Spello’s most important festival, the Infiorata, takes place on the feast of Corpus Christi when Catholics celebrate the tradition of the body and blood of Christ. The citizens of Spello gather together to create magnificent pictures along the streets and squares of the old town, using only flower petals, leaves and herbs. Spello’s festival is the biggest of its kind in the whole of Italy.
The tradition of floral celebrations may have its origins in Roman times when large numbers of scented petals were strewn before conquering generals. The feast of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, was also celebrated in May, when wreaths of flowers were worn in the hair.
Records of floral carpets in Spello can be traced back to the early 19th century. A painting by Benvenuto Crispoldi, artist and mayor of the town, depicts the Corpus Christi procession walking over flower carpets. The form of the modern Infiorata came about when in 1930 a woman drew a figure in the street and decorated it with flowers and vegetables. Since then, the people of Spello have challenged themselves to create more and more spectacular floral pictures.
Around 2 kilometers of floral carpets are created by more than 40 groups of 5 or more residents in the streets and piazzas of the old town. There is a competitive element, so designs are kept strictly within the individual groups. There is a special category for under 14s, meaning that the tradition is passed down through the generations.
Mio marito and I were keen to take part in the event and to contribute in a small way to our local group, the Piazzetta della Foglie, named after the tiny piazza where the group’s activities were based.
Collecting wild flowers to be dried was the first job. For several evenings we joined other colleagues to gather baskets of flowers from the surrounding countryside. On our first outing we drove around the local area searching for roses of a particular colour. When the right roses were spotted, we screeched to a halt and asked the owners if we could take their blown roses for the Infiorata. Armed with thick gloves and secateurs it felt as though we were going equipped to steal, but without exception people welcomed us into their gardens to raid their rose petals.
We picked bright yellow broom on the mountain slopes amid stunning scenery; we could see snow on the distant mountain tops.
We picked margaritas with their snow white petals in sun-kissed meadows……
….and splendid electric blue cornflowers on the great expanse of the high plains of Collefiorito in wet and muddy conditions.
Others picked green foliage, seeds and herbs. As the big day approached, fresh cornflowers and margaritas, foliage and fennel fronds were gathered, as fresh petals are brighter in colour than dried ones and produce a more pleasing design.
Groups of people picked the individual petals and separated the leaves, fronds and seeds.
Petals were dried in the sun…..
…and then ground, producing an eye-catching display reminiscent of the spice markets of Marrakech.
The Infiorati – those creating the carpets of flowers – either lay a paper design on the street or simply draw an outline in chalk.
The Infiorati fill in the designs with their petals, leaves, seeds and herbs.
Groups start on Saturday afternoon and have to complete by 8am on Sunday morning so they work throughout the night. For the larger areas, canopies and lighting are erected to protect the delicate work. Unfortunately the designs in the narrow streets have no such protection.
In the early hours of Sunday morning there was a torrential downpour of rain and many of the flowers were washed away. Most groups managed to restart their work, and in recognition of the weather conditions they were allowed an extra hour to finish. The enthusiasm and passion of everyone involved in preparing for and producing these sophisticated, scented masterpieces was really impressive.
We rose before dawn to see the sunrise and to watch the final touches being added.
The themes are largely religious……
Look at how the effect of grey hair and the realistic skin tones are achieved.
……although there are also colourful geometric designs.
There are strict rules to be followed: large designs must cover 24 square metres whilst those in the narrow streets must be 12 square metres. Flower petals – fresh or dried – foliage, herbs and seeds are the only materials. No glue is allowed. They prayed it would not be windy!
This was the carpet that mio marito and I made a small contribution to. Laid in our narrow street, it was in the form of a watch. Individual segments illustrated points during the day and the watch face at the centre showed the face of Jesus in shadow. The message was one of prayer throughout the course of the ordinary day.
The technical difficulty is apparent when you look at the detail of, for example, the clock on the wall and the filing cabinets.
One of my favourites used the contours of the small square to wonderful effect. Even the water fountain was covered with flowers.
Different effects were produced by layering petals, giving pictures depth and texture.
Bright colours and exquisite designs were all around the old town.
It is hard to believe that these pictures are created entirely with flowers; they look like beautiful paintings. But look closely and you will see the individual petals.
As well as the extravagant floral carpet displays, there are a number of other concurrent events, such as musical performances, competitions for the best floral cake design and the best flower-themed needlework and competitions for the most attractive window-boxes, balconies and alleyways. Even the restaurants serve food inspired by flowers.
Despite the forecast, the weather was brilliant for the entire day. In 2012 there were 80,000 visitors to the Infiorata. I have no idea how many turned up this year, but turn up they did – in their droves. Tiny Spello hummed with their chatter and exclamations of delight!
Coaches disgorged streams of happy visitors, cars queued to get in at the outskirts of the town and the people of Spello welcomed them all, free of charge. Bars that had stayed open throughout Saturday night to feed the Infiorati were still open on Sunday to refresh the travellers.
Following the celebration of a religious service to mark Corpus Christi, there is a flamboyant procession through the old town across the floral carpets led by the local bishop and his entourage.
The skills of the Infiorati are highly prized and they have been called upon previously to create floral masterpieces in Rome and Venice. The latest commission is to provide a carpet of flowers to celebrate the visit of Pope Francis to Assisi in October. The flower gathering has already begun.