Monday, July 09, 2007

Raise Your Banner High

Heralding trumpets sounded the arrival of the stately procession. On horseback the crier arrived in the piazza accompanied by armoured knights and regal companions bearing long jousting swords in splendorous array. Banners of the city were held high and the year’s colorful Palio presented to the Captain of the People. A heavy scroll was unfurled and the official proclamation announcing the opening of La Quintana was read with a booming voice. The entire procession then departed the piazza to sound the news to another quarter of the city. Ascoli Piceno’s medieval games had begun.

Comparable in scope and pageantry to the more famous Palio of Siena, La Quintana is Ascoli Piceno’s annual fete, showing once again how this city’s soul is deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. The sestieri of the city continue to compete against each other to display their civic pride and manly skill.

This weekend we witnessed the sbandieratori, or flag throwing competitions. Forget any image you may have of a majorette with a baton. These guys are athletes with great balance, strength, coordination, stamina and a touch of showmanship. Beginning with singles, then small-group competitors working together, they launched the heavy banners in a show of artistry filling the space above the piazza with a blaze of unfurling color. Some worked as many five flags at a time, deftly using their feet as well as their hands to fling the flags skyward in an explosion of waving glory. The second night brought the doubles competitions, and the most amazing event, the large-group competitions, whose choreography incorporated the movements and intermingling of the musicians, making American marching bands look positively bland. Drummers twirled in formation while long wooden-handled flags whipped past their heads. Without flinching. Slender elongated brass trumpets blasted while their players wove among the host of characters. The entire scene looked like an elaborate, beautiful dance. Oh yes, and all of this is performed while wearing heavy brocade and velvet costumes.

Each of the sestieri took their turn to defend the honor of their district. Our own Piazzarola didn’t fare too well. The team is relatively young and still learning the necessary skills; they lacked the refined choreography exhibited by most of the other sestieri, but not for lack of practice. Nearly nightly for about two months now we have heard the unique musical song of the district as they rehearsed in the campo uphill from us. After their competitions we cheered loudly. I’m always for the underdog, after all.

At the conclusion, the points of all the sbandieratori events were tallied and the Palio awarded to Porta Solesta. They have won more than any other sestieri, so no one was wholly surprised, but there were still a number of people around us crying “schifo” and “thieves”. The participants then paraded out of the Piazza Arringo in order of their standing, marching to the Piazza del Popolo where citizens awaited to accompany their sestiere’s heroes home.

In the upcoming weeks the processions, events and festivities will continue. The July version of La Quintana is sort of a primer for the “real” events in August, culminating on the Feast of Sant’Emidio, the city’s patron saint. The competitions are truly amazing to watch and kept us mesmerized. What is more amazing is that this grand, historical enactment is so unknown that there were only three small metal grandstands erected in the piazza for the spectators. The rest crowded around the perimeter like us, standing the entire time to take in the show. No tickets, no actual crowd control, no souvenir stands. Just a lovely tradition being carried out for yet another year.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider


Jennifer ASH said...

This is great! Thank you, thank you for posting it WITH pictures.
Absolutly wonderful!

chris & erin said...

Beautiful tradition - I have this on my list to see when we get over least some sort of festival like this with the flags :)

Valerie said...

Jennifer, you're welcome! ;-)

Chris and Erin, Definitely come to see it! We'd love to meet you!

Roam To Rome... said...

Very beautiful!! Reminds me of Siena, I used to live in one of the historic districts (La Contrada del Leocorno) so I can appreciate the Palio passion you descrive :)

Valerie said...

Roam to Rome - it is similar to Siena's famous Palio in pagentry...just without the overwhelming crowds! These types of re-enanactments are amazing, aren't they? More so that they're still practiced all these hundreds of years later. Very cool!