Spello, Italy: The Infiorata Covers the Streets with Flowers

Jesus is created in flower petals at the annual Infiorata celebration in Spello, Italy. Marianna Morè photos.
Jesus is created in flower petals at the annual Infiorata celebration in Spello, Italy. Marianna Morè photos.

By Marianna Morè

Infiorata, Collaboration in Color

The last, declining rays are setting over the soft, ancient curves of the Appennines in Spello, Italy.

Artists work feverishly the night before the event to create the complex art to be transformed by flower petals.
Artists work feverishly the night before the event to create the complex art to be transformed by flower petals.

The lively gold of the fields, the sharp green of the trees slowly appear filtered through a dim shade of purple and blue.  Soon the twinkle of street lamps, of windows and cars appears in the valley below, a timid imitation of the overhanging sky.

The little town of Spello is too busy to sleep tonight. Home to 8,590 inhabitants and perched on a rock of Mount Subasio in Umbria, a region in the middle of Italy, it is preparing for Corpus Domini, a Christian feast that finds here one of its most colorful declinations.

Founded by Umbrian tribes and Roman colony in the age of Augustus, Spello is a nest of limestone houses, short alleys and small gardens, a medieval maze surrounded by ancient walls and towered Roman gates. One can easily imagine the town at the time of Giotto or Saint Francis, whose lives, works and deeds still draw in Umbria thousands of tourists every year.

Infiorata Tonight

But tonight Spello has something else to think about. On the 6th of July, people from the town and the neighboring villages meet on the alleys and streets soon after dinner, a fervent mass preparing for a delicate and meticulous work: the annual infiorata.

A tradition of baroque origins, born in Rome in the first half of the XVII century, it consists in the decoration of streets with flowers, parts of flowers and petals, forming wide and colorful carpets. Sort of evanescent mosaics, these floral pictures are created in numerous locations in central Italy, mostly on religious occasions. Competition is also part of the event, since factions of boroughts often challenge each other to creating the most beautiful work.

The procedure is well organized: the day before Corpus Domini, white, long tarpaulins are unfolded along the streets, momentarily covered by installations to repair them from wind and, eventually, rain. The tarpaulins are decorated with drawings of religious and universal themes. Each area on these images is marked and identified with names of different flowers: daisies, bluebottles, crysantemums, roses, elders..

A castle in Spello, Italy.
Roman era gates and towers in Spello, Italy.

During the night, helped by other citizens who sort and divide the flowers by type, the infioratori –the artists of the infiorata- cover the tarpaulins with flowers and petals, until the drawings are complete. The following morning, the covering installations are removed and religious performances take place.

Don't Last Long

It's a though job, says one of them,  because we must end filling in the shapes by seven o' clock, otherwise we are disqualified from the competition.  What's more, he admits with an amused smile,  these creations don't last long: our bishop walks on them during the procession at eleven o' clock.- The infioratore doesn't seem discouraged in any case.  But it's worth it, it's worth it, he repeats with a convincing gaze.

Sure it must be. The competition involves people of all ages: adults, old men and women and children, all collaborate in the fase of the selection of flowers. The sit on the streets and alleys in groups, on chairs they have brought from home. With attention and patience, they pick petals from flowers, divide them by color and type, and place them in different cardboard boxes.

A genuine communion of feelings and a gentle pride in an unusual art are perceivable in the cheerful chatting of the working groups. In this small town in Umbria I'm reminded of the value of cohesion, of collaboration for a mutual aim. Infiorata unite and give value to the people: children have their flower picture to complete, too. And they won't go to bed early this night.

Preparing the colorful flower petals to become temporary art.
Preparing the colorful flower petals to become temporary art.

Every artist work at his own pace: some using tweezers, other spreading petals and then fixing the edges of the shapes. Soon colorful images begin to appear: an imposing Pilatus on a throne, a clock, Pope Francis, a tree, angels and garlands, a plug connecting the world. Little, ephemeral petals become art: popular art, in the most general sense.

Treasures in Spello

But there is no lack of art in Spello. Like other small towns in Italy, this place has its own treasures of ancient architecture: roman gates with hexagonal towers that frame the overlooking countryside and mosaics of a roman villa, depicting scenes of agricultural life. One could have the impression that nothing has changed since then and nature is still an essential element.

Strolling along the streets and medieval alleys and looking at the panorama beyond them is a feast for the eyes, which can enjoy many other surprises: a roman forum, a gallery with a painting that is attributed to Pintoricchio, a chapel frescoed with mystical images by Nicolò di Liberatore and a collection of statues by Emilio Greco. Very close to the center of the town are both villa Fidelia and the Romanesque church of San Claudio.

Preparing for the big day, Infiorata, in Spello, Italy.
Preparing for the big day, Infiorata, in Spello, Italy.

One major work mainly deserves a visit to Spello: the Baglioni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, famous for its frescoes by Pintoricchio. Cross-vaulted and paved with local Deruta tiles, it is decorated with scenes from the Gospel.

The room is an iridescent kaleidoscope: it surrounds tourists and faithfuls with a cinema of images so delicate, that could be printed on Christmas gift cards.

Santa Maria Maggiore just opened for the night cerimonies. A crowd fills the whole church: some people quietly reflecting, others praying, many tiredly leaning on the benches after a weeks of busy preparation. Close to the entrance, a plaque on a corner reads that nature, apparently silent, speaks to everybody.

During this long night, nothing could be more true.

How to get there:

By plane: Spello is 26 km from the Sant'Egidio airport in Perugia.

By train: from Ancona, Florence, Rome

The finished artwork ready for the Bishop to walk through.
The finished artwork ready for the Bishop to walk through.

By car: Highway from Florence, Cesena, Rome

What to see:

Roman Villa

St. Anna's chapel

Porta Venere and the towers of Properzio

Baglioni chapel

Palazzo comunale

Emilio Greco Collection

Pinacoteca civica di Spello

Villa Fidelia

Marianna Morè is a freelance writer who lives in Padua, Italy.  She is a windsurfer, a scuba diver and an avid reader. She says she owes her passion for art, history and culture to her parents. Read her travel blog.

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