Italy is a country of festivals, many of which can trace their origins back through the centuries. There are national, regional and local festivals, villages organise their own food sagra festivals, there are music festivals and time honoured religious celebrations. You can dress up in medieval costumes or cover the streets in coloured seeds, there are festivals for mushrooms, chocolate and onions but some of the more uniquely bizarre events are some of the sporting festivals.
The history of many of the “Sporting” festivals developed out of medieval competitions and still has a place in Italy’s modern calendar of events. Along with the central competition there is always glamorous costumed parades to heralding in the contestants, lively music and streets bedecked with colourful banners and flags. Food plays an important part in the festivals and contestants and visitors alike don’t go hungry.
The top five most exciting Medieval Sporting Festivals are:-
Palio di Siena – Held twice a year in July and August
This horse racing festival is a competition between the 17 districts of Siena where the ten competitors (the seven who didn’t compete in the previous year and three randomly chosen ones) ride around the massive Piazza del Campo in the centre of the town. The race course is around the piazza three, heart stopping times with as many as 40,000 people crammed into the square all desperate to see the action. The event can trace its history back to the 16th century, prior to this the town held races on buffalo and donkeys before horses were settled on as the beast of choice.
The festivals winning horse is the first to cross the finishing line, even if it is riderless, while the loser is considered to be the second placed horse and not the last to finish. The race is a fierce and anything goes, including interfering with fellow riders and their horses. The winning rider receives an elaborately hand painted palio, silk banner created each year by a different artist.
Calcio Storico Fiorentino (Florentine Football) – Florence – 3rd week of June
This is the crazy 50 minute, 27-a-side football/ rugby, free for all that has taken place in Florence’s Piazza di Santa Croce since 1530. Dressed in traditional medieval costume the object of the game is to score a goal, by any means possible. The only things that are banned are sucker punches and kicks to the head.
The strange football tournament is played out between the four ancient quarters of Florence and each has its own colours, traditions and costumes. The teams are Santa Croce (Azzurri, light blue), Santo Spirito (Bianchi, white), San Giovanni (Verdi, Green) and Santa Maria Novella (Rossi, Red). The rules allow players to use their hands and feet and you are allowed to kick, head butt, punch, choke and elbow opponents in order to score.
Corsa dei Ceri – Gubbio, 15th May
Since 1160, on the eve of St Ubaldo’s Day, the “Corsa dei Ceri ”, the great candle race, has taken place in Gubbio, Umbria. Three teams carry 25’ wooden candles weighing 900 pounds through the narrow, cobbled streets of Gubbio, up Mount Ingino to the Basilica of St Ubaldo.
There is great competition between the three teams each representing one of three different saints. The carriers all wear the same uniform consisting of a fez, white shirt and white trousers with a different coloured sash to represent the team. St Ubaldo’s crew always wear yellow, St Giorgio’s team, blue and St Anthony’s followers come sporting black.
Despite the Corsa dei Ceri’s pageantry, parades and feasting the result is always a forgone conclusion as St Ubaldo always wins and is the first to enter the basilica. However great exertions still go into the race either way and there is much entertainment for the 30,000 visitors who attend annually to see the spectacle.
Human Chess – Marostica, Nr Venice, Held every alternate years each September
This intellectual sporting festival reputedly dates back to 1454 when two noblemen settled their love for a local girl by playing chess for her hand, with the loser getting to marry her younger sister. It was decided by the Lord that the match should be played out in the town square, below the castle as a game of living chess. He ordered that the parts of the chess pieces were to be played by real people and animals so creating a gigantic human chess game.
Every other year this epic human chess game is re-enacted with all the pageantry and glamour of the supposed original event. The performance includes over 550 people, lasts for 2 hours and is concluded with a great fireworks display. The modern version was introduced in 1923 and claims to faithfully recreate the events of some 600 years before. The next time the display is due to be organised is in 2012.
Palio della Balestra – May and September each year in Gubbio and Sansepolcro
Twice a year there are the great Medieval Crossbow competitions between the two rival towns of Sansepolcro, Tuscany and Gubbio in Umbria that dates back to at least the 15th century. It is mentioned in the biography of Renaissance painter, Pietro della Francesco, who talks about his involvement in the contest in 1453, while the famous Florence banker, Cosimo II de Medici took part in the event in 1612.
The day itself is a colourful display of celebration and friendship with parading, flag throwing demonstrations and plenty of food. The competition itself is in the main piazzas of each town and features up to eighty crossbowmen, all taking turns in trying to get their bolt nearest the centre.
If you would like to find out more about Italy’s Renaissance Festivals and marvellous Medieval Tournaments around the Umbrian, Tuscan countryside or the many other memorable days out, please contact Travelling Content for more information.