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Celebrating San Bernardino at Massa Marittima

Massa Marittima is Tuscany’s little Siena. A gem of a Medieval town, it sits looking towards the Mediterranean on a promontory extending out from the Colline Metaliferre. The green ocean of the metal-bearing hills contrasts with the rolling littoral of the Maremma. Its exquisite piazza is dominated by a great cathedral dedicated to San Cerbone on a raised podium, and surrounded by twelfth-century palazzi. Unbeknown to me it celebrates its Medieval heritage with a remarkable festival. I simply happened to be present, visiting local museums, when the town burst into parades and accompanying martial music.

The competition getting under way

The festival is 14th-century in form and pageantry, but the emphasis upon place and the succession of tableaux of vivid colours are surely Etruscan. Celebrating San Bernardino, a 14th-century son of Massa Marittima on the last Sunday of May, the three quarters – terziani - of the town compete in the piazza for a silver neckless to be the champion cross-bow man. Yes, health and safety be damned.

Throwing the banners

A herald beckons us to attend the three militias, with massed trumpets and drums and tossing flag-bearers as dexterous and agile as Etruscan actors depicted on tomb dining scenes. The pageantry is solemn, extraordinarily loud and as coordinated as if they were grenadiers. It culminates in three teams of eight men each firing a siege bolt across the piazza at a target attached to a gigantic gyrfalcon. Poised and muscular, each man balances his massive armament on a tripod. A spirit level is deployed to check the angle and then the archer prepares, flexing, his muscles quivering in minute movements, testing his aim, cogitating his peers and competition, before his bolt zips across the 38 metres to the falcon. The thud brings an excited army of Medieval judges racing to measure millimetres of accuracy as one after another the bolts fuse into the black bull’s eye. Concurrently, lining the steep cathedral steps, all Massa hollers for one team or other in this sanctified game.

Pulling the trigger

Foreigners were almost absent. The ceremony simply coheres the three parts of the town and serves as preparation for competitions with other Tuscan towns. It’s not so much about winning – as being a Massano that matters.

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