Yesterday we experienced this amazing event in the town of Assisi (that's right, Suzanne, as in "Saint Francis of..."). This festival has Roman origins and in the Middle Ages they held jousting and knightly contests of strength and derring-do but mostly it is a celebration of spring as the season of renewal and the flowering of love and romance. By the 14th century, the town was divided into two factions: Sopra (or the part from above) and Sotto (from below). There was serious fighting over who would have control over the whole city. Today, there is still a friendly and rather strong rivalry between the two parts of the city but it is demonstrated by each part putting on a pageant and trying to outdo the other.
Not really knowing what to expect but having been told that this is something not to be missed, we got up early and boarded a train for the 30-minute ride to Assisi. You arrive at the train station and must then take a short bus ride up to the centro (this is becoming very much the norm for us, in exploring these hilltop cities). We must pay careful attention now to bus and train schedules, because they don't run all night and you could have a problem if you miss the last one. During these festivals in particular, it would be a challenge to find a vacant hotel and it's definitely too far to walk home!
We were not disappointed in what unfolded before our eyes. Arriving early, we purchased tickets for the afternoon performance, which was to start at 3:30 and end around 7pm. Perfect. We walked around the city, and in our delight, watched the local townspeople busily preparing for the festival. A young man and woman were painting a unicorn with embellishments on an enormous white canvas spread out on the floor of a piazza. A giggling group of teenagers were sitting nearby making wreaths from fresh leaves and adding garnishes of lemons and other fruits. In another part of the city a group of men and women of assorted ages were creating beautiful arrangements on enormous wooden trays of different types of foods - roasted chickens, baskets of apples, carrots and onions and garlic, large rounds of cheeses and greenery that would be used as props for the pageant to come. We sat in the piazza and watched as the singers rehearsed their parts, wearing every day street clothes while a group of strong young men hoisted a framework in the shape of the tower, with scores of little torches attached to it, that later in the night would be lit with little flames. The entire city was abuzz with activity and anticipation.
The Piazza del Commune is the main square in the city of Assisi and there are two streets at either end of the square - two leading to the upper part of the city and the other two, to the lower. Stands were set up opposite the tower and the Temple of Minerva (a Roman temple converted into a church), where a stage had been prepared for part of the performance to take place.
The pageant began with a single booming voice, as the narrator, in full medieval costume, began walking, slowly past the stands and into the piazza. Even without understanding every word, it was clear that this was a story of primavera, of spring and love and awakening. He set the stage and then sat back to let the performers visually tell their story without words, accompanied by music and song of that period. From the moment it began, the crowd was mesmerized. Even Giovanni, the little boy in front of us, who was a bit of a scootch to his brother and cousins, was quiet and engrossed. It was like being transported back in time and watching what a medieval day in Assisi might have been like, as interpreted by Sopra (upper town), followed by an equally impressive performance by the citizens of the Sotto (lower town). The nobility entered grandly in sumptuous clothing and took their place on stage as servants bustled about setting the table for a feast. A procession passed before them, with groups representing the various trades and crafts of the city: ceramic artists, butchers, lace-makers, hunters with bloodhounds, knights on horseback, wine-makers and our favorite, the bakers, who were riding in a cornucopia filled with flour and enormous loaves of bread that they tossed to the spectators to break apart and share. And this doesn't even go into any of the second part of the performance, which meant they had to take down everything the Sopras did and bring in their own sets and props - complete with a turntable (like in Les Miserables) with a church on one side and elaborate set of stairs on the other where performers came in and out of, and a little street scene set up right in the piazza, right before our eyes! Everything was done with grace and beauty and color and motion, dance and singing and the most beautiful and authentic looking costumes.
The impressive part of this festival is that it is completely organized and performed by volunteers who live in the city. They must start preparing for each year's festival the day after one ends, so enormous is the effort. The sense of community pride is powerful and awe-inspiring. And set against the backdrop of this beautiful city, this day is one we will never forget.
If you want to learn more about this festival, there's a website: www.calendimaggiodiassisi.com. We'll be posting some of our photos on this blog also. But seriously, if you are thinking about coming to Italy in the future I would highly recommend attending this festival. It encompasses 3 days of festivities and would be amazing to see first hand. Start making reservations now!
Today is Mother's Day. Happy Mother's Day to all you Mom's out there.
Rosemary & Bob