Time suspends during Festa week. The days are long, the hours short, and midnight is more akin to midday. Town hums, I mean it literally has a pulsing hum, with voices rising to roaring crescendos as the crowds ebb and flow in our tiny Montone piazza.
If you ever wondered what it was like to be in a bee colony, or an ant hill, living in Montone during festa, will give you a clue. Your personal contribution matters, but you are just a little ant toiling for a common goal.
We’ve had our archery contest, where some arrows hit the target and some didn’t quite make it. Sadly, del Verziere came in last.
Monday’s bando, the short creative, comedic skits by each rione, were a smash success with stories of devils, the Garden of Eden, and a gorgeous marble sculpture that comes to life.
The spettacolos were unique and amazing feats of historical story telling and showmanship. Montone is a medieval village, so we don’t have to do much in the way of sets and back drops, all the drama takes place on location. We have chapels, churches, prisons, steep stone staircases and soaring stone walls at our disposal.
Rione Porta del Monte staged a heart pounding reenactment of the Florentine Pazzi conspiracy where Giuliano de’ Medici is murdered while his brother, Lorenzo de’ Medici, barely escapes. The climax was an excellently staged beheading...the head stays on the block, but the body falls with a slam to the floor.
Rione Porta del Verziere contrasted the sword and the word. The choices that St. Francis of Assisi made versus the grizzled memories of the mercenary Braccio Fortebraccio. The beautiful “La Gloria” asks a mortally wounded Fortebraccio, “Tell me, are you afraid?” and he manages to rise from his blood soaked bed to say he was never afraid, that he has the strength of a young olive tree, and he has his convictions. But, he is alone in his tent, with only memories of the sword to comfort him as he leaves this world.
Rione Porta del Borgo Vecchio pitted the church against Fortebraccio. Braccio, who had the audacity to defy the Pope, ultimately loses his battle with the church. An evocative piece, whose story was told by three macabre spirits who challenged us to follow them through the darkened streets of Montone as the tale unfolded.
But, those are just the Front of the House stories. Behind the scenes, there is as much plotting and planning as any Pazzi conspiracy. Was there a gaff in the Latin spoken by the pope? Was the pope’s hat historically correct? Does modern dance have a place in a historical piece? What if the judges are mistaken about the accuracy of a certain detail? Can a judge be challenged?
These are not professional writers, and for the most part they are not professional actors. Cristiana, who writes our Verziere spettacolos, is an expert on medieval history and the lives of Braccio and Carlo Fortebraccio. As are Nando and Eretrida who bring the words to life. Before our performance, Cristiana was as tightly wrapped as an about to spring guitar string; humming and vibrating with last minute nerves. She compared it to a final exam at university. Would the judges understand the complex story, would they appreciate the juxtaposition of Braccio and St. Francis? Were the costumes and sets correct? After the second performance. with the jury sitting in judgement, she was drained as white as a sheet. Remember that feeling when you have literally risked it all, and you don’t know how you’ve done? We’ve all been there.
And in the background, like a steadying heartbeat, the tavernas are turning out food. Meals for the masses, made by housewives, using very traditional Umbrian recipes.
The sensitive Umbrian palate never ceases to amaze me. The tiniest deviation in a recipe is cause for discussion. I was admonished not to put any ‘aceto’ (vinegar) onto the tomato salad because it would be too strong. A request for salt from a taverna guest is a little slap in the face. Garlic is treated with immense respect; one whole, uncrushed clove is enough to flavor the enormous sauce pot.
And everyone loves Philadelphia. I mean the cream cheese, not the city. You puzzle that out on your own, because it beats the hell out of me. Italy makes delicious soft white cheeses; why anyone would prefer Philadelphia to stracciata or taleggio is beyond me.
And so, in the words of Julius Ceasar, crossing the Rubicon, “Iacta alea est”. The die has been cast. Each rione has given its all, its best effort. A year’s worth of plotting, planning, scheming, writing, painting sets, and rehearsing lines is over. The plays have played, and tonight, with much drumming and fanfare, the winner of the Palio will be announced.
Shortly, I’ll go and get dressed as del Verziere’s Castellana. Heavy velvet will mask a strongly thumping heart and sweating palms as the winner is announced. Fingers are crossed and hopes are high that del Verziere will bring home the Palio. I hear the drums...time to go!