Looking over an Italian hill town
Culture & tradition,  History,  Italy

The Palio della Balestra in Gubbio: a centuries-old tradition

Gubbio took a little while to weave its spell on me. When I first started to explore it seemed simply an old and attractive Italian town perched invitingly on a hillside, like so many others.

Then I attended the Palio …

The Palio della Balestra, to give it its full name, is the festival of the crossbow fighters, a centuries-old tradition. It is full of colour and pageantry, but at its heart is a contest of skill and strength between the crossbow men of Gubbio in Umbria and those of Sansepolcro in Tuscany. It lasts the best part of a day, and the whole town seems to participate in one way or another. And the event is clearly embedded in the hearts and souls of the people. This is no tourist gimmick – indeed, very few visitors come. This takes place each year because it has taken place each year*. History is not just the past here, it is the present too, and will be the future.

Medieval palace in a paved square
The Palazzo dei Consoli in the Piazza Grande

Gradually over the next few days Gubbio crept further under my skin. The wonderful views from each of the many levels of its hillside location; the bells ringing the quarter hours; the cobbled streets and medieval houses seeming barely untouched by the centuries; the food, the people, the scents; the sights and sounds of a place that seemed to be a little set apart from the world even while also being almost at the very heart of it.

The streets of Gubbio

I have been back twice since my first visit, although only once more to the Palio, and could write much about this special town. For now though I will concentrate just on this one spectacular day in its annual calendar. My photos are a mix of those taken on both those visits.

A brief history

Crossbows propped against a stone wall
Crossbows waiting for the Palio to start

The Palio della Balestra is a 550 year-old tradition. The Societá dei Balestrieri possesses a document dated May 16, 1461 which refers to it. In those days the city relied on this society of crossbowmen for protection. At their annual Palio they would demonstrate their skills in a contest with their counter-parts from Tuscan Sansepolcro, as part of the series of events that followed Gubbio’s festival to honour its patron saint, Sant’ Ubaldo. It is this contest that still takes place today, though as a purely ceremonial event; no crossbows (to the best of my knowledge) are ever fired in battle these days.

Let me take you through this special day …

Lettura del Bando

At 11.00 am on the day of the Palio, a herald tours the town to announce the forthcoming contest. This is the ‘Lettura del Bando’, which calls the townspeople to the event. The words and some of the language are ancient; but the resonating voice, and the sound of the drummers and other musicians who accompany him, are stirring enough regardless of how much you understand.

The ‘Lettura del Bando’

Processions through the town

On the afternoon of the Palio the whole town is in ferment of preparation, especially those who play a major role. Of course the balestrieri, the crossbowmen themselves, must dress in their uniforms (quartered mauve and black for Gubbio, quartered gold and black for Sansepolcro). But many other local people have a part to play, and a costume to wear. The sbandieratori who will demonstrate their ancient skills in flag-throwing; the musicians whose stirring sounds will punctuate the day; and those who take the roles of members of the medieval nobility. The latter dress in authentic costume – even the hairstyles of the ladies are in keeping, meticulously copied from contemporary paintings.

A little before 4.00 pm they all start to assemble on the small piazza outside the Palazzo del Bargello, and from there they set off, winding their way through the town’s ancient streets. The drums echo from the surrounding buildings, and people gather to watch.

At a certain point in the town the rival Sansepolcro team, approaching from the east, meets the Gubbio procession. The latter halts, the rivals take their place in front, and first Sansepolcro, then Gubbio, march the remaining few streets to the Piazza Grande.

Whenever I hear the stirring music on this short video clip I am transported back to Gubbio.

Procession through Gubbio

Commencement

Today the town’s Piazza Grande is transformed into a sort of arena. The imposing Palazzo dei Consoli forms a wonderful backdrop; at the opposite end the Palazzo del Podesta holds the target, and on the two longer sides seating is erected.

Soon the sound of the approaching teams can be heard; in truth it has been in the air for some time, but now it comes closer. First the Sansepolcro representatives enter the Piazza – musicians, balestrieri (crossbowmen), sbandieratori (flag-throwers) and nobility. Then their equivalents from Gubbio. Music plays throughout and the atmosphere is electric.

Arrival in the Piazza Grande

First there are speeches. The contest is blessed by the local bishop, and gifts exchanged between the two teams. Then the Palio is declared open: the contest can begin.

The contest

The teams each consist of 40 balestrieri. Each man has only one shot in which to get his arrow as close as possible to the centre of the target. As hosts, Gubbio fire the first shot, and last year’s winner has the honour of firing this. The remaining 79 follow, in groups of four, two from each town.

Some arrows miss the target, but most come impressively close – impressive particularly because the arrows are much heavier at the head (as they are made of iron) and have to be shot in a parabolic curve.

But the target is small, and the arrows are many. As more and more of the 80 hit it, some of those that have been shot earlier on can be knocked out of their holes to fall to the ground. As I watched I found myself wondering whether shooting first was such an honour after all; maybe it is rather a way of ensuring that last year’s winner, however accurate his shooting, is unlikely to repeat the feat.

Each shot follows the same rhythm. A few moments of intense concentration, the string pulled back, the arrow released … a whoosh of sound as it flies through the air, a gentle thud as it embeds itself in the target (or occasional clunk as iron point meets stony ground), and a cheer and ripple of applause from the engrossed audience.

When all 80 have taken their turn, the target, laden with arrows, is lifted down from its place on the wall of the Palazzo del Podesta and taken away to be examined in the secret room under the Palazzo dei Consoli so that the winner can be determined.

The Sbandieratori

While the crowds wait for the announcement of the winner, they are treated to an amazing display of skill by the sbandieratori of Gubbio. For me these performances were perhaps the highlight of the Palio. The skill demonstrated is truly awe-inspiring and I thrilled at the colour and spectacle of it all, mesmerised by the flowing movements and the soft whooshes of the flags as they swept through the air.

Sbandieratori

The art of flag-throwing is said by some to date back to medieval times, when a guild’s banner or flag was considered a symbol of purity, and as such was not allowed ever to touch the ground. Other sources say that it was military in origin. It is practiced in several countries in Europe, but it is in Italy that the tradition is strongest – Gubbio’s flag-throwers are just one of several groups in the country.

The announcement of the victor

While the crowd is thrilling to the skills of the sbandieratori, an important process is taking place in a secret room of the Palazzo dei Consoli. Each arrow is carefully removed from the target, one by one, starting with those furthest away from the centre. The last three are the most important, determining who will be announced as having finished in those places. Of course, to make this possible, each arrow must be unique so that it can be linked to the owner who fired it. Their initials are marked somewhere on the shaft, and sometimes also a symbol that means something special to them.

When the decision is made, it is time to announce it to the waiting crowd. There are fanfares and drums, and then the names are announced, in reverse order. Of course, the majority of those waiting with bated breath want to hear that Gubbio has been successful, and on both my visits they were not disappointed.

The winner comes forwards to take the flag (the Palio that gives the contest its name). And now the contest is nearly over. The two teams, their musicians, flag-throwers and accompanying costumed townspeople assemble in front of the Palazzo, music fills the air, and gradually they all leave, again in procession, with the music fading into the distance and the Piazza Grande seeming suddenly very large again, and very empty.

It may seem that this is the end, but wait …!

il Camponone

Large bell in tower
il Camponone

The end of the Palio is marked by the ringing of il Camponone, the great bell in the tower of the Palazzo dei Consoli. Unusually, this is done not with a rope but with the bell-ringers’ feet. All the bells in the tower are very old and sound wonderful, but it is the big bell, il Camponone itself, that has the most special and unique sound. Watch how the campanari pause it in its movement, creating moments of tension when you wonder when the next sound will come.

il Camponone

With the bells still ringing in their ears, the people make their way slowly down from the piazza. The Palio della Balestra is over for another year.

Empty town square at night
The Piazza Grande at night

*The Palio unfortunately had to be cancelled in 2020 (as did so many other events around the world) but hopefully will be back in 2021

I last visited Gubbio in 2014, but these photos were taken on visits in 2012 and 2013

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