No, this is not a post about politics. As the events of La Quintana continue to unfold, this week's most unique ceremony was a gorgeous affair that was sparsely attended. For some reason the word hasn't really gotten around about the tradition that took place yesterday, Il Saluto della Madonna della Pace.
The Salute to the Madonna of Peace takes place in the little Piazza of Sant'Agostino. Regal representatives of each of the six sestieri marched in, always to the rhythmic drum-beats of the musicisti, their distinctive banners waving in the breeze. Once they were solemnly assembled in front of the Romanesque church of from which the piazza takes its name, the smell of incense reached our noses. It grew stronger, and we watched as the church's masterpiece and source of great veneration among the citizens of Ascoli was brought to the door. The painting, the Madonna della Pace, is said to be the source of peace for this area. In ages past when the city-states were constantly at each other's throats, this painting was said to have brokered peace among warring factions.
The participants bowed and saluted the painting, asking the Madonna for continued peace as the priest gave a benediction over the horses and riders who are to participate in the giostra. Then a serious-faced child, intent on performing his duty well, came forward to present a bell to the church. In return he was given a framed print of the all-important painting. The official statutes of this event, written into the charter of La Quintana and dating back to the 1300s were read aloud from a city official on horseback. Then a plumed hat was inverted and small scrolls with the names of each of the sestieri incribed were placed inside. The mayor extracted them one by one, reading them off to determine the order of participation for the joust.
The woman standing next to us showed her displeasure immediately. Her sestiere of Porta Tufilla was drawn second. "No! Che schifo!" Showing my ignorance I told her that I would have thought going second was a good thing, but she explained that you want to be third or fourth. If you go first, you have nothing to gauge yourself on, no time you must beat. If you go last, the cavaliere could get too nervous watching the time and performance of everyone else. Best to go in the middle, she said. She should know. She's been attending these events for forty years.
She taught us the ultimate insult to yell out to the sestiere you despise most (in her case, as with many people we know, it's Porta Solesta`). Because the participants march out of the jousting arena after the event in the order of placement, those with the lowest score go last. "They must close the door after them," she said. Giggling, she says that she yells out to the potential losers, "Hey boys...do you have the keys?" Emotions run deep in this competition.
Tonight, following the grand parade, is the giostra. The six city districts will be battling it out for the Palio and bragging rights. I guess that is why they beseech the Madonna for peace...right before they go to war.
(In case you're wondering, my money is on Luca Veneri, the cavaliere for our old 'hood of Piazzarola.)