From Sbandieratori to Soul rock

The cortege of hardy joggers (one of which was CAI socio Signor Berni, a former student of mine and, at 75 years fitter than I was at 21!) taking part in the marathon Giro dei Colli Termali, which uses the footpath outside our house as part of their route, prompted us to action – a visit to Lucca.

Sbandieratori are an essential part of any Italian Festa or pageant. They were out in force this Sunday together with drummers, cross and long-bow archers and a panoply of courtly gentlemen and ladies. After the solemn high Mass and against the bewitching façade of St Martin’s cathedral, Lucca’s freedom from Pisan domination in 1369 was celebrated. This fact is acknowledged in the word “Libertas” which appears on the city arms throughout the province. With the support of Emperor Charles IV, Lucca regained its independence from the heavy taxes and curfew restrictions of the hated Pisans. The Sbandieratori of Lucca and their cortège displayed their dexterous skills with absolute panache. What is often not realized is that the original purpose of flag-wavers (who started up at the end of the fourteenth century) was to coordinate troop maneuvers during battle, through well-defined flag signals. They thus, served purposes similar to that effected by semaphore and short-wave radio. If a sbandieratore (more accurately called “alfiere”) was captured by the enemy side he was under oath to die rather than reveal any secrets. The flag, not the flag-bearer was the important one (and still is!). Today, both men and women participate and there is a national federation of Sbandieratori coordinating their activities. The display we witnessed yesterday under warm spring sunshine was beautifully choreographed and was one of the best we’ve seen anywhere. Here are some pictures from the pageant. The acrobatics of the main alfiere juggling with five flags is awesome and the noise from the drums earth-shattering!

After this exhilarating exhibition we purchased a cumulative ticket enabling us to see five things associated with the cathedral. The first was the exquisite funeral monument (by Della Quercia, who also created the cavaliere in our nearby San Cassiano) to Ilaria del Carretto, who was the great love of her husband Paolo Guinigi, Lord of Lucca,  but who died in second childbirth in 1405 aged only 26. Ilaria is also a very important symbol for this city which D’Annunzio describes as:

“la città dall’arborato cerchio,
ove dorme la donna del Guinigi”.

(“The city encircled by tree-lined walls within which sleeps Guinigi’s lady”).


The second thing we saw was the newly-restored cathedral apse and transepts, with an imposing altar by Giambologna, (a sculptor much in vogue in the sixteenth century with the Medici who created the Apennine fountain statue at their country retreat at Pratolino. Incidentally, he was not from Bologna but from the cross-channel port of Boulogne).

The third thing we saw with the same ticket (good value at 6 euros!) was the cathedral museum, brilliantly structured with a collection of valuable ecclesiastical artifacts including ornately decorated Gregorian chant books and elaborately needle-worked chasubles which must have driven the poor ladies who produced them nearly blind. My favourite was the Limoges reliquary containing St Thomas a Becket’s bones decorated with the scene of his murder in Canterbury cathedral by the King’s soldiers.

For the fourth thing we climbed to the top of the recently-reopened baptistery campanile – not for those fearing heights as the stairs are of the “grill” see-through variety with a not very high balustrade, a deep shaft and a final very steep ladder. Fortunately, Italy is not hampered by health and safety regulations like the UK. (If it was, a large number of monuments, including, I suspect, a walk on Lucca’s walls, would be out-of-bounds). The country, instead, has faith in the common-sense of its citizens and the fact that parents should be responsible for their young children’s movements.

The views were quite spectacular on this breezy April morning and, what is more, we had all these places we visited to ourselves – no suffocating hoards of packaged tourists such as one gets in other venues and at other times in Italy.

Incidentally, the baptistery tower is one of three main towers in Lucca open to the public: the other two are the Torre dell Ore and the Guinigi palace tower, immediately noticeable by the holm-oaks growing on its top. Although the Guinigi tower is probably higher its staircase is more do-able by vertigo-challenged visitors.

For the fifth and final thing we saw St John’s baptistery, alongside the cathedral with the recent excavations of Roman baths, mosaics and early Christian remains beneath its main floor – a very well-presented discovery.

As if our cultural fix was not enough we dropped into the olive oil festival at Valdottavo again on the way back and were feasted by a group of folk-singers (one of which we recognized as a member of our Ghivizzano choir) and blasted by a soul-rock group which, in a different setting, would have sent fans delirious but which here were only acknowledged by smiles from amused local farmers and a small group of devotees. The elegant surroundings of magnolias in bloom and a porsche car lording it over the cinquine gathered here in all forms of customization completed the picture.


2 thoughts on “From Sbandieratori to Soul rock

  1. I wish I had been in Lucca for the flag throwers…I love them, and the drummers. We took advantage of a couple of fine days to do some work at our house in the mountains.

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