Words by Christine Webb

It's the drums that got me first... boom! da-boom! boom! ....distant, like thunder, pounding along with my racing heart as Itried to work out which of the echoing lanes was the one to take.

Cobbles and stone walls magnified the sound, louder and louder, through the ancient canyons of Arezzo until I turned the last corner and sixty spectacular Sbandieratori came striding down Corso Italia toward me, resplendent in medieval costume, drummers drumming, trumpets blaring, each one individually coloured, arrogantly carrying gigantic silk ensigns, daring onlookers to gasp. It’s almost overwhelming.

I can’t imagine a band of Italian men looking more magnificent and that’s before they do their stuff. The Arezzo Flag Throwers were formed in 1960 as an autonomous group to perform at the twice annual Saracen Joust. Two years later as a boy, Pasquale Livi joined the ranks and for the last thirty years he has been the technical director and leader.

Trooping the colour

The tradition of flag throwing is thought to have arisen from medieval battle, the ensign carrier being one of the most important soldiers on the field of battle, carrier of the symbol of the army, expected to defend the flag with his life and rally the troops to its colours. In the event of his being overcome, he would throw the flag to a comrade and so began the practice of hurling the banner high in the sky to land safely in the hands of another.

The exquisite detail of the heraldic designs and matching uniforms is only one of the traditions upheld by the squad. They have carefully rehearsed and studied ancient acrobatic techniques from old writings, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca, even designs on ceramic plates, to develop their own unique form of pageantry.

Pasquale has also instilled an air of honour and commitment in his squad.
For 50 weeks a year they perform voluntarily, rehearsing twice a week. In winter they freeze in their costumes, in summer they swelter but it is with great honour that they travel across Italy as representatives of their city, and all over the world as bravura ambassadors for their country. In 1968 they were chosen to open the Mexico Olympics and have since travelled to many parts of Europe, Britain, Japan, South Africa, New York, South America, Australia, Taiwan and represented Italy at the America’s Cup in New Zealand.

A family affair

Over the years Pasquale has experienced a strange alchemy, beyond the passing of time, that trancends the various backgrounds and ages of the performers.

It seems the troupe have preserved not only their traditions but a wonderful level of chivalric pride that only comes from continued dedication. Now his three sons have also joined the group. Massimiliano, Stefano and Daniele the youngest, who also designs the flags and advertising material.

The entire family is involved, with Pasquale’s elegant wife, the gentle Fernanda, who also designs and makes the uniforms, hand embroidering emblematic costumes, each one representing the comuni (councils) that make up the province of Arezzo.

On the evening of the Giostra, as the procession of Flag Throwers winds its way through the town leading over 300 other costumed participants, we meet Fernanda and scramble up the stairs of the Flag Throwers’ headquarters for a stunning view of the event from their window overlooking the Piazza Grande.

The packed audience roars with delight as Pasquale comes striding into the lights, flag held high at arm’s length leading his troupe. Blazing with colour, each of the Sbandieratori charges into the arena with his flag, seemingly oblivious to the burden of the 1.3 kg lead weight at the end of a staff 3.8 metres long and a fluttering silk panel 160 x 140 cm.

Arranged in formation, synchronised to the beat of the drums, each man rocks back on his heel to draw the furled flag and throw it some 30 metres into the air where the flags hang together, suspended for a glorious moment before plummeting to the ground to be caught just in time before hitting the dirt.

Flying in the air

Again and again the aerial ballet dazzles and delights, each man throwing, leaping and catching in an agile, athletic display.

Four men separate from the group to parry and thrust at each other in mock battle, faster and faster the flags twist, slicing and cutting through the air, then another takes a running jump and somersaults over the outspread arms of his companion to tumble onto the bare ground of the arena, lightly jumping to his feet to the rapture of the crowd.

Without pause, the flag throwers twirl and twirl, until bodies and banners become one with the weaving of colours, slicing the air with military precision, a flock of exotic birds until finally they halt in a pyramid of fluttering silk and the crowd goes wild. High above the crowd, Fernanda clasps her hands together in pride, a flawless performance and she waves to Pasquale who beams back at her.

The Sbandieratori perform many times throughout the year in Arezzo as well as twice a year at the Saracen Joust on the evening of the second to last Saturday of June and the afternoon of the first Sunday in September.

Information on tickets is available:
by phone 0575 377 462
or by email giostradelsaracino@comune.arezzo.it

But don’t forget, when you too go to the Arezzo Giostra Saracino, be sure at the end of the performance of the Sbandieratori to lookout for the Cavaliere (knight), dressed in brilliant blue as he waves to his beautiful lady, high above in the tower window.

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