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It is August, the hottest month of the year in Italy. July was quite nice – 80’s in the daytime and 70’s at night and almost no rain. Since the last week of July the temperature has been increasing and is now in the high 90’s and humid. We are told this is when the hot wind from the Sahara blows through (an Italian Santa Anna, but with higher humidity).

It was mentioned in an earlier post that July brought several parades through the town streets with an increasing number of locals dressed in authentic medieval costumes. Following each of these parades there is a competitive event. These competitions were held in Medieval times as a way to keep the townspeople battle-ready. The Quintana was resurrected in 1955 by local historians and has been held every year since with increasing popularity country-wide.  It is also filmed for television.

The competitions are between the six communities (Sestieri) of the town laid out according to ancient town planning. The July competitions are in flag waving (Sbandieratori) and archery, all free and open to the townspeople and the tourists. Because we arrived too late we had to view the Sbandieratori competition through the crook of someone’s arm, however, we got some great casual shots behind the bleachers.  The last competition, held the first weekend in August and requiring a ticket purchase, is The Joust of the Quintana (La Giostra Sella Quintana). The rivalry between the Sestieri is very real (when competing) with fans in face paint, tee shirts, and bandanas just like any other sport. Larry and I are not sports fans, as many of you know, but jousting may be our sport. It is considered a great honor to be able to participate in the parade or any of these events representing your Sestiere. If you happen to win any of the events for your Sestiere, well let’s just say you will have a very good year.

There are more saints than there are days of the year and each Italian town claims a patron saint of their own. That saint’s “day” becomes a holiday for the town and is marked by celebrations – religious and otherwise. I can’t imagine that too many towns celebrate with quite the flair of Ascoli.

St. Emidio is the patron saint of Ascoli. Born in 273 CE of a noble family of Trier. Born into a pagan family, at age 27 he converted to Christianity. He went to Italy, became close to the Pope at the time and and ultimately became responsible for church affairs for Ascoli. By 303 CE, he became such an annoyance to the local pagan authorities that he was decapitated. The story goes that Emidio carried his head into the hills and in the grotto where he finally laid down basil grew spontaneously. Later the small Temple of St. Emidius at the Caves (Tempio di Sant’ Emidio alle Grotte) was erected on this spot a a votive offering by the Ascoli townsfolk to thank their patron saint for escaping the terrible earthquakes that destroyed L’Aquila and several towns of the Marches in 1703. In a more contemporary manifestation of power attributed to the saint, it is reported that in World War II German forces were preparing to shell the town of Ascoli for the surrounding hills in retribution for the fierce, anti-German activities of the local Italian partisans. At that point an earthquake occurred that did no damage to the town but caused the Germans in the hills to abandon their positions before firing a shot. That ‘miracle’ was, of course, attributed to St. Emidio. We are told he is invoked all over the world against earthquakes. Ascoli celebrates St. Emidio over three days the first weekend of August in conjunction with The Joust of the Quintana.

The Quintana has become the most important event in the Marche Region in the field of the historic pageants, winning the distinction in 1992 of leader of historic pageants while Siena won the leader of costumes pageants. I think Ascoli has upped its game on costumes since then. This event also brought to town the largest number of tourists we’ve seen to date.

Our weekend started with a Friday evening concert of sacred music in the beautiful Cathedral of St. Emidio (Cattedrale Basiclica di S. Emidio) in Piazza Arringo. Mozart and Schubert were performed by a full concert choir with orchestral accompaniment and four soloists. It is nice to hear this music performed in the setting for which it was originally written. Those two plus hours spent sitting in the hard wood pews with little back support and no air-conditioning brought back memories of the many uncomfortable Sunday’s of my youth spent in Holy Trinity Catholic Church. For those with more secular tastes, entertainment in the Piazza del Popolo consisted of the Regional Finals for Miss Italia, plus there was music everywhere and vendors selling food, balloons and toys in the piazzas all weekend.

Saturday evening began with a parade that ended in Piazza Arringo with the “Offering of the Candles” which is when children of each Sestiere present a large candle to the local bishop in front of the Cathedral with the Mayor and other town officials (in full period attire) looking on. The candles are to be placed on the grave of St. Emidio. With theatrical flair the knights and their horses enter the piazza and the bishop blesses them all. Then names are selected from a helmet (what else?) to determine the order the knights will compete the next day. We got there two hours early and had a front row place to stand and watch the event. Larry got some great photos (see Portfolio).

Sunday afternoon we attended the final event, The Joust of the Quintana, which was incredible. It is the first event we have had to purchased tickets for, yet we have been entertained almost nightly since we arrived. One of our “angels” had advised us to get the most expensive seats for they were the only ones in the shade, however, we would still be sitting on stone bleachers. Forewarned is forearmed, so we took the bus to Oasi and purchased two chair cushions. I don’t know if it was out of envy or distain, but our cushions were eyed by several people. Since no one else had them maybe it was a brutta figura moment for us but we didn’t care because we were comfortable. If jousts had a 50 yard-line, our seats would have been on the 49th. They were great seats right behind all the dignitaries.

It began about 3:00 with a slow parade through the ancient streets now with over 1,200 local participants (plus representatives from 9 associated castles) in full medieval attire. The solemn pace of the parade is set by the beating of drums and the blare of the long trumpets (clarions). Here I will quote from the promotional literature (exactly as translated into English) in order to share with you a vision of the parade to which I could not do justice. (Skip if you don’t care.)

“The Mayor in office of the town, wearing a stern and elegant period costume opens the parade as Magnifico Messere (the leader of the Italian Medieval city-states), he is followed by the Magistrates, represented by the members of the local government and other important people like members of the Province or Region Council and presidents of Local Entities. This is a characteristic of this parade which doesn’t exist in other historic pageants.

Now it is difficult to detail all the characters of the parade: we can mention the Black Guards of the city-state escorting the Magnifico Messere and the Gonfalone Civico (who was encharged to carry and keep the gonfalon during the parade) with his Pages followed by a crowd of Musicians and Armigers (many carrying antique instruments and weapons) escorting the Palio, a silk cloth every year painted by a local artist, it always represent a subject related to the Quintana. It is the yearned prize for the winner and then, once won, it will be jealously guarded in the bases of the Sestiere and bring it back to the parade the following years with others trophies.

Do not forget that in the parade take part also the representatives of the nine Castles once loyal to Ascoli Piceno. All these villages surrounding Ascoli Piceno, rich of art and history findings in their groups show their costumes (Ladies, Lords of manors, Guilds of craftsman, hunters, shepherds with their dogs and their briar sticks and much more . . . . .

Each Sestiere has its Consul heading the group, he is followed by the notables of the quarter, the nobles and the Guilds of professions and crafts, people corresponding to this qualification also in their ordinary life. Then it is the turn of the valiant knights, armigers, standard bearers and the charismatic Capitani del Popolo (another political figure of the local administration in Italy at that time, it was created to control the power and authority of the noble families) as well as the group of drummers and clarions. Then comes the Lady, crowded by her pageboys. She is the Lady of the Sestiere, chosen among the most beautiful woman in the quarter, she is followed by her damsels, carefully chosen among the most attractive girls too. Then it is the turn of the most praised, feared, admired figure of the Sestiere: the Jousting Knight who will fight against the Saracen to gain the Palio.” The flag wavers bring up the rear of their Sestiere.

It was the hottest day of the year so far at about 97 degrees and muggy, but the crowds were lined up along the parade route to see the spectacle (and wave to their friends in the parade). I don’t know how the parade participants manage in the heat shrouded in tights, starched shirts, layers of lace, velvet and ermine overgarments and some even in hot metal armor and everyone with some sort of hat. They are in the sun almost all the time, first walking on the mostly blacktop streets and then they have to stand on the playing field until the entire parade arrives and all the formalities are completed. We only saw one participant faint (a clarion), but she held on until she left the field. No one even knew it happened until she was carried out – what a trooper. I did notice that the youngest children were released to go to the bleachers (in the sun) as soon as they entered the stadium.

During the entire joust there was not one person in sight of the field (except in the bleachers) that was not in costume: every horse handler, timer, scorer, gate keeper, field grooming person, etc. There is a figure eight field with the Saracen (or Moor) in the center holding a target. Each knight of the (six) Sestieri gets three goes at the target and three times on the field, for a total of nine charges at the target. In addition to being scored for where his lance hits the target, he is scored on speed. There are many referees on the field and penalties are given if the horse moves any of the steeplechases marking the edge of the course, which often happens when cornering. Obviously the knight with the highest score wins and much medieval revelry ensues among the members and supporters of that Sistiere.

Then the cast reassembles, with the Sistieri in the order of their scores, and the entire parade goes back through the town streets. Those not able to be in the stadium can tell immediately which Sistiere won by their order in the parade. Once the parade breaks up each Sistieri (winners and losers) return to their neighborhood to party until dawn. (I don’t know how they do it.)

Monday was Saint Emidio’s day and bunches of cut basil and basil plants are available in Piazza Arringo. I’m sure there was a mass in the Cathedral as well. Then in the afternoon there was the religious procession around the center of town headed by the bishop and diocesan, followed by an ancient painted cart pulled by two white oxen carrying Saint Emidio (a statue), followed by town officials, and a procession of the faithful (locals) with people joining as the procession passed. (This time the only people in costume were the men with the cart.)

No, the festivities were not over yet. That night there was a lot of celebrating culminating in spectacular fireworks. You have to love the Italians. The fireworks were scheduled to start at midnight, so with advice from lovely Caterina on where to stand to enjoy them we arrived at the town wall viewing point at 11:15 PM. There was a singer and guitar player there plus beer and a suspicious “sangria” being provided by a local bar – nice touch – so the waiting wasn’t terrible. However, the fireworks actually began at 1:20 AM which was obviously no surprise to anyone but us. We came close to leaving a couple of times as we were tired of standing, but come 1:20 every baby, toddler, child and grandma was still there to see the show – and it was worth the wait. These folks really know how to party!

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