The Duke Feast

 

As far as historical reenactments in Italy go, the Festa del Duca di Urbino would appear to be a rather standard affair. The ancient buildings that make up the center of this town are of course a gorgeous background for what began in 1982 as a memorial celebration of Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482), the munificent benefactor of Urbino and its surrounding lands. Federico, duke of Urbino, was the generous patron of artists of all kinds – so the event is rife with music, theatre, dance and other shows. There is a renaissance market, there is a horseback tournament, there is the inevitable parade of hundreds of historical costumes. It is a wonderful festival, but let’s be honest: given the rich history of Italy, you can find dozens of similar events all around the country. But something is different here – many things, in fact.

Intellectual types will appreciate the unique film festival taking place during the celebration, invented by the famous director Mario Monicelli and focusing each year on a different yet historical topic. As the night falls the main square comes alive with yet another series of special events called ‘La notte del Duca’ (trans. ‘The night of the Duke’). Most unique among them is a not-so-ancient game: the ‘caccia al teshorror’, which is a citywide treasure hunt with a horror flare, featuring costumed actors and special effects. Gluttons can enjoy the historical menus offered by several bars and restaurants, some of them including “alchemical” liquors distilled on the spot… yet the highlight is another one still.

The Festa del Duca di Urbino is in fact the one and only place where you can watch a live game of Aita, a rather complex Renaissance sport which was used by the local militia to keep fit between the frequent skirmishes and wars with neighboring towns. Here it is played by the teams of the ten city districts using a set of rules that was only recovered a few decades ago. The game is divided into three phases, all of them sharing the goal of taking the opposing team’s members prisoner. While the first phase is but a glorified game of tag, the second involves full body brawls and can actually get medieval. Beside the violence of the assaults, the playing field contains two “hiding places” with three leather doors each: players can use them to ambush the opposition (and to hit the adversaries far from the judges’ eyes). In the final phase the objective is to steal the enemy flag. Throughout the game players can call “aita” (ancient Italian for ‘help!’) and summon their team mates. You can easily imagine how frenzied – and weirdly enjoyable – the game can get.