Narni in May: Medieval Passione Takes Over
During the first three days of May In the 14th century, Narni town criers called young riders to join in the races of the next few days: the race for the ring and the race for the Palio (flag), all in celebration of the martyrdom of their patron saint, San Giovenale. The ceremony lives on in early May as Narni town criers on horseback crisscross the town, galloping under the colorful banners of the three competing terzieri (“districts”), while drummers and trumpeters announce the festivities.
Charming winding backstreets of the Mezule terziere lead to la Rocca, imposing 14th-century Papal fortress. Fra Porta, terziere of the centro storico, is bordered by the main piazza’s medieval city hall on one end and the revered 13th-c Cattedrale di San Giovenale on the other end. Il terziere Santa Maria spreads out around the Romanesque church of Santa Maria Impensole.
During the first weeks in May, the medieval taverne (“inns”) and forni (“communal bread ovens”) of the terzieri throw open large wooden doors to welcome visitors with typical narnese dishes and breads and the winding medieval backstreets and piazzas of each district backdrop re-enactments of scenes of 14th-c life. Medieval craftsmen, artisans, noble lords and the common people once again animate Narni.
Each terziere has its own stable where horsemen train all year for la Corsa dell’Anello and each of the three districts becomes a hub of feverish activity for months prior to the race on the second Sunday of May. Narni women work for months on costumes under the careful direction of costume designers specializing in the re-creation of the medieval dress of every social class. Costumes are the result of careful research based on the consultation of medieval manuscripts and the images in the frescoes of Umbrian churches and civic buildings. The design of the costumes as well as the brocades, damasks, wool, silk and jute used reflect historical authenticty. Che passione! “Passion” is palpable in Narni in early May.
We felt it in the Mezule terziere the night of the medieval banquet. Our medieval dinner concluded with the la torta della quaresima, the dish featured in the culinary competition among the terzieri. Following an authentic, carefully-researched medieval recipe in 14th- c italiano, the cooks of each terziere had interpreted the dish. A medieval culinary expert – not from Narni, logicamente! – dined in each terziere taverna, one after the other, tasting the medieval dessert and judging it on fidelity to the recipe, presentation, taste. Il Terziere Mezule was his last stop. He savored, reflected and then wrote his judgement. We joined in as part of the giuria popolare and voted, too: top votes in all categories in homage to our friends of Mezule.
Pietro from Narni, sitting next to me, noted much of the torta still on my plate and asked with a knowing grin, “Anna, what did you really think?” “Allora……”, I replied, “it IS called ‘the cake of Lent’ and Lent is a time of penance, denial…..vero?” Pietro laughed along with Maurizio, who had been serving at his terziere‘s banchetto in medieval servant’s dress. He offered us all a glass of limoncello made by his brother: not medieval but a convivivial conclusion to il banchetto medioevale.
The medieval theme reaches maximum splendor on the night before the horse race: in torchlit Narni, six hundred personages in lavish costumes walk stately under the multi-colored terzieri banners, unfurling from windows and wrought-iron balconies above. Drummers and trumpeters preceed Papal legates and city magistrates walking solemnly into the Platea Major, followed by inhabitants of the terzieri, with the winning terziere of last year’s race leading the procession.
Musicians, knights, civic authorities, medieval guild members and the nobles families of each terziere are represented in the nighttime procession headed towards the medieval Palazzo dei Priori. The terzieri will be judged on authenticiity of all costumes and the appropriate carriage/body language of all personages
The splendid procession passes under the relief high up on the wall of the medieval city hall in the main square: of a medieval jousting match in Narni centuries ago.
The image will come to life the next day in la Corsa dell’Anello.