ITALIA: June 20, 2007


Okay: I was a bit hasty when I encouraged you to avoid thinking of Bevagna’s “Medieval Festival” as though it were an American “Renaissance Festival.” The similarities are, in fact, quite arresting. The only distinctions appear to be that 1) The Medieval Festival is taking place in a town of the appropriate age, and 2) A Renaissance Festival includes dragon puppets and magic satchels and things of this nature. In all other things the two resemble one another quite closely. This town has even erected some pseudo-historical structures constructed from cast fiberglass and molded polystyrene, the ethos behind which we have been scratching our heads about all the live-long day.

It has been a long day. So long, in fact, that by 5:00 we had had enough and David rented us a room in a nunnery ("get thee to"), and we had a nap. It was well worth it. Prior to that, the day started at 6:30 in the morning in order to try to arrive in Bevagna on time to meet Andrea and Natsuko when they got there. The drive was intense—almost two hours, and full of the most winding roads I’ve ever driven on. I’m pretty certain there were a couple of times there when we traveled back in time a little, the road curled back on itself so impossibly. We split the drive with a quick stop for breakfast and a walk in Todi. We didn’t stay long. My impression is that the city is built on a spire. You walk steeply uphill to its center, and jog in a sort of controlled fall to get back to where you parked. When we got through all that, we didn’t land in Bevagna until 11:00ish.

When we met up with Andrea and Natsuko in the central piazza, we all five promptly headed off to a bar for l’acqua and caffe. It was an incredibly hot day, just getting warmed up. When we could justify sitting under umbrellas no more, we headed off to visit with one of Andrea’s friends who was also working in his quarter. The “Medieval Festival,” it seems, actually dates back to the time it honors. Bevagna is divided into four quarters known as gaiti, or gates, which refers to the town having essentially four walls, each with its own entrance. Back in the day, the gaiti were fiercely competitive. Each had there own church, their own laws, etcetera. It got so territorial at times that the gaiti would put up chains across their borders, and anyone caught on the wrong side would be killed. (Suddenly Romeo & Juliet becomes credible in a whole new way.) The festival continues in this tradition with—we hope—less bloodshed, by forming itself as a competition in authenticity and entertainment between the four quarters. Andrea’s role in all this was to a play a sort of wandering clown for Gaite Sant Giorgio.

His friend whom first we met is a painter of icons and frescoes. This was an amazing visit. We went into the workshop he had set up for the event, and it’s hard to imagine anything more genuine. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Essentially, he gave us the full tour and lecture on his technique, hours before he would be expected to do it for the public. From color making to charcoal graphing to gold leafing, it was fascinating. I couldn’t even understand a fifth of what the guy was actually saying, and it was still fascinating.

Afterwards we all went to lunch together in the main courtyard of Sant Giorgio, where later that night the quarter’s feats would be held. Sheets were hung at intervals, over tables still stacked atop with their benches, and we met other performers and artisans of the gaite who were there for their midday meal. And, essentially, we were served a full Italian meal with wine amidst really charming and interesting people…for free. Guests of Andrea. This is the least of what we owe this man. It was a marvelous meal. After that we followed the man in charge of running the coin-stamping site into his cool basement workshop, were he minted each of us a medieval Perugian coin. Then Andrea walked us around the town to visit the other quarters, the outlet for the town’s water supply and one of the churches. Finally it was time for him to prepare for the evening at his digs in the quarter’s nunnery. (Get thee to one, go!) This was when our fatigue drove us to rent rooms there, and we napped until past 7:00.

When we woke, famished, the evening’s festivities were just getting under way. David couldn’t wait for one of the feasts to squelch his hunger, and we weren’t in a hurry to disagree (though I admit I might have waited for the experience) so we dove into the only open restaurant we could find in town. While there, Andrea found us, and whilst in character. He had donned a medieval tunic and accentuated it with his customary (and costume-ry) props, like a helmet and the collapsible sword I used for a scythe in our clown piece, and an ashtray breastplate, and was wearing a Pantalone mask. He was wildly funny, carousing with every person in reach like a drunken soldier on holiday. We agreed to meet up later for a drink, and we were off to the central piazza again to people-watch during passagiata. Everyone was out to impress that night, from packs of pre-teen boys to elderly couples walking hand-in-hand. We agreed that the festival was really just an excuse for a super-passagiata.

After wine with Andrea and Natsuko David decided he was feeling spry and we left our monastical digs to drive the two hours back to the agriturismo. I was asleep before we got out of Toscana. The love of this country wears me right out.

 
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