To the sound of drums, Massa Marittima is transported back to the Middle Ages. In those days, the city couldn’t have been more different from its neighbours in a part of Southern Tuscany less-than-affectionately known as the Maremma Amara (Bitter Maremma). As they squabbled over feudal rights and lumps of land, Massa Marittima explored the arts and music as the only independent municipality in the region. By the grace of her nobles and the magnificence of her buildings, Massa Marittima drew the enlightened and the wealthy. And the ‘figlia nobillisa’ (noble daughter) of Pisa and Siena never failed to impress with her majesty and beauty.
On May, Massa Marittima returns to this golden age for the biannual Balestro del Girifalco. A celebration of independence and abundance, the festival was first held in the early years of the 14th century as a way to keep the city’s young men sharp. Today it is one of the biggest and most impressive festivals in Southern Tuscany. A jam-packed weekend of history and tradition where every resident is called upon to wind back the clock.
It all starts with the decorations. At the hands of the Società dei Terzieri Massetani – the men and women who revived the festival after WWII – Massa Marittima is decked out in cloth banners and bright-coloured flags. Some are white, red and green for Cittanuova, some are white, black and yellow for Cittavecchia and others still are gold, blue and red for Borgo. These are the colours of the terzieri, the ancient quarters of Massa Marittima that will compete during the festival. Like the Palio di Siena, the Balestro del Girifalco is a test of skill, speed and strength as 24 men battle for the glory of their terzieri.
In Massa Marittima there are no horses. Instead, competitors arm themselves with authentic replicas of the 15th century Italian crossbows their ancestors used at the first Balestro del Girifalco. More than 30 metres on the other side of Piazza del Duomo sits a target. At its back is a painting of the festival’s namesake, il girifalco (gyrfalcon), its wings spread wide in flight. The competitor whose arrow hits closest to the centre of the target wins.
Although more than 500 years have passed since Massa Marittima divided herself in thirds, her modern residents still carry an ingrained pride for their terzieri. Winning the Balestro del Girifalco is cause for great celebration and six months’ worth of bragging rights. The competition is reserved for Sunday evening, but there is so much to see and do before and after the last arrow has been nocked. On the Saturday, the order is determined by a random draw carried out with pomp and pageantry in front of Massa Marittima’s town hall. Any local worth their salt will tell that you that it’s best to go first while the target is still clean and easier to hit. In the hours before the competition, the city celebrates with a parade of 150 residents dressed in full velvet-lined medieval costume. Led by drummers and flag wavers, the parade moves through the streets of medieval Massa Marittima before coming to a halt in Piazza del Duomo.
The Sbandieratori (flag wavers) separate themselves from the crowd to perform a choreographed routine so spectacular, you can’t look away. As the last flag is lowered, the competition begins. In all its years, the Balestro del Girifalco has never faded, never slipped into the realm of gimmicks. For one weekend, the history and majesty of Massa Marittima is brought alive once more in a true celebration of colour and music and crowds of passionate and enthusiastic locals.
Massa Marittima is always beautiful, but on this weekend, it is radiant. And no matter which terzieri brings home the golden arrow and hand-painted silk banner, you can be sure the after party will include the whole city and its many visitors. Massa Marittima is a two hour drive south of Florence and an hour’s drive from Siena. For more information about the Balestro del Girifalco visit www.societaterzierimassetani.it