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Calendimaggio: Assisi’s Glorious Celebration of Spring

Date: May 5, 2011 - categories: , , , , - 10 Comments

Assisian Welcome Spring

Assisians welcome 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.

Lady Spring enters the piazza

Lady Spring enters the piazza

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.

Nowadays, the medieval rivalries unfold in "friendly" competition

Nowadays, the medieval rivalries unfold in “friendly” competition

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.

Final contests, night

Final contests, nighttime

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

See Calendimaggio on YouTube

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”

10 Comments

  • Liliette Radloff says:

    Thank you for the info on Calendimaggio. We will also be in Assisi at the Hotel Alexander from 3 to 5 May. Would it be possible for you to book tickets for us for the final events and how much would these cost and what would it entail? Your blog is very helpful and interesting.Thank you!

  • Thank you for your blog. We are a family of three coming from Calgary Canada and are interested in going to your festival. How do i get tickets and is what is the most reasonably priced hotel to stay at?. Please send me hotel email or website along with the information about tickets. I think that the final events will be the tickets we would like. Also is it best to arrive by train or rent a car?

    thankyou in advance for your info. i would like to book tickets and hotel by the end of this

  • Tickets selling out! only 20 left…hope you have yours!

  • janey says:

    awwwwwww….U wish I was going to be there. Nothing quite like a festival in Assisi…so lucky that I was there last Oct for the feast of St. Francis. Please eat some of those pork sandwiches for me….I almost made myself sick on those. Sooooo good! Annie….plz reach out to Andrea. She is back in Assisi now for a few weeks and is reovering from the loss of her friend and mentor, Abraham. The loss really knocked the wind out from under her. I think Franca was going to pick her up when she arrives.
    Ya’ll have lots of wine and remember me in your toasts!!! hugs!!

  • janey says:

    that should have read….”I” wish I was going to be there..

  • Trish Simpson says:

    Is it possible to buy tickets to Calendimaggio prior to arriving in Assisi? We are leaving Australia in mid April 2015.

  • Stephanie W says:

    another fabulous and colorful history lesson on my favorite place in Italy. I remeber last year, wishing I was there for this time if year after reading your blog….some day, I hope. Thanks, Anne, beautiful article….as always

  • Anne Robichaud says:

    Who’s joining me at Calendimaggio this year?

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