Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Stepping back into the middle ages

Even in shorts and a T-shirt, I was still sweltering, regularly looking for a break from the sun under one of the piazza's arched arcades. So how it was for the procession participants in their heavy medieval costumes, I can't imagine. To their credit, none of them showed any discomfort, and indeed few of them appeared to be perspiring.

Last weekend Camerino opened the medieval pageant season in our neck of the woods with their Corsa alla Spada e Palio, a 10-day journey back to the days of pomp and ceremony when the powerful Da Varano family ruled their papal dukedom for over 200 years. The festival dates back to the early 13th century, when it was decided to introduce pageantry and friendly but prestigious community competition into the normally solemn remembrance of the town’s patron saint, Venanzio.

The medieval festival was resurrected in 1982, keeping the centuries-old traditions largely intact. At the heart of the festivities is a sumptuous procession involving the three divisions (terzieri) of the town – Muralto, Sossanta, and Mezzo – dressed in full medieval regalia, who on May 17 converge from their various quarters on to the San Venanzio basilica for an evocative candle ceremony. The saint was persecuted for his faith and subjected to a succession of tortures, including whipping, being hanged from his feet, having his jaw broken, and being thrown to the lions. According to historical legend, he miraculously emerged from each of them unharmed, giving his faith credence and prompting the conversion of many pagans to Christianity. He was finally martyred during the reign of Emperor Decio, when in May 251 AD he was beheaded with 10 other Christians, and buried outside the town walls.

During the 10 days of festivities, the town’s three divisions take part in a series of competitions, with the main event being the Corsa alla Spada (a foot race for the esteemed sword). There is also archery, flag waving, drumming, and a variety of other musical and entertainment events.

Food naturally also plays a major role, and a number of taverne are set up by each of the terzieri, serving medieval fare in an authentic atmosphere with hosts dressed in period costume.

Here's a selection of photos from the day's culminating procession, along with the Corsa itself. (Click on the pictures to launch full-size versions of them.)

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