We have just returned from a wonderful few days in Sansepolcro in the Tuscan province of Arezzo, having been completely overwhelmed by the annual Palio crossbow shooting contest between the crossbow archers of Sansepolcro and its arch rival Gubbio in Umbria.
This bi-annual event dates back to the 15th century and is held in Gubbio in May and Sansepolcro in September. The history of this trditional event is fascinating, as is the competition itself.
The rules go back to 1680 and it involves the use of the ‘big crossbow’ or Balestra as it is correctly called. Each city has its own Societa Balastieri and the palio is held as part of the celebrations in honour of the respective patron saints of each city, St. Edigio, the holy founder of the Tuscan town and St. Ubaldo of Gubbio.
The competition consists of firing at a single target only 15cm (6 inches) in diameter from a distance of 36 meters (117 feet).
During the actual competition, the archers sit on specially constructed benches. This is simply because the crossbows are around 5 feet long and much too heavy to support unaided. The archers, whose names are called randomly, take alternate turns in shooting, three from each team. In the end, the archer whose bolt is closest to the centre of the target wins the individual prize, but the overall winner is the team that gets the greatest number of bolts closest to the centre.
One Hundred Crossbow Archers
In this year’s competition there were 101 archers, all shooting at the same target. You can just imagine that, in the later stage, tactics came into play with attempts to dislodge or even destroy opponent’s bolts.
However, the competition is only one part of the weekend celebrations, for the city is transformed; the Herald announcing the duelists coupled with the blare of trumpets, the roll of drums and the world famous Sansepolcro sbandieratori (balletic flag throwers, of which more in my next article).
Pageantry and Parades
Parades of nobles, all dressed in Renaissance costumes based on the frescos of Piero della Francesca, Sansepolcro’s favourite son and renowned 15th century artist. The costumes are a testimony to Piero Tosi and Vera Marzot, stars of the costuming tradition of Italian theatre and cinema.
A medieval market and gastronomic events all combine to make the second weekend in September a must see for anyone visiting Tuscany.
And the 2014 Winner Was…
Oh, by the way, I almost forgot! The overall competition was won by Sansepolcro, for the first time in 3 years, resulting in loud and very friendly celebrations well into the night. The individual prize was won by an archer from Gubbio. (not surprising really, since he had the first shot!). No secret as to whom I was supporting then!
When is this Event?
Sansepulcro’s crossbow competition takes place on or around the second Sunday in September, whereas the medieval pageant itself kicks off at the end of August. Remember too, that the event is also held in Gubbio in May.
By David Wineman
David Wineman is the pen name of a retired international businessman who has always harboured a passion for writing.
Having retired from a life of travel to Barga in Tuscany, David found himself with enough to time to write and the result was this debut novel Simon Says.
You can find out more about David’s book here: Simon Says by David Wineman
Or visit David’s website: David Wineman