In late June, during the final few days of my latest visit to Italy, I caught a glimpse of life in the Middle Ages through an evening at Bevagna's Mercato delle Gaite, a remarkably rich, cultural event that essentially transports Bevagna back to the Middle Ages. It was also a lot of fun.
Bevagna is a small town in central Umbria that I'm getting to know. I stayed in Bevagna for 4 nights last September, and even in that short time, I heard a great deal about this festival. People spoke of it highly and frequently, saying it was such a shame that I was there at the wrong time of year and had missed this marvelous affair.
So when I returned to the area in late June, as the Mercato was just beginning, I was anxious to have a good look. Frankly, I was amazed! (Unfortunately, few of my photos turned out. The first one, above, is from the website Bella Umbria. The second is borrowed from the Mercato's official website.)
The Mercato delle Gaite, which I very crudely translate as meaning the Market of the Neighbourhoods, refers to Bevagna's division during medieval times into four basic gaites or neighbourhoods. After first hearing about the Mercato, I had imagined a small, local fair where a few craftsmen and women set up little booths in the corner of a square in each neighborhood and sold local products over a weekend.
However, I seriously under-estimated the extent of this whole festival, just how seriously the people of Bevagna take the event, and the intensity of the competition between the four gaite. In terms of its community importance, it's a bit comparable to Siena's very well-known Palio, a huge event on that city's calendar. I had the sense in Bevagna that the Mercato was really an event for the local people, celebrating their long history, and any tourism benefits were secondary. The Mercato seems really important to reinforcing the community's sense of itself, its common history and traditions that are essential to holding a community together.
I was truly gobsmacked by just how completely everyone in town throws themselves into this event. For the Mercato, Bevagna's windy medieval streets were lit by flickering torches (very atmospheric!) buildings were turned into the types of workshops that were essential in any community -- candle-makers, weavers, fabric dyers, potters, bakers, goldsmiths (not so many of those) and, of course, taverns with plank tables and benches.
Local people, wearing authentic costumes, get into character quickly and intensely fight for the honour of their gaite. Even cooking becomes a competition, as the four gaites present banquets with dishes that must be authentic to the region and to the period of about 1250 to 1350.
I went down for dinner and a full evening with three new friends that I made while staying nearby at the wonderful Genius Loci Country Inn, operated by Mary Tacconi's family. Mary's daughter Marica, a professor of musicology at Pennsylvania State University, and her good friend and colleague Joanne, along with Joanne's husband Art, invited me to join them. Which was not only great fun, but hugely helpful as the trio are veterans of the event -- especially Mar, who was born and raised in the area and obviously knows the traditions extremely well.
We strolled the narrow, shadowy streets, lit by torches, and watched craftspeople demonstrating their work in poorly lit and badly ventilated rooms -- very evocative of life in the Middle Ages! I was especially intrigued by the production of silk threads, starting with the slabs of dirt where the silkworms burrowed and worked, fed by local mulberry bushes, through to the spinning of great lengths of silk thread from a single pod. The first photo below is from the Mercato's website.
Dinner was fantastic and seemed very authentic (although we did have forks!) Our middle-school-aged wait staff took their jobs very seriously and were careful with our bowls of hot pasta and soup. Here are a few of our servers, on their dinner break.
With just one night to visit, I missed so much. I saw a few spectacles -- a fire-eating juggler in the Piazza Silvestri, with (mysteriously) rubber pigs instead of rubber chickens -- but I didn't get to spend much time in each of the four gaite. Sorry for the quality of these photos:
But I missed archery exhibitions, choirs and music, the spice market, and a kind of livestock market in the gaite of San Giovanni, which was closed to visitors while I was there because the Mercato judges were inspecting displays at the time (we did catch a few glimpses and I believe San Giovanni ultimately won this year's competition.)