Going Medieval – the 68th Festa dell’Aquilone in Urbino, Italy

Or siamo fermi: abbiamo in faccia Urbino
ventoso: ognuno manda da una balza
la sua cometa per il ciel turchino.

It’s dark. A deserted street. Quick steps clap on a pavement of bricks, echoing off the brick walls. A crowd somewhere is roaring, loud bangs pierce the night. Turn left, then left again. Another crowd sings a song known only to them, belching the verses in an unknown language. Retreat, jump into an alley, touching the bricks, almost running now. Another turn, another crossroads. Left, right, through the narrow corridors of brick-walled streets, right again. A couple passes by, love oblivious to the nervous, vibrating, edgy night. Round the corner, a blinding street light. Shadows move, glimpsed with the corner of an eye. A smoke grenade goes off.

It’s green.

Photo courtesy of Giorgio Focarini

“Ah, cool – green, now I know where we are … it’s Contrada di Lavagine!”

The pizzeria was just around the corner.

48 hours earlier we crammed ourselves into the venerable kitemobil and went on the looong drive from Ljubljana to the heart of Italy, to a crazy town that used to be Urbinum Mataurense (or, maybe, Hortense), but now it’s just Little City.


The question whether it is sensible to drive for seven hours into the hills of Marche (and seven hours back!) for a day and a half of kite flying was resolved on the spot: of course it’s not sensible, but neither are we – so let’s go!

The great KAP Jasa is on the way!

We all know those small-ish kite festivals off the beaten festival track: a nice meadow, perhaps cordoned off, some scattered tents, a couple of enthusiasts trying to make their kites fly, a small crowd of onlookers … an easy-going, pleasant, and fun weekend of moody winds and laughs.

Hard life of a kite-flier …

While we did not expect less than stated above, we did not expect much more either. And oh boy, were we wrong

The first clue that this kite festival was not to be an ordinary one was hiding in its official name: the 68. Festa dell’Aquilone. Really? Sixty-eighth edition of a kite festival? That would put the first Festa in 1955 – and it’s absolutely amazing for a kite festival to have such an illustrious continuity! But the thing is the secret connection between Urbinati and their kites goes further back in time … wayyy back in fact.

In 1904 a poet Giovanni Pascoli published a collection of poems Primi poemetti, in which we find a poem titled L’Aquilone, The kite. A couple of stanzas stand out:

Or siamo fermi: abbiamo in faccia Urbino
ventoso: ognuno manda da una balza
la sua cometa per il ciel turchino.

Ed ecco ondeggia, pencola, urta, sbalza
risale, prende il vento; ecco pian piano
tra un lungo dei fanciulli urlo s’inalza.

S’inalza; e ruba il filo dalla mano,
come un fiore che fugga su lo stelo
esile, e vada a rifiorir lontano.

S’inalza; e i piedi trepidi e l’anelo
petto del bimbo e l’avida pupilla
e il viso e il cuore, porta tutto in cielo.

Translated by the great Seamus Heaney (who fell in love with Urbino and with Pascoli in 2002), it goes like this:

So now we take our stand, halt opposite
Urbino’s windy hill: each scans the blue
And picks his spot to launch his long-tailed comet.

And there it hovers, flips, veers, dives askew,
Lifts again, goes with the wind until
It rises to loud cheers from us kids below.

It rises, and the hand is like a spool
Unspooling thread, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Borne far away to flower again as windfall.

It rises and it carries ever higher
The longing in the breast and anxious feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite-flier.

It’s pretty obvious that a kite craze already held fast the good people of Urbino in its claws over a hundred years ago. To find the origin of this obsession we must dig deeper in time – and go truly Medieval.

But before we go back in time, the festival. Italian kite festivals – and Italian kite flyers anywhere – reign supreme in the food department … as soon as the wind dies down, or the sun is too hot, they put up a table in the shade, and various deliciousnesses appear; salami with truffles, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, cheese, honey, spumante and frizzante, and some more frizzante and spumante (here we must salute our new patron saint, Santo Livio di Urbino!) …


On Saturday the wind was not really cooperating, so there was more time to spend enjoying the tastes of Marche with our friends …

Though the kites did fly!

Urbino is old, as most Italian towns are. Perched upon a hill above the valley of Matauro river its cute smallness belies its immense history: Urbino is the birthplace of Raphael, Paolo Ucello spent his later years here, one of its Dukes commissioned the famous Venus d’Urbino by Titian, and through the years it seems everyone wanted to have it in their possession.

It is not completely known when or why the kites came to Urbino to take the souls of Urbinati … Kites came to Europe rather late, definitely not before the 15th century. Marco Polo talked about them, and Konrad Kyeser described the use of kites for military purposes. In the 16th and 17th century kites were already widespread, so let’s say the kites came to Urbino just as they lost their prodigal son, Raphael.

As is every town in all times everywhere, a Medieval Italian town was divided into parts; neighbourhoods, wards, parishes – called contradas. In times of war all the contradas came together to fight the impious invader. In times of peace … well, they fought each other; it was dangerous for a member of one contrada to find himself lost on the territory of another, especially after dark, and losing limbs and lives was common.

These little wars took a heavy toll on the good people of a medieval town, so they were ritualised: they marked one day of the year for fighting, and chose a way to fight so as to minimize casualties. In Italy these ritual fights between contradas are called palios and usually take the form of a race or a display of strength, like horse or donkey races, rowing competitions, tug-of-war contests, throwing large stones really far, etc. – the ritualised war morphed into sports. The most famous example of this somewhat controlled medieval madness still going on is the palio of Siena, the magnificent and completely wild annual horse race around the main square.

Palio of Siena. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia user Delfort.

And the good people of Urbino, being somewhat special, chose kites as their weapon of choice. Why kill a neighbour when you can fly a kite better than them? Kites here are a true symbol of peace – or, at least a symbol of a non-lethal fight.

Though one can still imagine how a member of The Greens looped a kite line around the neck of one of The Purples and let the kite go …

Look at all the kite lines!

These days Urbino boasts of ten contradas, each having their unique colours – Contrada di Monte (red), Contrada di San Polo (silver and black), Contrada di Duomo (brown and silver), di Mazzaferro (purple), di San Bernardino (red and gold), di Lavagine (green), di Hong-Kong (gold – and yes, Hong-Kong), di Valbona (blue), di Piantata (green and purple), and Contrada di Piansevero (orange).

Every August they conclave themselves into their wards and make kites from early morning to late evening. On the first weekend of September they bring their kites out to the kite field – and fight with them!

Since 1955 the “fight” lasts for two days … on Saturday, all the contradas gather at the Medieval fortress above Urbino, the Fortezza Albornóz, and they have a race: letting the kite fly all the way to the end of the line, and then reeling it back down. Kids have 50 meters of line, ladies 100 m, and men 150 m. The one that wins the fastest is the winner.

On Sunday the contradas meet on the meadow of the Parco delle Cesane a couple of miles from Urbino where they show huge, crazy 3D kites – one flight kites; when they land, they crash – and incorruptible judges mark them. The most beautiful (meaning the craziest) in the eyes of the jury wins. This time it was a fantastic 1:1 replica of the DeLorean car from Back to the Future (yes, it flew … well, “flew“).

There are more categories in the competition, like the most beautiful 2D kite, the smallest kite, and in the end one of the contradas wins. The great winner of Festa dell’Aquilone 2023 was contrada Hong Kong – their golden flags are now flying proudly over Urbino, and will do so for a year.

Glory to Hong-Kong!

And after all the official competitions are over, the most incredible sight appears over the shaly hills of Marche: thousands and thousands of kites of all the colours of the contrade – red, blue, gold, orange, purple, green, silver and black, purple and green, red and gold, brown and silver – cover the Urbinian sky. It’s simply amazing … the only thing that comes close to this aerial spectacle is the Uttarayan celebration in Ahmedabad, India.

And what did we do? As in every kite festival, we have a triple agenda: 1) to take some kite aerial photos (we are KAP Jasa after all), 2) to fly our flagship kite, the giant Proteus, and 3) to have as much fun as we can.

The gods of wind were merciful, so we had our KAP session (more about this in the next article), and the great Human fish flew magnificently, bringing shock and awe to the crowd. For extra credit we fought our first ever Rokkaku battle – two of them even; the first was magnificently won by Gregor (wow!), and in the next Ivor managed to secure the second place after a long and exhausting fight. Bravo!

The winner of the second Rokkaku fight, and Ivor

And the most important item on our agenda, to have fun, was all courtesy of our old and new friends …

… of Luca and Patrizio, of Alberto and Walter and Franco, of Emanuela, Bianca, Chiara, Valeria, Roberta, Renzo, Mauro, Giovanni, Nicola, Roberto, Stefano, Sandro, Simone, Davide, Fabio, Gabriele, and Livio and all other kite flyers whose names we might temporarily forgot, but whose hearts we never could; of the selfless, ingenious, and hard-working organizers; of the generous sponsors and patrons; of the brave contradas (congratulations again, Hong-Kong!); of the kids who made thousands of colourful kites; of the loud and eager crowd of onlookers; and of course of the magnificent Urbino itself.

Thank you all. It was an honour to be a part of the 68. Festa dell’Aquiloni di Urbino! Next year we might return as the 11th contrada … 😉

Lovers of the wind

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