Saturday was an early start—5:30 a.m. Two cars full of members of our squadra got out early, and went to the mountains to pick fresh ginestra, the plant we call “Scotch broom” in the U.S.
Anna drove our car, with Stefano, Leonardo and me. Rino, with Dorotea and Dino riding along, drove the other car. The ginestra grows all over the hills in Umbria and Tuscany, and is a ready source for bright yellow blossoms, in full bloom just at the time of the Infiorata. In addition, many of the squadras have been picking and drying the yellow blooms for a month, stockpiling dried petals for their designs.
Anna was the boss this year, and had decided that we would pick a huge harvest of the fresh blossoms, and use them “as is” in the design, for both yellow color and the texture of the whole blossoms. We had a lot of picking to do, so we started early in the morning, when the blossoms were cool and hydrated, and would keep well in the garage with all of the dried petals already processed and stored there.
We drove out south toward Colepino, but more down in the valley, and then climbed several ridges before Anna found the place where she wanted to go. Each one of us had a picking basket, with a rigid frame that curved around our bellies, a strap to hang the basket around our neck, and a canvas bag hanging down from the frame to hold the flowers. These are similar to some of the fruit picking bags that Mexican farmhands used in the orchards where I grew up, and the frame held the basket open, freeing both hands to pick and drop directly into the open basket.
We climbed through the dry grass to the ginestra plants, each found a huge bush packed with flowers, and began stripping the blossoms off, dropping them into our bags. The men all scattered to find the best plants, and the women either worked together on one plant or found locations close together, where they could talk. I mostly listened, unless I was asked a question. I started out taking photos, trying to catch each of the pickers in action, and then put my camera down and began picking myself.
The blossoms strip off the branches easily by hand, with no thorns and not even bees that early in the morning. It was much cooler, too—not the 85 degree temperatures that we had in the afternoon, since we were out in the full sunlight to pick. I was a little fearful from the “serpente” sighting the day before, on the trail for the Acquedotto Romano, when Paola nearly jumped into my arms as a black snake about 3 feet in length zipped across the trail just in front of us, and disappeared into the olive trees. (She was faster, or I would have jumped into HER arms first.) In tall grass, and not knowing what to expect in there, I made a lot of noise and stomped my feet a lot—probably looking rather silly to those who didn’t know about “our snake.”
After a few hours, we had gone back to the car several times and filled two large black trash bags, and then once more back to the bushes to fill our picking baskets, for a full load. Stefano was directed by the others to take my camera, and get a photo of ME picking, since I had already chased all of them with the camera, and I was the only one not in the photos. He is a good photographer, probably a useful skill in his architecture, so I have some proof that I was also picking all morning. I got an interesting compliment, when Dino said that the bushes looked like “istrice” when I was done picking–porcupines, with all the branches left bare.
We spent three hours to fill all of our containers, and then headed back to the car. Just then I looked down into my picking basket for a total surprise: I had stripped a “walking stick” (NO idea what the Italians call him) from a branch, and he was sitting in my picking basket, on top of the yellow blossoms. I suppose he just climbed to the top each time I threw in more blossoms, but he was slow and non-threatening to me, so I called over the others to see what I had “picked.” Stefano and I gently lifted him to the top of the picking basket, and then set him loose on a ginestra plant and returned to the car. I have seen these in books, and have seen 1” versions once or twice in California, but this one was nearly 8” long, and did startle me when I saw him in my bag. For me, he was a nice addition, and I apparently didn’t harm him when I stripped him from the branch into the bag, even with all of those long, spindly legs.
We packed up, and drove to a field where Anna wanted to show me the margueritas, which I had pictured growing like our domesticated marguerites do, in shrubs covered with flowers. Instead, I was led through a barbed wire fence to a field of wild margueritas, with one flower per plant. These had been picked before I arrived and were the flowers that the squadra ladies were preparing, in the first photos I took of them working in Graziella’s garage. There was a lot more work involved than I had imagined, to yield the amount of flowers that had been available in that garage for processing!
The marguerita stop was also for our breakfast stop, and I could not convince the crew that I had already had enough to eat before I left in the morning. Paola had given me jars of her homemade yogurt, and a box of corn flakes, and I was done with breakfast at 5. Instead, I got a crusty sandwich of mortadella (like our bologna, but with white spots) pushed into my hand, insistently, and a glass of sparkling water to wash it down. We then drove through Colepino and back to Spello, and the men carried the huge bags of blossoms into the garage, where Stefano spread them out into cardboard flats and onto a huge tarp on the floor.
The tarp was about 6’x9’ and was covered 6” deep in blossoms, with about a dozen extra boxes of blossoms stacked nearby. THAT was the last of the flowers to be picked or processed for the squadra’s design, so we were through for the day, until the cars were out of the city and the design could be laid down on the pavement.
I looked around the garage to see all the petals that had been collected by the squadra, some dried and some fresh still.
They were stacked upon each other, on tables and box-on-box, and a second room of the garage held the fragrant fennel fronds (dried and shredded, a deep, dark green but smelling of anise), and the fresh ginestra. The plant materials were roughly sorted by color, with the pinks and reds together, all the whites, blues and yellows in groups, and still more flats of flowers remained in Graziella’s garage, awaiting storage with the others. The ladies had been busy while we were gone, and all of the flowers to be processed had been finished.
I took a little “giro” (“tour”) around Spello, seeing what the other teams were doing, and began to photograph the tents going up to cover some of the designs (“quadras” they were called, not in my dictionary for you). I found so many nice views of Spello and the pink streets and buildings, all constructed from the pink limestone of Mount Subasio, and the views down to the valley below near Foligno. Seems I am always taking the same shots, in differing light, and never getting the same photos.
No matter which direction I roamed, I found women, men and kids preparing flowers and sitting out on the streets. One older man was pulling the two main petals from the ginestra flowers, as I had seen women doing in May when I visited (and making me very glad that we were using our flowers intact, and fresh).
The color without the center of the flower is an intense yellow, and I could see the Styrofoam trays filling with petals all over the streets. One woman was out in her curlers, oblivious to the people going by, and working away like crazy.
Another was sitting on the doorstep of her home, using an old foiled pastry tray, cleaned and saved for the Infiorata. She had her dog tied up nearby, and she let me pet him, and also allowed me to photograph her and her hands at work—rather a special interest of mine, hands.
I walked down to the main street that comes up the hill from the city wall, and found a group of older men who just opted OUT of the Infiorata. I supposed that their wives (maybe in curlers) were working away with a squadra somewhere, but they had a lively game of cards going, and had nothing to do with the festa that would change the city overnight.
Just about every business had a floral display out front, either living plants or an arrangement of branches in a vase, or a garland of dried flowers. The many locations compete in several divisions for floral decoration of their shops, homes and balconies.
This dried garland was particularly beautiful, so I photographed some detail of the garland that wrapped over the doorway of the wine shop (“enoteca”), with a view down the main street below.
The many squadras were mapping out there areas in the streets, some of them covered with tents to protect them from wind, rain, and the feet of passersby, and all the cars were being pressed out of the city to remote parking areas. The notices had gone on each car to move by 8 a.m., but Leonardo told me no enforcement happened until about 5 p.m., so that the materials could be moved to the site of each design. I was keeping an eye on the squadra of Giorgia, the daughter of Leonardo and Paola who was working on another team. He team had the figure of Christ in the middle of their design, and I photographed the paper base that was outlined with the design, with the name of each type of flower to be arranged in the areas designated.
The teams that put down a paper base mopped viscous paste onto the street, and rolled out the paper pattern on the street, smoothing wrinkles out with their hands.
The paper and paste had to dry before the assembly of the flower materials could follow, so these crews were working early, and I could get an idea of the design from the drawings on the paper patterns.
I just kept circulating around the small town, keeping an eye out for photos, or new developments in the designs going down on the streets. I found a nonna taking possession of her granddaughter, so that Mamma could go and work for the night on her squadra.
This nonna had a marvelous display of flowers at her home, rivaling Paola’s, and a little helper for the evening.
My next find was three young girls, getting an early start participating in preparing flowers for the Infiorata. They were giggling and joking, but working steadily to strip tiny white flowers from the sprays and collect them for some squadra. THIS is “the place to be,” if you live in Spello. Other than the men playing cards, and Robespierre reading his paper in the valley under Stefano’s grape arbor, nearly everyone in town was working in some way on the Infiorata.
Street after street, more teams were preparing flowers, some with very low yields for a lot of work. One woman was stripping tiny star-shaped flowers from large clusters, and the tiny flowers were barely an eighth of an inch across. The work was delicate, but, like our squadra, the women talked and worked and just got the job done. Again, me and my photos of working hands—I had found another one of my favorite photos.
At the place where Giorgia’s squadra worked on a side street, there were young men pulling apart the brilliant blue fiordalisi, another high work/low yield flower, but essential in the color palate for the designs.
I am told these flowers are wild (“selvatico”), but I didn’t see any of them when I was in the mountains in the morning. I suppose the natives know just where to go for each type of wildflower they harvest, and it must take huge quantities of fiordalisi for a small box of those blue petals.
Inside the house nearby, Giorgia was helping to attach their master design to a backing, to display at the site of the design, and explain its meaning. Each squadra does this, and all of the designs have religious significance, not just beautiful colors. This is about the Sunday of the Corpus Domini festa, not about the flowers. The flowers are a way to make the religious procession more special, and have evolved into the living floral displays all over town, and the designs on the pavement. I read in a book that the original idea of the Infiorata was from Lourdes, and that this tradition was begun in the 1930s in Spello to emulate that town’s tradition of laying down flowers for the priests for Corpus Domini.
As I walked around with my camera, I saw that some squadras were just beginning to put down the chalk outlines on the asphalt, in the area designated for that team.
The afternoon was passing with activity everywhere—flower preparation, paper patterns drying on their paste bases, chalk outlines being measured out and drawn, and floral materials arriving at the sidelines for later.
One neighbor of Paola’s was a single man, just deciding to participate with a circle of oleander leaves filled with hydrangea blossoms. He had been sitting on Paola’s steps all day, cutting the hydrangeas apart with scissors, and then began his tiny oval on the street. After spreading out his flowers, and finding that he had only enough to cover a tenth of his oval, he swept it all up and tossed it away. Next year, perhaps he will try again.
Kids were busy everywhere, helping out with the flower preparation. While our squadra was finished by 11, that was not the case for many others. In fact, even the next morning, some teams were still plucking leaves and petals for more materials, with boxes of unprocessed flowers still to go. Every open garage, every open doorway, on benches and low walls around the town, teams were working on flowers.
Back at the top of the hill, our team was getting started with the design on the pavement. Anna was in charge this year, but her mother had experienced a heart arrhythmia, and Anna had been needed to take her to the emergency room (“pronto soccorso”). She was there, waiting for a sibling to come and take over, while her mother was undergoing tests and getting medicated for her problem. Stefano arrived with the plan, and he and Leonardo, Dino and Miro began to lay down the chalk outlines of the design on the piazza, following Anna’s plan. They measured, used a chalk line, and finally chalked (with blackboard chalk, or “gesso”) the design onto the street.
Of no use to them, I took another “giro” around town.
In early evening, the kids from the elementary school were in full process of filling in their design with materials, and it was a whole batch of kids, tongues out in concentration, following the instructions of their teachers and parents. Their night was not going to be as long as the others putting designs down, so they had a modest-sized design, and started early. In fact, they finished first, and the crowds of parents and tourists with cameras made it nearly impossible to get by—everyone wanted a photo of the kids at work on their design.
Other designs around the city were beginning to get the flowers laid down, too. While the lines of the design and the flower names written in the “flowers-by-number” patterns gave me some idea of what was coming, until the petals went down, the beauty of the designs was hidden. Slowly, the designs were created, with shading and bright colors, and making a religious statement for the event.
Teens were pushing the petals around with credit cards, making sharp lines between the colors, and sprawled out over the uncovered parts of the pattern paper, with their color keys to keep the right materials in the correct spots.
Some of the squadras had two dozen people working at once, with at least one person passing out pizza, drinks, and snacks. Each team had a table packed with food for the night, and parents were arriving with stacks of take-out pizzas in boxes, or pastries for later. All ages of parents, teens, and kids were working, and the night was just beginning.
One father was spreading out fennel with his two kids, teaching them how thick to put it down, and showing them how to push it into the lines, with sharp borders. By then, it was nearly 10 p.m., and the expected tourists and observers were arriving every minute on foot. They walked back and forth, up and down the main streets, watching the progress of the designs, and everyone (me, too) seemed to have a camera. The tented designs had installed fluorescent lighting attached to the tent ribs, and some teams had standing lamps to provide light, since the sun was down long ago.
Back at the elementary school kids’ design, a couple of parents or teachers were polishing up the finished product, and the kids had gone home with their parents. Through the night, parents stood watch over the design, to make certain it was not damaged before the judging in the morning, sitting by the kids’ table of sweets and pizza, indulging in the last few cookies left.
Still, with only a 2-foot path on either side of this narrow street, the crowds were stopped here watching the final touches being completed.
I just circled and circled back, with Anna still held up at the hospital. Our design was down on the pavement, but our boss was missing. We had a significant delay in getting started, so I was busy watching the progress of the other designs, like thousands of others. Leonardo told me that a 1 Euro coffee would sell for 2 Euro during this night and in the morning, and that the merchants stocked up on gelato, beer, coffee and pastries for the huge crowd expected. The light breeze that started the evening was waning, so the threat to designs like ours, out in the open, was lessening over the hours.
In the dark, the crowds just silently walked by all the designs, checking to see the progress since their last visit. Ours was almost the only design not started by midnight, but Anna was still not able to get to town and get started.
Giorgia’s team was moving along, and the figure of the crucified Christ was taking shape, as were the geometric designs that were also a part of their “quadra.”
The young men and women did a great job with the shadings and colors of the skin tones, with no direction from older adults, and it was a party for those involved. No one seemed to be watching the clock, but they all knew that the morning deadline for the judging had to be met, and worked steadily.
The crowds grew and grew, and the assembly of the designs was the attraction. One father carried his daughter around on his shoulders, long after midnight, and they just strolled along with the others and watched each design being prepared. We were all set to go, but without Anna, we were still in a holding pattern. She arrived just after midnight, and the process of starting our design began.