Calendimaggio: Assisi’s Glorious Celebration of Spring
Since time immemorial, man has heralded the arrival of spring with ritual and festivity. In Assisi, committees meet nightly for months to plan the annual traditional salute to spring, the Calendimaggio. The three-day festival – which lasts three days – is a re-evocation of the medieval celebration of Nature’s rebirth and the initiation once again of the life cycle.
In the Middle Ages, the Kalende di Maggio (or “first days of May”) welcomed the arrival of spring with a colorful array of dances, ballads, and the recitation of love poems. St. Francis, himself an accomplished troubadour (his mother was French), was highly admired for the richness and elegance of his verses and ballads. Provencal melodies were in grand vogue in Italy in this period, not only among the minstrels but also among the companies of young people (called brigate) who wandered the streets singing the canzoni di Maggio (“songs of May”).
In the early 14th century, Assisi reached the peak of its splendor, confirmed by the extension of its city walls, the castles in its possession, the magnificence of its churches and the employment of great artists to decorate these churches, among them Giotto, Simone Martini, and the Lorenzetti brothers. However, this was also a period of internal conflict. The city divided itself into rival factions, an outcome of political antagonism between the two most powerful families: Nepis and Fiumi. La Parte de Sotto (the “lower part” of Assisi) aligned with the Nepis family while La Parte de Sopra (the “upper part” of the city), supported the Fiumi family. Neither ecclesiastical restrictions nor measures by the local magistrates could squelch the animosity. The first bloody clash erupted at the end of the 14th century but conflicts and hostilites spanned two centuries.
Assisians celebrated joyously the arrival of “Lady Spring” with the Calendimaggio even during times of bitter conflict. Each brigata or company of singers, elected a signore and from among all the signori, a King of the festival was chosen. They then elected a “Queen of May” who was born through the streets on a cart festooned with flowers, encircled by young girls waving flowering branches called maggi. Song and music filled the streets and piazzas: madrigals, choral and solo pieces, traditional melodies and improvised ones, every sort of popular song accompanied by violin, mandolin, guitar, and harmonica. Men called maggiaioli (“Men of May”), wandererd through the countryside in song brigades spreading the spirit of the festival among the farmers in the surrounding countryside… and this tradition still continues.
On the eve of May 1st, song brigades serenade under the windows of the farmhouses, accompanied by handmade tambourines, their voices blending in age-old ballads which have passed for centuries from father to son. At each farm, they are rewarded with eggs which are later sold to finance a joyous celebration feast for all the brigade. Dance, as well as song, was important to the festival. In fact, many of the songs were composed and sung as accompaniment to the dances. The dances of the women in the piazzas are a singular feature even today of the Calendimaggio, the most common one being a circular or ring dance led by one woman who directed the movements of all. The women harmonized in song as they danced.
In 1927, Assisians joined to re-created annually the ancient custom of celebrating the rite of spring with song brigades and dance in the street. In 1954, the festival magnified into its present form, with the two parti of the town returning to their age-old rivalry, this time on peaceful (!?) terms. The Maestro del Campo (“Field Master”) opens the festival with the acceptance of the city’s keys, after which he invites la Magnifica Parte de Sotto and la Nobilissima Parte de Sopra to renew the annual contest… and the Assisani go wild!
For the following days, the two factions give life to a contest which recalls the medieval spirit. Popular participation is so intense that the city relives in every dimension a medieval atmosphere. The ancient spirit of rivalry resurges in the various competitions of the Calendimaggio: in song, in dance, in crossbow, archery and banner-hurling contests and in the election of Madonna Primavera (“Lady Spring”). The Parti compete in the decoration of the quarters of the town and in the parades of festooned carts and costumed citizens.
In late medieval dress, the Assisians are living counterparts to the figures depicted in the Lorenzetti and Simone Martini frescoes which decorate their Basilica. At night, in the torchlit cobblestoned backstreets, they re-enact medieval dramas and scenes of daily life, while minstrels again stroll through the torchlit piazzas, stopping under balconies to serenade young girls. Colorful banners fly from the windows and taverne offer the traditional roast suckling pig seasoned with rosemary and wild fennel.
The festival climaxes in Assisi’s central piazza on the third and final night of the festivities. Here, dramatically backdropped by the 1st-century BC Roman temple to Minerva, 13th c belltower and crenellated medieval town hall, the song competiton takes place… the final contest. For Assisians, this is the moment of greatest joy, highest tension. The winning faction is awarded the Palio, a red and blue banner trimmed in gold, bearing the symbol of Assisi, the griffin as well as the coats-of arms of the two Parti. To the characteristically reserved Assisians, the Calendimaggio offers the opportunity to let loose with an exhuberance, a rowdy enthusiasm of the sort most often associated with the Romans or Neapolitans. To the visitor, the Calendimaggio offers the opportunity to join the locals and step into the festivities and ritual of another epoque.
Click here for more photos of Calendimaggio
Read about the Calendimaggio as a “festa di amore”
Read about – and see – the pre-Calendimaggio festivities
Read about the passione lived during Calendimaggio – and not only.
Read about a late April a pre-Calendimaggio Assisi event
Click here to read about pre-Calendimaggio “fever”
Read about the ONLY religious event of the festival
Click here to read about singing in May in Umbria
Click here for more on Umbria May festivals
Click here for more of the festival on YouTube
Click here to see pre-festival preparations, hear the medieval music – and FEEL the passione!
Read about- and see – Assisi’s Calendimaggio preparations
Read about another early May festival near Assisi
Click here to read about passione in Umbria’s astounding May festivals
Find out the signs that Calendimaggio is “just around the corner”