The origins of Calendimaggio are lost in time. Most likely, the festival tried to revive ancient pagan customs that celebrated the return of spring and the renewal of the cycle of life.
In the Middle Ages, the Kalende di Maggio (or “first days of May”) welcomed the arrival of spring with a colorful array of dances, ballads, and the recitation of love poems. St. Francis, himself an accomplished troubadour (his mother was French), was highly admired for the richness and elegance of his verses and ballads.
These compositions were called “Songs of May” which were sang in the streets not only by the minstrels but also by the companies of young people (called brigate).
The ancient chronicles tell us that Assisi, at the beginning of the 14th century, reached its maximum splendor, a fact confirmed by the expansion of its walls, the castles in its possession, the magnificence of its churches and the employment of great artists to decorate these churches, among them Giotto, Simone Martini, and the Lorenzetti brothers. However, this was also a period of internal conflict.
The city divided itself into rival factions, an outcome of political antagonism between the two most powerful families: Nepis and Fiumi. La Parte de Sotto (the “lower part” of Assisi) aligned with the Nepis family while La Parte de Sopra (the “upper part” of the city), supported the Fiumi family.
Neither ecclesiastical restrictions nor measures by the local magistrates could squelch the animosity. The first bloody, according to A. Fortini, dates back to 14 November 1376. but this is only one link of a long chain. Conflicts and hostilities spanned two centuries.
For short periods of time, one family overtook the other, but the custom of celebrating the spring which takes the name of ‘Calendimaggio’was kept alive. Reliving the songs and music, serenading under girl’s balconies, which override the clashing of weapons in the various parts of the city, electing the King of the feast. This custom has been endured for centuries.
Assisians celebrated joyously the arrival of “Lady Spring” with the Calendimaggio even during times of bitter conflict. Each brigata or company of singers, elected a signore and from among all the signori, a King of the festival was chosen. They then elected a “Queen of May” who was born through the streets on a cart festooned with flowers, encircled by young girls waving flowering branches called maggi. Song and music filled the streets and piazzas: madrigals, choral and solo pieces, traditional melodies and improvised ones, every sort of popular song accompanied by violin, mandolin, guitar, and harmonica.
Dance, as well as song, was important to the festival. In fact, many of the songs were composed and sung as accompaniment to the dances. The dances of the women in the piazzas are a singular feature even today of the Calendimaggio, the most common one being a circular or ring dance led by one woman who directed the movements of all. The women harmonized in song as they danced.
This custom lasted for centuries, until the festival was profoundly renewed in 1927, at the behest of the Mayor of Assisi, Arnaldo Fortini. During the Second World War, the festival was suspended, but was brought back to life in 1947. In 1954, the festival magnified into its present form. Committees meet nightly for months to plan the annual traditional salute to spring, the Calendimaggio.
The two parti of the town returning to their age-old rivalry, this time on peaceful (!?) terms to renew the annual contest… and the Assisani go wild!
For the following days, the two factions give life to a contest which recalls the medieval spirit. Popular participation is so intense that the city relives in every dimension a medieval atmosphere. The ancient spirit of rivalry resurges in the various competitions of the Calendimaggio: in song, in dance, in crossbow, archery and banner-hurling contests and in the election of Madonna Primavera (“Lady Spring”). The Parti compete in the decoration of the quarters of the town and in the parades of festooned carts and costumed citizens.
At night, in the torchlit cobblestoned backstreets, they re-enact medieval dramas and scenes of daily life.
The festival climaxes in Assisi’s central piazza on the third and final night of the festivities. the final contest. For Assisians, this is the moment of greatest joy, highest tension. The winning faction is awarded the Palio, a red and blue banner bearing the symbol of Assisi, as well as the coats-of arms of the two Parti.
The participation of the inhabitants is mesmerizing and when you’re immersed in an entire city that’s dressed up for the occasion, it’s so easy to get caught up in the party. It’s simply incredible!