We were headed down the main street toward the Piazza della Repubblica, when I began to notice people dressed in Medieval costumes. I just thought that some of the local merchants dressed that way to attract the tourist trade.
However, when we arrived at the piazza, it was clear that things were being set up for something special to occur. My friends and I found an ideal spot high up on a balcony where we could watch what was about to happen.
Soon we saw some elite clergy making their way to the steps of the city hall.
They seated themselves at a red clothed table at the top of the stairs.
Soon they were joined by a group of horn players heralding the beginning of a ceremony.
The horns were followed by some drummers and then there was a long procession of beautifully dressed people making their way toward the steps. It appeared that the people were broken into five distinct groups and each group had one member carrying a very long white candle. The candle holders and other ceremonial members took positions on the steps while other members of the groups circled the piazza to watch. We later learned that the five groups represented the nobility of each Cortona neighborhood during Medieval times.
Next came a group of young people carrying various patterned flags and they began performing a routine of flag throwing and formations. They had the crowd enthralled by their precision and skill.
While all of the entertainment was going on, the groups of finely dressed citizens were gathered around the piazza watching the demonstrations while behind them were groups of tourists like us who were enjoying something special and unexpected.
After the performance were complete, each person holding one of those long candles went to the top of the stairs and presented the candle to the bishop to be blessed.
After each of the candles had been blessed, the groups gathered together again and started a beautiful procession back down the street where they had come from.
After doing some research, I learned that this ceremony is part of a larger three day event celebrated around the feast of Saint Margherita. It begins with the casting of the candles on Friday evening, the blessing of the candles on Saturday and ends with several masses on Sunday that are held in the nearby Basilica of Santa Margherita. The event takes place once a year and dates back to 1325.
This is one of those things that I wouldn't even have known how to plan for. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I feel lucky that we were there to witness such a colorful and symbolic event. It amazes me that the people of Cortona replicate this event year after year. Now that is tradition.