The ancient art of the flag

The reenactment of Manfredi traditions in Faenza

The flag has a very ancient history. We have traces of it as an object used as a military sign by Assyrians and Babylonians and also by Alexander the Great, whose army had a purple cloth as its insignia (4th century BC). With the advent of Roman civilization, identifying banners of the various departments appeared alongside insignia (depictions of animals or sacred objects). These banners consisted of a square of red cloth attached at the top of a pole by means of a crossbar below the tip, which today we would call banners or gonfalons. Strips of cloth or colored drapes, hoisted on poles and called "bands," in imitation of Roman banners, also appear in time with the barbarian armies, particularly the Lombards, whence the use of the flag also became customary in civil society as a means of information and identification of authorities and noble families.

The flag in history

Widely used in the military as a means of signaling, flags became essential in the civilian sphere to represent noble families and arts and crafts guilds, as well as civil authorities. Relations with non-Christian territories, due to the Crusades, somewhat influenced the development of the science of heraldry by going on to increase the symbolic meaning of the flag, which also became a representation of city consciousness. In this sense, in the procession of the modern Niballo we find “the flag” of Faenza, that is, the gonfalon, parading in the Municipal Group, but also a multitude of insignia and gonfalons, from the guild of bakers, to the noble families of the various districts, passing through the insignia of the fortresses around Faenza.

As the importance of the flag increases, those who carry it also increase in importance, namely the bishops (from Arabic al-faris, knight or soldier on horseback), and the strength and courage they must show in battle is associated with elegance and dexterity in flag-waving during tournaments or other important occasions such as knights’ investitures. An interesting event happened in Faenza in 1080, when the Count of Vitry (still remembered in the street of the same name) rushed to the aid of the Faentines who were fighting the Ravenna people, managing to put them to flight. As a thank you, the count asked that every first of May his two banners be brought to the church of St. Sigismund, and from then on, until 1796, two young noblemen carried the count’s bannersby twirling them through the city streets. In the late 1990s, for a few years, the Yellow Ward revived this ancient custom.

Between folklore and decoration

With the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age, particularly between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the flag acquired an increasingly folkloric and decorative importance, especially in times of peace. Even in artistic performances, the bishops begin to lose their rigid military post ure in favor of elegant and vaguely circus-like poses. Alongside the equestrian jousts came the emergence of pike and flag tournaments where the standard bearer, who was often a young nobleman at this time, showcased skill and dexterity, and the link with the military environment was increasingly slight. The flag waver also became an acrobat, when he moved the banners of popes, cities and armies at people’s festivals, coming close to the modern juggler and flag waver of today.

In 1674 theAccademia dei Remoti was founded in Faenza by Count Michele Spada. One of the employments of academics was “playing fencing and flag,” a sign that flag-waving was now perceived as a game, where the violence of the battlefield was depicted in the movements, but was absent in reality. Flag-waving had become a pastime, and flag-wavers were enthusiasts who divided their time between fencing and flag-waving. This trend is also confirmed by the emergence of real manuals of the art of flag-making: one such example is the beautiful New Kunstlich Fahnenbuchlein by Johann Renner and Sebastian Heubler first printed in Nuremberg in 1615. In this book we find pictures and explanations on how to perform exercises with the flag, and the volume is very similar to La Bandiera published in 1638 by Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri, master of arms of the Illustrissima Accademia Delia in Padua.

The flag game

As the decades passed, the flag game gradually lost importance, remaining relegated to some palio or special occasion. With the arrival of the 20th century and the emergence of a deep interest in the medieval period, flag-waving and flag-playing came back into vogue along with the first historical reenactments. Flag-waving groups began to spring up just about everywhere, renewing ancient traditions and distinguishing themselves with movements and ways of handling flags that differed from city to city. With the post-World War II economic boom and the rise of mass tourism, the flag waver was engaged not only in historical re-enactments, but also in spectacular and choreographed performances unrelated to a purely historical context and which often took Italian flag wavers around the world. So it is, for example, that the Faenza Group of Banners and Musicians within thirty years ends up visiting many European countries, even attending the European Parliament when Faenza won the Europe Prize. A spectacular soul and charm that the flag game retains at the expense of passing time, but which in recent years is joined by an increasingly strong competitive soul. In many Italian groups, including those in Faenza, there has been a move away from traditional flag-waving and flags with wooden poles and hand-painted canvases, and toward competitive flag-waving, with competitions, judges and regulations, carbon-fiber flags and increasingly simplified costumes.

The flag game today thus finds itself with two distinct and sometimes competing souls. It will be interesting to see in the coming years how it evolves, but of one thing we have certainty: the appeal of the flags will remain unchanged.

In Faenza, according to tradition, on the evening of the third Saturday in June, the “Tournament of Flagbearers and Musicians” is held in the specialty of “Single,” “Small Team,” and “Large Team and Musicians.” Polychromatic banners with the insignia of the districts twirl with extraordinary synchronism in the night sky, accompanied by the mighty roll of drums and the ancient sound of clarions, against the fascinating backdrop of the palaces and loggias of the People’s Square illuminated by day and surrounded by figures in arms

The following evening, Sunday, which precedes the evening when the Palio del Niballo is held, the Knights who will run the Palio lend oath in the People’s Square, before the Mayor of the Joust, the Master of the Field and the entire city, to respect the rules of Chivalry and to fight loyally for the colors of their Ward. After this solemn ceremony, the most traditional of the tournament competitions takes place, that between the Flagbearers of the five Districts in the classic specialty of the “Pair,” which awards the winning District with the large barrel of wine with which they will celebrate until late into the night. Because of their recognized skill, the flag-wavers of the five Faenza districts have repeatedly established themselves as champions in national and international competitions, even winning the title of World Champions in single and pair competitions and earning honorable placings in other specialties, thus placing the Faenza School at the national pinnacle.


Informazioni e ringraziamenti

In partnership with:
Municipality of Faenza Culture Service - Palio Office

Credits: Photographs by Andrea Gonelli, Luca Leoni