We just got back from the year AD 1398 as did the hundreds of people that attended the medieval festival in Volterra this past weekend, the city’s largest annual event. We also got back to work after our short holiday, and that made it especially hard to return to modern times!
On Sunday August 24th for an entire day for a small fee of 9 euros we entered medieval Volterra and we were able once again to imagine how it was to live in that age.
We walked among people dressed in medieval clothes: dueling knights and beautiful dames, nobleman and peasants. It was very realistic, the people of Volterra take a lot of care in all of the details needed to recreate the Middle Ages for this festival (which is also the main event for the city), and they all looked very believable as medieval citizens. A few times we saw an armored knight or other costumed personage talking on a cell phone (you know how hard it is for us Italians to part from our “telefonini”) but aside from this we were back in time.
We almost rented a medieval dress ourselves to join in the medieval pageantry, it was not too expensive (with about 30 euros you could buy one of the most basic dresses or rent a more elaborate dress), but not all of us were ready for this step 😉
Everywhere we went there were handicraft stalls of typical mestieri (handicrafts) like leather goods, wooden carvings, silk stringing, cloth making, and of course – being in Volterra – alabaster handicrafts. My new little owl in alabaster is watching me right now while I type this post. And let’s not forget the local food which was really good and not too expensive after all. We could taste different kinds of pecorino cheeses (one stand had free slices to taste, I visited it at least 10 times, then they started hiding the cheese as I approached..). The necci were also a pleasant surprise (a flatbread made with chestnut flour cooked in a hot, two-sided griddle, filled with ricotta), and we tried different kinds of focaccine, sweet or salty. There was also a lot of grilled meat that filled the air with its aroma around lunch and dinner time..
Then there were the many medieval-themed attractions. The flag throwers were really good, with several companies in addition to the Volterra one. It is definitely easy to see that in Tuscany there is a great school that prepares the next generations of flag throwers. During the evening there was an historical crossbow shooting tournament. Crossbow is a fascinating weapon and the crossbowmen were so good that they basically never missed the target: it was almost boring! The knight duels were probably interesting as well but unfortunately we missed most of them.
Jugglers, jesters and wandering entertainers alternated jokes with amazing acrobatic feats. We enjoyed the shows of I Giullari di Davide Rossi, which mixed good demonstrations of ability and participation by the public. Messer Lurinetto whose specialty is playing with words, was able to improvise rhymes and jokes, both during his shows and while presenting the crossbow tournament.
Music is usually one of the main attractions for me at this kind of festivals: you often get the chance to get to know some really good musical groups whose work is influenced by sounds of this period. In this edition of Volterra AD 1398 there were several bands specialized in medieval music, they were all good, each with its own style: from the more serious and historically accurate “La Rossignol” that performs court dances to the engaging and entertaining La Giostra (of which we will soon provide some video). This time we also discovered the Barbarian Pipe Band, a group that relies only on pipes and drums to deliver some powerful, rhythmic music inspired by medieval themes. For those who knew a few steps or were willing to learn, La Rossignol provided the chance to participate in a courtly dance with partners in the middle of the square.
With so many interesting attractions it was a real shame that the program that they gave us was not detailed at all. This year, for the first time, the location of the festival was outside the main historical streets of Volterra, in two of the parks still within the city walls. It was a wonderful location, especially the Parco di Fiumi, but the festival extended over a large area. The program was very vague and failed to tell people what exactly was being planned where and at what time, and even if we asked for more details at the information tables, we weren’t able to receive any. This way we often ended up wandering (and walking several kilometers) looking for a specific show (we missed La Giostra 2 times out of 3, even if we were looking for them!), and this in the end was frustrating both for the people and for the artists who said at times they had really small audiences. We really hope that next year the festival’s organizational committee can provide a much more detailed program, or at least go back to the original location inside the city that made it easier to wander and find the performers.
Apart from the ambiguity of the program, the Volterra medieval pageant was interesting and fun, both for those who, like me, are intrigued by the Middle Ages, and for those who just wanted to spend a day having fun and eating good food.
About Stefano Romeo
Stefano is a native from Florence but with a quarter of Sienese blood in his DNA and many years living in Pisa is a true Tuscan. He is still learning that his homeland has many corners and hidden gems he has to discover, ones he particularly enjoys seeing from the saddle of his bike.