Summer in Italy is a time for festivals. Up and down the peninsula, the sun brings communities out of their houses to join together in celebration of the many fine things Italian culture has to offer. How and what they celebrate is as varied as Italian cuisine, and just as regional. In the south of Italy, many of the festivals centre around the church, with saintly statues carried carefully through the streets to ancient music, usually culminating in massive firework displays. The streets themselves become like churches, filled with flowers, brocades, and more statues, bringing the inside out in an expression of faith.
Festivals in the north, tend to be more focussed around music and dancing, the young converging in the town and village squares to court in the old fashion under the wistful gaze of the nonne, grandmothers reliving their past as their grandmothers did before them. Many country marriages still have their origins in the village festa, a lifetime together starting with a dance under the stars.
As always, Tuscany has its own way of doing things. Here there are many festivals featuring a medieval sport, accompanied by ancient ritual and high-camp pagentry in which the noise of drums and trumpets bounce off the ancient facades of the historic town centres. Florence, for example, features a no-holds-barred football match in which teams of men in renaissance trousers break each other’s noses and worse, for the prize of a pure-white chianina cow. Arezzo has a joust on horseback in which the target swings round and can hit the rider on the back of the head, while Sansepolcro’s crossbow tournament draws crowds paying a small fortune for prime seats in the square.
The most famous of these competitions is the biannual Palio di Siena, a horse race around the city’s piazza in which the prize is a small pennant, or palio. Here the teams comprise the contrada, the seventeen geographical divisions of the city to which the Sienese have a lifelong and all consuming attachment, even once they have moved away.
Our local town of Anghiari, population 5, 672, has its very own palio, celebrated every 29 June—the date of a battle in 1440 for which the town is famous. Every year, about thirty men will compete in a foot race from the battlefield, to the town square—a horizontal distance of 1440m but the second half of which rises 400m uphill. In recent years, this challenge has become popular with serious runners from all over the Valtiberina.
As with all the other Tuscan sports, the Palio della Vittoria is accompanied by pagentry in theatrical medieval costumes. In fact, the town bands of Arezzo, Sansepolcro, and Florence, set up for their own festivals, are all invited and take part. The mayors of all the neighbouring communi are also invited as they will all have runners in the race.
The event kicks off at 18.30. Or 18.45, or as last night, 18.50. This is Italy after all. There then follows a parade in the town square that includes one of the most unique and traditional elements of Tuscan pagentry: sbandieratori or flag throwers. These groups have their origins in the corps of signallers who would use huge flags to send messages across the medieval battlefields. Over the years this turned into an art of acrobatics as huge silk flags in rainbow colours are manipulated and often tossed metres into the air only to be caught again in a display of skill and elegance.
After the show, the runners, wearing not much more than a pair of shorts and running shoes are presented to the crowd and then are taken down the hill to the start line. About half an hour later, they run into the square, accompanied by ‘knights’ on horseback, the winner collapsing with exhaustion in the evening heat, but victory assured for one of the local communi.
The Palio della Vittoria was instituted in 1441 and was run every year until 1827, when it was banned because of repeated fighting between the youth of Anghiari and neighbouring Sansepolcro, whose role in the original battle was equivocal at best. The first of these fights, about ten years after the battle, resulted in the men from Sansepolcro stealing the bolt from one of the gates of Anghiari, which was returned to the town a few years ago. The tradition (of the palio, not the fights) was revived about thirteen years ago but has now become one of the most popular events in the area.
These photos are from yesterday’s enactment, which was by Matteo Giorni, a local boy from Anghiari. I am sure you can imagine how pleased the crowd were. If you are ever in Anghiari on 29 June, it’s well worth a visit.