Thursday 25 March 2010

Assisi, Calendimaggio 2010 May 6th - 8th

The word 'Calendimaggio' comes from the Latin word 'calendae', first day of the month in the ancient Roman calendar. 'di' means 'of,' and 'maggi' is the Italian word for 'May', so Assisi’s festival is a celebration of the return of spring, and it takes place on the first consecutive Thursday, Friday and Saturday in May. Many cultures in many countries have such festivals to celebrate the rites of spring.
Let me quote from the wonderfully illustrated Bonechi book 'Art and History Assisi'-
'The first Calendimaggio in Assisi was promoted by Arnaldo Fontini in 1927. In its present form it dates to 1954. The city, divided into the “parte de sopra” (upper part) [to be more exact, the “Nobilissima Parte de Sopra', since the rich everywhere generally take the high ground] and the 'parte de sotto” (lower part) [more precisely the 'Magnifico Parte de Sotto', rich in St. Francis’Basilica, convents and monasteries, olive orchards, and gift shops.]'
So... this is not an artificial or modern division of Assisi. It dates back hundreds of years, even before the Guelfs and Ghibellines had their rumbles, and back then it was a very serious matter. The main events of this modern Calendimaggio take place in the Piazza del Comune, always the heart of the town and a neutral space for the warring factions. A Roman forum still lies some 12’ below the piazza’s paving stones, and the tall marble pillars of the Temple of Minerva provide a classy backdrop for the festas, concerts, flag-waving, and historical parades that go on all spring and summer. Today, channeling the ancient rivalry, Calendimaggio provides a framework for 3 days of competition between the upper and lower parts of town, between Sopra and Sotto.
On Day One the mayor of Assisi hands the Keys of the City to a distinguished, black-velvet-clad elderly man called the Maestro del Campo, and for 3 days Assisi is under his command to live the medieval life and celebrate spring. The judged competition takes the form of music and dance, theatrical spectacles, drumming, and historical re-enactments of medieval life in blocked-off parts of the town, at night, lit only by the flames of candles and liquid paraffin. These re-enactments are judged on historical accuracy, so to prevent intrusion by modern-day non-participants every entry to these areas is closed off by big wooden doors built specially for this one night only, or by traffic barriers guarded by hired security men from other towns. The wise traveler carries a flashlight, since all the street lights will be out. Unwary visitors may fumble their way homeward via pitch-black unmarked detours up and down back streets. It would be nice if the tourist office warned the tourists about this, but they don’t.
Both sides begin preparing for the event in January – fabulous medieval costumes are sewn and repaired in the halls of each quarter; late at night in chilly alleys and piazzettas groups of men with hands shoved in the pockets of fleece bomber jackets gather to discuss what to construct there to recreate medieval scenes within the already medieval scenery of the town – they’ll build taverns, tanneries, food stores, dyers’ yards, potters’ workshops, all the crafts and paraphernalia of life in the middle ages. Their jackets -- red for Sotto, dark blue for Sopra – are emblazoned with Magnifico Parte de Sotto or Nobilissima Parte de Sopra or identify carpentry groups within the sides. The first time Allen and I stayed in Assisi we were baffled by the sudden appearance around 10pm of such a group under our window, where they passionately debated in high-volume dialect for about an hour. We couldn’t understand a word, nor read the writing on their jackets – was it a gang? Too many grey heads for that. Weeks later that piazzetta was lined with crude booths, hung with animal skins, and turned into a tannery for the historical re-enactment. As May approaches, the ferocious rumble of the corps of special drums called tamburini echoes through the streets, often late at night. Piazza San Rufino hosts almost nightly practice sessions for Sopra’s reedy flutes, 5’ long clarions, big drums, tambourines and dancers.
Each Parte is itself divided into 3 regions, and each flies its own traditional flag. These colorful banners suddenly appear a couple of weeks before the event, swagged from balconies, lolling from high stone windowsills and flapping from poles up and down the streets, adding a festive air to the town and announcing the coming of Calendimaggio.
You can pay for and reserve a ticket for a specified seat in the stands for all 3 days. Tickets cost 60 or 80 Euros, depending on location -- which turns out to be a bargain compared to your other option, buying a ticket for each day’s performance on the day itself. The phenomenally uncomfortable steep wooden and metal bleachers, 10 to 13 levels high, go up the whole length of the north side of the piazza in the final week. You do not get to choose where your seat is, but if you spot a better vacant seat after the performance starts you can move there. The spectacle itself takes place the whole length of the south side of the piazza, with Sotto and Sopra entering and exiting from various streets and stone staircases.
There’s a traditional program for the 3 official days which does not begin to encompass all that happens. There are 3 afternoon events, which your ticket says start at 3 or 3:30 (they end around 7:00, or later), but Medieval time is understandably elastic. On Thursday all the bells in Assisi ring out (and there are many!) to signal the festival’s start; there’s flag tossing, historical parades, handing over the keys of the city to the Maestro di Campo, and a crossbow contest; that night, one side or the other performs their historical re-enactment, and from 9:30pm on you can view it – supposedly -- on big screens in the Piazza del Comune. Friday: historical parades, Medieval games: log-sled race, tug-of-war (not like any I’ve ever seen!), and archery; proclamation of Lady of Spring; that night, the other side’s historical enactment. Saturday is the biggest day, when the two sides challenge one another and put on massive theatrical spectacles. All of this is accompanied by groups of musicians playing and singing lively Medieval music from the stage – there are lutes and drums, flutes and trumpets, harps and fiddles and hammer dulcimers.
To some of us, best of all is the Saturday night event that starts around 10:30pm in the blacked-out piazza. It’s billed simply as a choral contest but it’s really the night when both sides play with fire and sometimes nearly burn down the town. The fluorescent-lime-clad Vigili del Fuoco, the Fire Brigade, are prominently parked nearby and ready to respond should it all get out of control, like last year. I will never forget the drummers of Sopra marching down Via San Rufino with their drumsticks alight, pausing in their pounding now and then to blow out their flaming drumskins. Or that blazing carriage towed by black-faced creatures, with the bare-chested blacksmith striking fire from his glowing anvil. Last year it was stunning too, with a beautiful stilt-walking Archangel Michael fighting fire-breathing black-winged demons with fire, and his troupe of angels dancing with torches, and the cloth lanterns all unexpectedly going up in flames, but it was tame by comparison.
I don’t know how many Assisani actually participate in Calendimaggio, but it must be well over a thousand out there, with who knows how many more directing, building sets, and sewing. Where on earth do they practice these massive choreographed spettacoli? It seems as if half the population is dancing in the streets, the other half screaming in the stands. It does appear that there are far more people involved than could possibly live in town – I’d say at least ¾ of my neighbors are elderly, so where do the kids come from? When Sopra pours it on in their grand finale, they come in torrents. While Sotto has more actual territory, much of it is occupied by convents and monasteries whose nuns and friars have no truck with these pagan rites – though the fun-loving, Congo-line-dancing Cappucini seem to like it. Turns out that many younger Sopra families now have apartments in the newer palazzi on the hills outside the walls. I suspect the Sotto young folk seeking a more convenient life move down into the valley itself.
What I especially love about all this is that, make no mistake about it, right here in hyper-religious Assisi there is this in-your-face, unrepentantly pagan celebration of spring and sexuality. The centuries-old poems that start each day’s performance are all about love and desire. The hard-muscled, long-haired, arrogant, disciplined drummers personify one type of male energy; the confident, grey-haired, stalwart archers another; and joyful lads in tights springing like deer to the music of medieval flutes provide another still. The big Girl Event is the selection of the Lady of Spring (May Queen) by the winning archer. But women of all ages are splendidly everywhere, gorgeously dressed, proudly looking for all the world as though born to wear these medieval gowns and headdresses – my God, the young women are so beautiful, so uniformly slender and elegant I can only marvel at them and applaud. And the children! Velvet-robed lords and ladies sweep over massive colorful cloths that are spread for them and held down against the wind by lads and lasses the length of the Piazza del Comune. Cradled in their arms and held at their sides are tiny swaddled babies and costumed toddlers, and never a cry or a whine have I ever heard from these bambini despite the thunder of tamburini and deafening clamor of the crowd. Two sprouts who couldn’t have been more than 6 years old sat in front of me all 3 days and the last night, not squirming through the long scenery changes, applauding like proper fans, having a grand time with their young mum and dad and probably deciding what role they want to play when they grow up.
Word has it that, yes, there are many romances and more transitory couplings during this festival, and (no surprise) that the drummers on both sides are notorious wolves. No wonder my sources report that every school boy wants to be a Calendimaggio drummer, and that competition is fierce to be one of the 25 best who form each of the drum corps. Permission to make all that noise, wear those cool costumes, and have your pick of the girls? Whoa, Dude!
In the end, around midnight Saturday, after the flames have died down, they have the choral contest. Lovely Medieval choral music, a cappella, first one group, then the other, back and forth, with pauses between the sides. It’s a perfect way to wind the festa down, after the drama and fever pitch subside. Bravi!!!


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