It all started on a late June Sunday in the early 1900’s when an elderly woman from Spello (Umbria) scattered shredded bunches of brilliant yellow wild broom and mossy green wild fennel on the cobblestone street in front of her home. She had scrambled the slopes of Mt. Subasio, backdropping Spello, to pick the fragrant broom and pungent fennel for her floral “carpet” laid out to welcome the Communion Host venerated by Catholics as the true Body of Christ. It was carried through the streets by the bishop on the Feast of Corpus Domini.
Devout Spellani followed behind the bishop singing and praying. In the years following that first simple floral tribute, other Spellani made this practice of flower decorations on the streets a new traditon, adding blooms of various colors, plants, seed pods and leaves to make creations of their own, competing with each other to create the most intricate floral masterpieces of singular beauty. The Infiorate remains a tradition not only in Spello but has spread to other towns and cities to celebrate Corpus Domini, a “moveable feast” which falls sixty days after Easter.
These days, more than 2000 people work for about three months in preparation for the all-night labor before the feast day. They now lay out 80 glorious floral petal carpets which will cover the streets and piazzas of medieval Spello on the morning of the Feast of Corpus Domini.
Today, too, the Infiorate serve as a welcome to the consecrated Host (Christ) now carried in the precious golden receptacle, the monstrance, held up by the bishop who walks solemnly under an elaborate embroidered canopy. He is flanked by the confraternity of Corpus Domini members, in white tunics and yellow cloaks. On each side of the bishop, a pair of carabinieri (the state police) march solemnly in their snappy dress uniforms, hats topped with red plumes. (Separation of Church and State in Italy!? not really…!). Marching bands playing processional hymns precede the bishop and the faithful who follow, chanting prayers.
Imagine seeing Spello’s authentic medieval piazzas covered with intricate floral reproductions of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, Michelangelo’s PietÃ , the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and masterpieces of Picasso, Miro’ and Modigliani! Over the years, I have. Of course, Spello’s own Renaissance masterpieces – the frescoes of Pinturicchio – have flowered as well. Often, contemporary themes – and world figures of today – are the inspirations for the floral masterpieces: portraits of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II and themes such as world peace, women’s rights, ecological disasters, urban violence and world poverty can all show up in vibrant flower petal form.
In my thirty-five-plus years in Umbria, I can’t remember ever having missed an Infiorate day: when our children were young, with them, and now with my guests. Over the years, designs have increased in complexity and new Infiorate groups have formed but the life-force behind the work remains the same: that passione which is in the Italian DNA.
After all, why else would teen-agers spend countless after-school hours on their motorbikes zooming country roads, scouting the best wildflower patches for weeks before Corpus Domini? What else but passione can explain the long after-dinner hours spent during the weeks before the festival as teens and elderly gather together painstakingly taking the petals off the gathered flowers, sorting flower petals according to colors, grinding some, shredding others, and pulverizing yet others for use in their Infiorate? What other explanation but passione for the groups of bleary-eyed grade-school children on their knees, adding the last flowers to their floral wonders at 7:30 in the morning after working all night?
Passione for this festival is born early: floral masterpieces of the “Sotto 14” (“under 14”) groups astound. Other categories are “Tappeti“, ie, floral “runner carpets” covering the winding narrow backstreets and the huge “Quadri” (literally “paintings”) adorning piazzas and wider avenues. As few as five, as many as sixty, can form a gruppo di infioratori. Floral groups sometimes ask a local artist to create their theme; for other groups, simply one of the gruppo will design their floral carpet.
I’m not sure if passion flowers are ever used in the Infiorate masterpieces, but I can say with certainty that all the flowers used to create these extraordinary floral masterpieces do truly become “flowers of passione”. (To read more about Italians festivals of passione, click here).
The Origins of the Infiorate
The infiorate (“flowerings”, ie, flower petal carpets) have their origins in the desire of peoples to honor divinities and illustrious personages with flowers which, since ancient times, have been used to adorn statues and altars and throughout history were strewn in the streets to honor the passing of emperors and condottieri (honored mercenaries). Alexander the Great as well as Vitellio received this honor. In the Easter story about the life of Christ, we learn he was welcomed with palms and vegetation as he entered Jerusalem in triumph the week before His death.
Oreste Raggi (1811 – 1882), professor and writer, wrote that the art of creating street mosaics with flowers started in Rome in 1625 with Benedetto Drei who created a floral mosaic every year on the feast of St. Peter in front of that saint’s tomb.
In 1897 Donna Maria Teresa Monteverde y Bethancourt and Donna Lenor Pilar Monteverde y Castillo made the first Alfombras de Flores or floral carpet in front of their palace at La Orotava on the island of Tenerife during the octave of Corpus Domini. Their creation was such a success that Alfombras de Flores continued as a tradition on the island. In 1906 King Alfonso XIII of Spain admired the floral carpet masterpiece of La Orotava and was so enthusiastic about their beautiful and spiritual effects that he invited the creators to come to Madrid to compose an Alfombras de Flores in Plaza de Toros. Various Spanish cities then picked up the floral ritual: Sitges, Puenteares, MoiÃ , Argentona, San Justo, Lerida and Valencia.
Besides Spello, other Italian cities carrying on the Infiorate tradition are Genzano, Bolsena, Monterotondo, Pontenuovo di Torgiano, Cannara, Ferentino and Cagliari. But Spello creates the ultimate masterpieces. A photographic record of these can be found on display in Spello in the 13th-century city hall building. See also www.infioratespello.it to view the astounding wonders.
Read about a Spello infiorate triumph
Click here to read more – and see more – about Spello’s floral passione.
Click here to read about Spello’s floral banquet.
Read about Assisi’s floral passion
Read more on Assisi’s floral wonders
Read more about Italian passion
Click here to read about – and see!- the splendid restoration of Spello’s medieval tower
Thanks to Lyn Beckenham for the bellissime photos.