The Thrill of the Ancient Tuscan Crossbow Festival ~ Palio della Balestra

by Ashley in Italy /
Ashley in Italy's picture
Sep 18, 2010 / 0 comments

The Palio della Balestra has been held every year in Sansepolcro on the second Sunday of September - uninterrupted since the 15th century. It is an ancient competition between Sansepolcro (Tuscany) and their neighboring rivals of Gubbio (Umbria).
Tuscany Crossbow Festival

This antique tournament takes place in the stunning Piazza Toree di Berta surrounded by Renaissance palaces. The villagers perfectly set the scene in vibrant costumes bringing to life this age old festival.
As the town herald reads aloud the challenges to the Gubbio rivals, the men march their way into town barring their immense crossbows -preparing for the battle to bring pride & honor to their village.

The crossbow is huge & heavy and needs two men to aim & shoot. The center of the target is only 3cm wide. As the arrow speeds across the piazza, 36 meters to its destination, a hush is drawn over the crowd broken only by the thud of the bolts as they hit the target.

Crossbow Festival

The winning team is chosen by how many bolt tips remain in the target. Ooh's and Ahhs are echoed around the piazza as bolts are knocked out by an opponents shot.

Many of the bolts or arrows are branded with the motto:
"Shoot for the Palio, with virtue and honesty, and may victory go to the best in the field."

To entertain the masses as they tally the points the band is brought out to beat their drums, toot their horns and on cue arrives the flag bearers ~

In numerous Italian cities during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, large crossbow tournaments exactly like this were aimed to encourage target practice, formed by free citizens who were put in charge of the defense of the cities so that the military reserve was always available. I find it incredible that they still honor this tradition over 500 years later and in a small way I am able to experience the history, culture and thrill of the Middle Ages!

Tuscany Festival

Official Website

Ashley Bartner is the Living in Italy Editor for Wandering Educators.
La Tavola Marche Agriturismo & Cooking Holiday