Once again this June, San Gimignano – famous for its lofty towers and picturesque streets and squares – celebrates the “Ferie delle Messi,” a pageant that dates back to 1255. This traditional fertility festival features street music, theatre and markets, a costume parade and jousting – a full programme of events that are of authentic mediaeval origin.
The “Cavalieri di Santa Fina” (the Knights of Saint Fina) association was founded in 1994 with the aim of reviving San Gimignano’s mediaeval festival. The association is named after Fina dei Ciardi, a young girl who died for her faith in 1253 and became a Patron Saint of San Gimignano. The city actually has two: Saint Geminian of Modena, after whom the city is named, and Saint Fina. According to legend, she was just fifteen years old when her mother died. Thereafter, Fina lived such an ascetic lifestyle that, in the end, she was scarcely able to move. The instant she died, white, beautifully-scented flowers blossomed from her bed.
The “Ferie delle Messi” festival was established in the statutes of the comune of San Gimignano from 1255 to 1314, and was celebrated by the whole population – divided into its four districts of San Giovanni, San Matteo, Castello, and Piazza – with dancing, singing, games, and jousting, all with the aim of encouraging a good harvest. Research into 13th-century documents also reveals evidence of San Gimignano knights taking part in battles of the period, and so this combat aspect too became a part of the festival.
Saint Fina is also commemorated in the art and architecture of San Gimignano. Between 1468 and 1472, architect Giuliano da Maiano built Saint Fina’s mortuary chapel in the collegiate church (his brother Benedetto da Maiano created the saint’s burial altar about 1475), and Ghirlandaio covered the walls with frescoes.
This year’s “Ferie delle Messi” takes place on June 17-19. The participants are all locals of San Gimignano. The costumes are created by the Fashion Institute of Colle Val d’Elsa and are based on sketches of the frescoes in the Duomo. The association now has a wide range of costumes, all stored at its headquarters in San Gimignano.
In the main square you can witness the tug-of-war and admire the acrobats, jugglers, duellists, archers, fire-eaters, actors, musicians, and dancers. There will also be drumming and an arts and crafts exhibition.
The climax of the event is the Grand Procession, whose colours, objects, and characters symbolise the relationship between earth and fertility. Some 300 costumed characters, on foot or on horseback, parade in a stream of colour along the ancient streets of the historic centre to the Rocca di Montestaffoli, where they attend the “Giostra dei Bastoni.”
This jousting tournament is fought by four knights, one from each district. During the purification ceremony on the Sunday morning in Piazza del Duomo, they receive the blessing of the parish priest and a greeting from the podestà or governor, after which they process to the tournament. The crowds in the piazza reserve their applause for when the victor and his district are awarded the prize of the golden sword, symbolising wealth and fertility.