Urbino Ventoso: Flying Over a Renaissance Wonder

So, we were in Urbino for the fantastic 68th Festa dell’Aquilone, and as always we had three goals on our minds: to fly the Giant proteus, to have fun – and, of course, to do a kite aerial photography session. After all, we have KAP in our kite team name, right?

The fun was immense and overwhelming; as you can see, the Proteus flew magnificently (and almost took Livio with it to the sky) – and we managed to fly the camera on our Original Blue Rokkaku straight from the kite field at Il Parco delle Cesane, one hill away from Urbino proper.

The gentle rolling hills of Marche are beautiful per se; knowing that a true pearl of Renaissance is hiding on one of them makes them even more intriguing … The kite flew higher, and the camera finally caught the distant, elusive wonder:


But to watch Urbino from this far away really can’t do it justice. Luckily, on Saturday afternoon the Festa dell’Aquilone had its first major event, the great kite race of the Contradas upon the second hill of Urbino, on the Medieval fortress called Fortezza Albornoz right in the middle of the town.

We sneakily brought our KAP kite up to the fortress and flew it over the Renaissance itself.

The shadow of the Original Blue Rokkaku rising with Il Duomo di Urbino in the background

When we pulled the kite down and checked what the camera actually got, we were all – wow … Look at this!

A most magnificent pile of bricks …

Actually, there are so many bricks in Urbino that there are numerous extensive surveys of town’s building materials that are not bricks. “Look, a sandstone slab!” cries a frustrated geologist, lost deep in this ocean of bricks.

And the colour of bricks makes Urbino a bit of a mystery (wrapped in an enigma). You can’t really see it well, this old master of urbanistic mimicry … brick buildings, brick roofs, brick pavements all have the colour of the local stone, of the soil on the fertile fields, of dried grass. It’s quite conceivable that this beige blending with the background contributed to Urbino’s rather smooth sailing through the ages – a shining white marble city on a hill would get in trouble fast.

A mystery wrapped in an enigma … even the name, Urbino, has unclear origins. Does it derive from Latin urvum, the handle of the plough, later changing from Urvino to Urbino? Was it first just a simple and generic Roman town, Urbs, that did not grow, so it got a diminutive ending -ino, becoming Urbino, little town? Or was it a double city, built on two hills (one where Duomo stands today, the other Il Monte with Fortezza Albornoz); a binary town Urbs Bina – Urbino? Or maybe it is a substrate name of pre-Indo-European origin. We don’t know, yet.

And there is more – according to Pliny the Great (Pliny the Greatly Confusing, as his bewildering lists of town names show) there were two Urbinos in the area, Urbinum Metaurense and Urbinum Hortense; one perched above the river Metaurus, the other full of horti, gardens. But which one is our Urbino? The Metauro river is rather distant from it, so it can’t be Metaurense. And Urbinum Hortense was recently discovered on another hill, adding more magma into this plinian eruption of confusion …

But it really doesn’t matter whether Urbino is Plough-handle, or Little town, or Double town; Urbino on the Metaurus, or Urbino of the gardens. Seeing it from its brick pavements or from a high-flying kite is nothing short of amazing; inhaling the remains of its illustrious – if brief – moments of historical magnificence leaves one in awe.

For Urbino is an art-history meteor. In the times of Duke Federico da Montefeltro – who was called The Light of Italy – it lit up the Renaissance sky, and after the annexation of the Duchy of Urbino to the Papal states it did not burn out (and it has not been burnt). Its light diminished slowly, the gradual extinguishing preserving almost all of its features for us. But those years, from 1444 to 1523 (or, to be a bit more generous, 200 years from the visit of Emperor Sigismund in 1424 to the annexation of the Duchy of Urbino by the Papal states in 1626), have practically no parallel in the world.

The court of the Dukes of Urbino was – and is! – the court: what we imagine today as a refined high court of a benevolent, enlightened king, of smart and generous princes, of beautiful and learned princesses, surrounded by artists and philosophers and well-mannered knights and sophisticated maidens, comes from a book Il Cortegiano – The Book of the Courtier – written by Baldassaro Castiglione in Urbino. The book is a philosophical dialogue with the Duchess of Urbino on what it means to be an ideal courtier or court lady, worthy to befriend and advise a prince or political leader.

Speaking of court artists and philosophers – those that mingled around the court of Urbino are basically a who-is-who of the Renaissance … Raphael was born in Urbino. Paolo Uccello painted his strange masterpiece The Miracle of the Desecrated Host here (it is on display in the fantastic Galleria Nazionale delle Marche that resides in the former Palazzo Ducale of Urbino). Piero della Francesca wrote on the science of perspective, Francesco di Giorgio Martini wrote his Trattato di architettura (Treatise on Architecture) and Raphael’s father, Giovanni Santi, completed his poetical account of the chief artists of his time.

The list goes on and on and on; Bramante, van Wassenhove, Berruguete, the poet Malatesta, the mathematician Baldi, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino … and almost all the Italian Renaissance artists that mean something: Barocci, Baronzio, di Ciccarello, di Maestro Antonio, Pontelli, etc. etc. etc. It’s not surprising at all that the influential painting The Ideal City (La Città ideale) – attributed at various times to della Francesca, to di Giorgio Martini, and to Luciano Laurana – was created right here in the ideal city of Urbino.

This meteor of art, architecture, chivalry, and la bella vita, is fantastically preserved … Walking around Urbino – technically, up and down, as it is perched upon the two still rather steep hills – is like walking through the Renaissance itself, the steps echoing across time, the art echoing back.

And while Urbino had its best, or most notorious, time a couple of centuries back, it is still going strong. The special nonchalance – la sprezzatura – still permeates the air, the Contradas are still fighting (though with kites these times), the food is great and the wine is tasty, the exquisite buildings and monuments, including an original Ancient Egyptian obelisk, still inspire awe in those who stroll around the brick wonder.

As if the Renaissance, the daughter of Urbino, took a short nap here, and is about to wake up – to be re-born – just about any time now.

All kite aerial photos shot with Nikon P330 on The Original Blue Rokkaku made by Dr.Agon kites.

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