May 28 – 29, 2016
In much of Catholic Europe and Latin America, Corpus Christi is a public holiday that honors the Holy Eucharist. On the ninth Sunday after Easter, infiorates (flower festivals) are held throughout Italy and Spello’s, first documented in 1831, is one of the most popular.
Unlike other infiorates like Genzano’s and Noto’s, Spello’s forbids the use of woods and any kind of synthetic materials; only fresh and dried petals and the occasional leaves and berries are allowed. The collection and preservation of these 1.5 million flowers required a three-month commitment from two thousand flower tapestry artists, a quarter of which are children.
We arrived Spello around 20:00. Finding a parking spot proved to be a Herculean task, and after 20 minutes I finally succeeded in finding one off Via Centrale Umbra. After fighting past throng of tourists we located our apartment in the lower part of town near Via San Angelo.
At 21:30 we reemerged outside and even more people had descended to this tiny town — at several junctures there were even security personnel directing the incessant flow of human traffic. An assembly line of volunteers were removing petals from peduncles. Tents were set up across towns and artists plus many more volunteers were focusing on laying petals of all colors on top of large sheets of paper — sort of like filling a coloring book, only with flowers.
For a festival involving flowers, a not insignificant portion of the crowd was drunk and rowdy. Most of the flower carpets were only around 10 – 20% completed when we called it a night at 23:00.
Organizers and volunteers had worked throughout the night, but most of the floral displays were only about 70% completed when we surveyed the ground in this chilly early morning.
More than 100 flower carpets were under preparation, falling roughly under three categories: religious, secular and under 18 years old. On the religious side, inspirations included famous paintings such as Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo or lots and lots of closeups of Jesus. The largest display of the day was a map showing where Paul the Apostle preached before his death in Rome.
My favorite composition was a snail representing time crawling across a meadow under a giant overarching rainbow. At this very moment I was witnessing a particular point in time, a beautiful creation possible because of a combination of nature and human wit; yet in a few hours its entirety would be literally swept away like most things that stood in time’s unrelenting advance towards perpetuity.
After 90 minutes we strolled through the town of 8,500 residents once. Some tents were coming down and day trippers were arriving in droves, signaling it was time for us to get back to our apartment for a breather.
The highlight of the festival was an hour-long procession that began at the Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello’s main church. We found a spot near our apartment and locals in costumes slowly marched by. The floral displays survived until they were stomped over at the very end.
The carnage was difficult to look at. Some were fortunate — a few Marys or Jesuses were intact — but many were turned into random mashes of colors.
For an event that required such an extraordinary amount of time and energy, Spello’s Infiorate has a remarkably short shelf life. That’s the fact with all flowers — and to a larger extent all existence. You can only treasure what you have in the present.
As most people started heading to lunch, a young girl remained to repair her display. For everyone else the festival might be over, but oblivious to her surroundings she was committed to leave behind her best effort possible.