A Flowering of Festivals
Imagine if you will the perfect snoozing morning. September is just beginning to cool from summer to real fall. Slices of sun stray between the shutter slats, striping the bed with warmth. The constellations on the midnight blue comforter have long since exhausted their reserves of glow-in-the-dark, but it’s time for the gold and orange sheets to glow with the morning’s sunny fire. The mosquitos are tucked up snug in their puddles for the morning, leaving buzz-free peace. After a late night finishing a satisfying project, the day ahead has nothing but small tasks in store, all fun, none urgent.
Tum! Ta-ta-tum! Ta-ta-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tum!
“Marching… band…?” Yawn, rub eyes, repeat.
It’s a marching band, all right. It takes some time to verify, since life in Florence’s heart has a constant soundtrack: the morning accordion player with his Hollywood Hits medley; the mobile ensembles, dominated by clarinet and fiddle, that serenade the lunch and dinner hours; the mechanical brass when the evening carousel fires up; the crooning guitarist who charms tourists with nostalgia of “Let it Be” and “Yesterday”; and the Bad Clown with his grand orchestral boom box who performs at 9:10 on the dot each night and summons vast (soon-to-be-disappointed) crowds with his succession of blaring familiar classical masterpieces. This is definitely different. I play this game often, trying to sort new, desirable live music opportunities from the stream of regulars.
It helps that I’ve memorized the daily cycle by now, so it’s easy to say that at 10:10 on a Sunday morning this particular thunderous march of tubas is not normal.
I’ve learned to always run down, promptly, for live music that seems to be moving. There’s plenty of stationary stuff—orchestras from around the world drop by to play in various piazzas several times a week, but drums and marching mean a parade, and in Florence a parade may mean historical costumes, flag tossing, trumpets, medieval standards, armor, the archbishop blessing the militia, the usual. I used to try to continue working in my room as the trumpets triumphed by, but it’s not worth-it. Resisting just means I miss the beginning, and they’re all worth seeing, all unique.
For example, within the last few weeks have passed by my bedroom:
The feast of Saint Anne, a day on which Florence was saved , so celebrated by the Merchant Guilds of Florence parading and hanging their banners on their home church of Orsanmichele:
The “Codex Fiorentinus” with the laws governing the Guilds and Renaissance City (facsimile) is also solemnly carried in the parade:
The feast of San Lorenzo, which I already talked about, when the relics are displayed, the people blessed by the archbishop, and the guild representatives attend a special mass with the Archbishop:
The Festa della Rificolona, a Halloween-like festival when kids from around Florence carry paper lanterns to the piazza della Santissima Annunziata (where the old orphanage was) in honor of the birth of the Virgin:
The kids are also invited to try to rip and pierce each others’ lanterns using blow-guns made out of pieces of metal pipe that shoot little wads of clay. I experienced several glancing stings as I watched. This is something which those of my colleagues who are parents said their kids particularly enjoyed, both for the general fun and the thrill of realizing, as even 10-year-olds did, “We’d never be allowed to do this in the US!”
Only a couple days later came a festival in which period militia men paraded to the cathedral and were blessed by a high-ranking cleric (After a while I don’t have the energy to look up which festival is for what saint anymore…)
Followed by performances by flag-tossers (sbandieratori – an Italian invention, who demonstrate their skill tossing the banner of the city or guild, which must never touch the ground or it means great dishonor!):
I have pictures of the town covered with Italian and Florentine flags and I remember it must have been a festival, but I haven’t the foggiest recollection of what, or when:
The one perennial attendee at these events is the Gonfalone, the great standard of the city of Florence. It’s always paraded at the head or displayed at the heart of the festival. When I get down into the street there’s no way to predict what I’ll find or where it’ll be headed (the route between Cathedral and Palazzo Vecchio are most common, but parades may detour to any number of churches or landmarks), so the best bet is to look for the Gonfalone and follow it.
So the sounds of the marching band, however inconvenient on such a lovely morning, mean I must go down to see what this latest festa has to offer. Snatch yesterday’s clothes off the floor, guzzle some orange juice (mmm… Sicilian blood orange juice, fiercer than grapefruit and almost strong enough to burn…), down.
Oh. I was wrong.
It’s not a marching band.
It’s thirty marching bands.
10 AM on Sunday morning is the best time for Florence and its allied cities to hold a marching band convention.
Each band comes from a different comune around Florence, and proudly brings its own Gonfalone, which gather in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. I stopped counting at thirty…
But even so, the bands would not begin their finale (30 bands playing the National Anthem together!) before the great Gonfalone of Florence was displayed on the balcony above, accompanied by the fanfare of its attendant trumpeters.
It was a delightful morning, if not the one I had expected. Only two flaws cropped up. One was when my stomach growled:
Much crowd-dodging and baton-twirling later I obtained a tolerable panino. The other problem came when the festival finished, and it came time for thirty marching bands to all leave the square at the same time. The parade in had been carefully timed, but the exodus seemed to have no planning whatsoever. Actually, all the way through crowd control had consisted of a bunch of plainclothes people randomly shouting at the infinite tourists to move, or stop, or go, and when bands began to collide there were many frantic confrontations between men in suits and squads with pompoms. Still, ended…what the?! It’s hailing! Suddenly as I’m writing this, balls of ice about a half inch across are plumetting from the sky and thundering across the temptingly-climbable rooftops. Okay, fess up! Who forgot a saint’s day? Sigh. Clearly the solution is more festivals… Now, excuse me while I go rescue my fragile basil.