Italy’s cultural festivals are indeed a treat for the senses. Visit Italy during the months of festivals, and you’ll be assaulted with sounds, colours and smells. Elaborate clothes, horses, flowers, food, flags and statues- the more extravagant, the better! Here are a few of Italy’s top cultural festivals.
Palio di Siena
Locally known as Il Palio, Palio di Siena is a spectacular horse race held twice every year in Siena- on July 2nd and August 16th. Ten riders with their horses dressed in colourful clothes stand for ten of the city wards. Before the race starts, a pageant known as the Corteo Storico takes place, where a group of carabinieri (members of the Italian paramilitary police) parade around on horseback with swords, creating excitement for the oncoming race.
The Palio held in July is called Palio di Provenzano, honouring the Madonna of Provenzano. The Palio held in August, which honours the Assumption of Mary, is called Palio dell’Assunta. When there are any exceptional local or national events and anniversaries, then the city community decides for an extra Palio. For instance, in 2000, a Palio was held celebrating the city entering a new millennium. In 2018, another extra Palio was held to commemorate the end of the Great War.
During the race, the jockeys ride bareback and the race is in circles around the Piazza del Campo. A thick layer of earth or soil will be laid around the Piazza. The race, consisting of three laps, lasts for just ninety seconds. It is tricky to navigate the turns of the piazza, so it’s quite normal for the riders to get thrown off their horses at the turns. Sometimes, it is the horse alone that finishes the race, sans the rider!
Game of the Bridge
The Game of the Bridge is a historic tradition held in Pisa every year on the last Saturday of June. The event is held on one of the bridges that crosses the river Arno, the Ponte di Mezzo. The city’s neighbourhoods will be divided into two teams called the Mezzogiorno and the Tramontana. Those who live on the south of the river are grouped into the Mezzogiorno and those who live in the north of the river are grouped into the Tramontana.
Before the actual game begins, two troops parade through the streets of Arno known as Lungarni. More than seven hundred people dressed in colourful, sixteenth century Spanish costumes march through the streets. The aim of the entire game is for the participants to ‘conquer’ the side of the bridge that the opposite group or enemy occupies. This is done through the position of an iron cart that is arranged on the bride for the occasion. The iron cart will be set up on the centre of the bridge. The cart will be pushed on rails by two groups made of twenty people, each guided by the group’s captains. The festival is sort of like a tug- of- war, except here, instead of pulling the cart into one’s own territory, it is pushed into the enemy’s territory with all their might to claim it.
The word ‘infiorata’ means ‘decorated with flowers.’ The infiorata festival dates back to the seventeenth century when Benedetto Drei, the head florist of the Vatican and his son Peter, made flower carpets at the Vatican in celebration of Saints Peter and Paul’s feast (patron saints of Rome). On the day, the basilica was decorated with flower petals, earth, wood cuttings and even beans to create elaborate patterns. Later on, thanks to the architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the event spread all around Rome and the Castelli Romani. While the tradition disappeared in Rome towards the end of the seventeenth century, the locals kept it alive in Castelli Romani.
Today, infiorata is celebrated all over Italy during May and June. The artists prepare the designs and choose the flowers and choose their colours months or even a year in advance. During the festival, the designs are sketched onto the floor. The lines are then marked with either soil or coffee grounds. Finally, the lines are then filled with flower petals. Each artist makes use of their own colour palette. This includes using dyer’s broom for yellow, wild fennel for green, carnation for red and goat’s rue for blue. Sometimes, entire pieces of plants are used to create a three dimensional effect. Many of the designs of the flower carpets are inspired either stained glass windows or by Renaissance paintings. This honours both old traditions and new artistry. Houses and churches are also adorned with flowers.
The size of the flower carpets extends up to 2000 square metres, which is the size of half a football field. Besides using around 500,000 flowers, seeds and petals, other natural materials like wood, leaves, sand and beans also find their way into the carpet. To keep these delicate materials from damage or bruise, they must be handled gently. The festivals lasts for around forty- eight hours, through Friday to Sunday. Once the flower carpets are completed, religious processions take place through the streets.
Easter Procession or the Procession of Mysteries
The most significant part of Easter celebration in Sicily is the Good Friday procession with the dramatic presentations of events related to the Passover. The procession of Mysteries takes place in Trapani and they last for around twenty four hours. This event has been consistently organised for over four hundred years. About twenty sculptures are placed at the Church delle Anime del Purgatorio to show the passion of Christ. They are carried through the main streets from the religious corporations during the procession.
The statues are made using a wooden skeleton that is attached to each other using glue and cloth. The fabric of the clothes is weaved using a local technique known as the carchèt. Each of the sculptors show the station of cross it was named after. The most special time of the procession is during the Holy Week of Caltanissetta which is composed of sixteen sacred groups. They are collectively known as the Vare. The sculptures used in this event belong to the Neapolitian Sculptors of the nineteenth century. The procession of the Black Christ takes place during the Good Friday and a fifteenth century crucifix is revered by the locals during the event.
In Pietraperzia (Enna) the Good Friday procession, “lu Signuri di li fasci” (our Lord of the bundles) is organised by the Confraternity of Maria. About eighty men carry the vara along with a Crucifix around 8.51 metres high, tied with about two hundred white linen bands at the feet. During the Holy week in Enna, the confraternities start the procession to the Duomo from Palm Sunday to the following Wednesday. The pinnacle of the celebration takes place on Good Friday where the procession is led by fifteen Confraternities. They carry the statues of dead Christ along with Our Lady of Sorrows, which is followed by the local authorities carrying the statues of the Dead Christ, followed by the band and the local authorities.
La Quintana Palio
Another of Italy’s horse racing festival is the La Quintana Palio, only this one involves long wooden jousts, a flag throwing competition and parade with the citizens dressed up in lavish costumes. The festival dates back to the Middle Ages- it was started by military exercises.
During the festival, the six districts of Ascoli Piceno compete against each other in various challenges like archery and flag throwing. Before the challenges begin, the Corteo Storico takes place- a lavish parade where each of the districts’ selected representatives are dressed in the most elaborate costumes all stitched in the medieval era’s style. The tailors who create the costumes do so by studying the details of medieval paintings. The costumes include those of dames in gowns and knights in armour. Bands of trumpeters and drummers lead the procession to the arena where the challenges take place. The final challenge is the Joust, when knights on horseback must navigate through a track in the shape of the figure eight and try launching a heavy lance into the target known as the Moor. Whoever wins gets the Palio, which is a hand painted banner that will be displayed in the winner’s district with much pride.
Besides the challenges, the costumes and the parade, La Quintana Palio has symbolic affairs too- candles are offered to the church, the knights and their horses are blessed, and the songs and tunes that the trumpeters play. Food and craft products are sold in all the streets.
Oh Bej! Oh Bej!
In Milan, the most important and traditional Christmas fair is Oh Beji! Oh Bwji, which in Milanese means oh so nice! Oh so nice! The fair is formally known as Fiera di Sant’Ambrogio or the Saint Ambrose Fair. Held from December 7th till the following Sunday, it honours the patron saint of Milan, St. Ambrose. The fair isn’t held in one single place. Until 1886, it was held in Piazza Mercanti. From 1886 to 2006, it was relocated to the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio and then it was relocated yet again to the area surrounding the Sforza Castle.
While celebrations date back to the thirteenth century, the original fair is said to have begun in 1510 when Gianneto Castiglione, delegate of Pope Pius IV, visited Milan on December 7th. Legend states that Giannetto, wanting to be accepted by the Milanese, arrived in the city bearing boxes filled to the brim with sweets and toys for the city’s children. A significant crowd followed him to the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio and hence the fair was established in memory of that day. The name, Oh bej! Oh bej! is said to be the happy utterances of the Milanese children when they received the goodies from Giannetto.
During the fair, goods sold include sweets, scrumptious winter delicacies, and handmade crafts like decorations, antiques, toys, bric-a-brac and souvenirs. Part of the reason the festival is so crowded is that St. Ambrose Day is followed by the Immaculate Conception Day (an Italian national holiday), which is then almost always followed by a weekend.
Festa Della Bruna
Festa Della Bruna originated in the fourteenth century when a bishop from Matera, Bartolomeo Prignano, introduced the idea of a festival of The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The intention was to achieve political and ecclesiastical peace.
The festival is held on July 2nd every year. A local artist designs a float, also called a carro, depicting a scene from the Bible. A statue of the Madonna is placed on the float and paraded around the town, with numerous musicians and horses. When the parade arrives at the main Cathedral, the statue is deposited there while the parade continues till the main square. According to tradition, upon arriving at the square, all the young men will try to destroy the float. Each person will obtain a piece of the float which is believed to bring them good luck for the next year. There is also a beautiful fireworks and light display in the evening.
Besides the history of the bishop, there are also various other legends surrounding the festival. According to one, an unknown girl appeared in front of a worker outside Matera. To return home, she asked the worker for a lift in his chariot. When arriving at the gates of the city near the Piccianello church, the worker was stunned to see the girl turn into a statue and bless the worker. According to another legend, the Saracens attacked Matera. The locals, in order to protect the statues and churches, destroyed the Saracens’ wagons to avoid being looted. The third legend states that Count Tramontano, then Lord of Matera, promised the locals that he would do everything necessary to hold a festival honouring Matera’s patron saint, Maria Bruna. One of his promises included providing them a float each year. So to make him keep his promise, the locals destroy the float each year to get a new one for the next festival.
It goes without saying that Italy is one of the best places to be during a festival. Besides all the food you can gorge on, it really opens your eyes to the country’s legends, religion, culture and tradition!