vary. According to local lore, Giovanni Basili first opened the coffee shop in 1906. However, some archival documents suggest the establishment first opened in 1897, per the Comune di Urbino. 

In the 1980s, when Sanchini first started working at Basili, he recalled that the caffè was “the most expensive, most important bar in the square.” In 1993, Sanchini purchased the caffè from the Basili family who had presided over the establishment since its opening, decades prior. 

These, he said, were the caffè’s golden years.

“I really miss the ’80s,” said Sanchini, “the piazza was full of people, who, in the absence of the internet, used the city center as a gathering place to meet with friends and other students.” Sanchini explained that “there have been many changes, positive and negative, as the students remain young while [he] grows older.” This change makes it difficult for Sanchini to communicate with the students, he said.

On a steamy July afternoon, the sounds of confetti poppers and playfully costumed graduates fills the air behind Caffè Basili. It’s graduation season, the busiest time of the year for the caffè. Basili’s back patio, lined white-cushioned couches and dotted with vibrant colored spritzes, is a local favorite for celebrations, hosting countless students and their families annually.

In recent decades, Urbino’s bars have become financially dependent on the town’s student community. Caffè Basili is no exception. Sanchini draws major profits from student customers, welcoming their business amicably. 

As in any college town, rowdy, disruptive, and sometimes drunk students can be spotted invading public spaces, such as the Piazza della Repubblica, at night. Over the years, this climate has sparked an abrasive dynamic between students and some local inhabitants.

But now, more often than not, Sanchini said, “students prefer to have a drink at home because it’s cheaper.”

“For this reason, the piazza often remains empty,” he explained.  

But it wasn’t always like this, he said. Sanchini recalled that during the 1980s and ’90s, students would spend the entire year in Urbino. Most were from the city, he recalled. 

“They spent their summers here, taking arts courses,” he said. 

Now, it’s different; students come from other cities and regions in Italy, and sometimes other countries. Students study in the famed Renaissance city, then return home at the end of the academic year. 

Students converse in Urbino’s Piazza della Repubblica. [Photo: Louisa Mattozzi]
Caffé Basili regulars gather at its portico each morning, including retired resident Cangini Augusto, who said he routinely visits the caffè to meet with friends. [Photo: Kathryn Talley]

A number of longtime, loyal customers still feel at home upon entering Caffè Basili. 

Maria Teresa Fini is one of them.

Fini, dressed to the nines, is a slender, elegant woman with spiky, silver hair and a whittled face. She has lived in Urbino her whole life and can be found at Basili each morning at the same table, with an order of two frothy cappuccinos. 

“I always sit at the same table,” she explained. “I think it’s kind of reserved for me, it’s a ritual, I have been coming here for a lifetime. There’s something extremely unique about this place that makes me feel at ease and at home.

At the end of each evening, Sanchini can be found closing shop at Basili, carefully completing each task necessary to prepare for the following morning. He polishes coffee cups to perfection, arranges pastries under the shop’s glass display case, and meticulously shines the shop’s stainless steel espresso machine. 

“I wish I could go back to the start,” he said despondently. 

Each year spent at Basili marks new change for Sanchini. As he reflects on how snug the community used to be, he longs to return to his youth to relive the days where life was simple and friends were plentiful.

“I especially miss the old days when I was also a boy and students were friends in addition to being customers,” he added.