Mediaeval Medley

Summer is the classic time in Italy for mediaeval pageants. Some of these are on a grand scale like the Giostra del Saraceno of Arezzo and (even better) Ascoli Piceno, where knights joust at the quintain which represents a Saracen and, of course, there’s the Palio di Siena, the biggest of them all and the most spectacular, with magnificently costumed celebrants and a viscerally-felt less-than-two-minute-long horse race round the Piazza del Campo – that is, if you can stand waiting around beforehand for hours in a packed area, under a merciless sun and not much water, just to get a chance of seeing something.

In the Val di Lima there used to be collaboration between three borghi – Lucchio, Casoli and Gombereto – in organizing and publicising their mediaeval Feste. But this seems to have fallen a little apart in recent years. The scale is clearly much humbler but the Sbandieratori (flag wavers) are still there, stalls sell local crafts, there is dancing in costumes and some theatrical show. Round about midnight the whole thing erupts into a fireworks display.

This year we started our season of mediaevalising by going to the Festa at Coreglia Antelminelli, one of the only three towns in our Serchio valley to have been included in the prestigious “I più bei borghi d’Italia” (“the most beautiful towns of Italy”) classification. (See http://www.borghitalia.it/). The other two are Barga and Castiglione di Garfagnana.

Coreglia is, indeed, a magical place with most of the features that enrich Barga (noble palaces, picturesque narrow streets, defensive walls, museum- the excellent Museo Della figurina di Gesso or plaster-cast museum – wonderful location and views) but without that town’s stifling hoard of holiday visitors.

Among the events at Coreglia I was particularly impressed by the balletic display of two girl “Sbandieratori” (should that be “Sbandieratrici”?) and the mediaeval combat.

Seated on the steps before a banquet of nobles I felt the back of my head stroked by something feathery, only to turn round to find it was the pet falcon of a young boy – indeed his whole family enjoyed this hobby. (The original word meaning not only a pony – as associated in “hobbyhorse” –  but also a small type of falcon of species Falco subbuteo).

As ever, the costumes were beautifully made and presented. Italians love dressing up from Cardinals to Carabinieri and from Sbandieratori to cyclists, and they do it with such style.

I feel, however, there should be a classification for mediaeval Feste throughout Italy as some of them are rather better than others and visitors should not be disappointed in them.

The following is a suggestion:

Three star. Features: inter-district traditional competitions dating back centuries, large pageants, and ample choice in buying from artisan stalls, music, big fireworks, theatre, religious processions, and lots of gorgeously costumed participants. Examples: Giostra Del Saraceno, Arezzo, Festa dei Ceri, Gubbio.

Two-star. Features: pageants, Sbandieratori, some stalls, some traditional features, music, some fireworks, shows, costumed participants. Examples: Festa Mediovale Coreglia Antelminelli, Festa di San Paolino Lucca, Festa Mediovale di Volterra, (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/mediaeval-madness/  for an account of this).

One-star. Features: pageant, band, Sbandieratori, a few traditional-craft stalls, a small fireworks display, a show, not much in terms of original local customs dating back centuries but a largely a modern-day invention. Examples: Val di Lima mediaeval Feste.

Two caveats: one, don’t bother too much about buying medieval food at these events. First, it’s often not genuinely mediaeval in content, second it’s expensive for what you get. Two, try to get a programme of events happening. Of course, these are generally approximate but we are glad we didn’t miss the recital of medieval music at Volterra, for example, or the giant catapult battle.

One final point: pageants and festivals in the UK do not have the same basis as the Italian equivalent. They are usually the results of getting together re-enactment societies and are often glorified shows for which you must pay admittance. In Italy the festas and pageants are truly-felt social experiences arising from the sense of civic pride each town has, dating back hundreds of years. They are, thus, genuinely mediaeval in spirit. This is what makes them so exhilarating and enjoyable.

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