Crossbow Rivalry of Two Italian Towns Dates to Middle Ages
for National Geographic News
|September 6, 2002|
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"Bless these cavalieri for transferring their noble weapons into instruments of peace." With these words and a sprinkling of holy water, a local priest completed the blessing of arms that opened the crossbow competition in Gubbio, Italy, last May.
The target-shooting contest that pits the bowmen of Gubbio against their challengers from Sansepolcro, a neighboring city in Umbria, has been held regularly for several centuries.
This weekend, the Gubbio team travels to Sansepolcro for the second stage of the colorful event, known as the Palio della Balestra.
"The first match was played in 1461, on the 17th of May. We have original documents about the competition that year," said Orlandi Ubaldo, president of the Crossbowmen's Society (Balestrieri) of Gubbio and the only contender in this century who has won the event three times.
Today, the event is held every year in Gubbio on the last Sunday in May, and in Sansepolcro on the second Sunday of September.
"It is now more than 350 years that the palio has been held here. It was interrupted only for the World War II, and one time Napoleon forbade it," said Ubaldo. This year his group is printing a list of all the winners from 1864 to 1974.
In a nod to the contest's deep roots, the contenders don medieval costumes and observe historical customs that include awarding the winner a specially designed palio banner (originally a pallium, or special fabric to sew a new suit), followed by a torch-lit victory procession through the town.
The crossbow, which has ancient origins in China, was one of the most important weapons of medieval Europe.
"Crossbows were important for warfare and hunting from the 11th century onwardthey were of daily practical use," said Stuart Pyhrr, a curator in the arms and armor department of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
William the Conqueror brought skilled crossbowmen with him when he invaded England in A.D. 1066.
The crossbow was powerful in battle because its bolts (a shorter version of arrows) could penetrate the chain mail of opponents. Leaders of the Catholic Church, outraged by the lethal weapon, deemed the crossbow "unfit to be used among Christians" and tried to ban it from warfare in 1139without success. Richard I ("the Lionheart") died of a crossbow wound on the battlefield in 1199.
English troops eventually came to favor the longbow in warfare, but the crossbow, which was much easier to use, remained popular in Italy and several other European countries.
Under the feudal system of the Middle Ages, when landowners were responsible for their own local defense, the crossbow was prized by town militia and troops of mercenaries.
"The protection of one's castle or town was important. Civil outbreaks and invasions happened often. Perhaps it was more commonplace in Italy because there were so many city-states," said Pyhrr. "Many commercial towns had their own militia, and groups of crossbowmen were part of the militia."
A number of Italian towns, he noted, became famous for their skilled crossbowmen. "It seems to have become something of a major export, a commoditymercenaries that could be rented out. It brought fame to Genoa and some other cities," said Pyhrr.
Hunting and Sport
The crossbow became obsolete in warfare in the 15th century after firearms were introduced. It continued to be used widely for hunting, however, and also became popular for sport.
"Shooting societies remained in place from the 16th century," said Pyhrr. Companies of crossbowmen organized inter-city competitions to display their skills and keep the ancient art alive.
Crossbows are still used for hunting in some parts of the world, especially Africa and Southeast Asia, but the practice has been outlawed or restricted in many countries, including the United States.
The basic design of the crossbow has changed little through the ages; it consists of a bow fixed horizontally atop a stock, or handle; string; nocks, or notched end pieces of the bow to which the string is attached; and a trigger to release the arrow-like bolts. The bolts are made of wood, with tips of steel and feather fins.
Medieval crossbows had a bow constructed of composite layers, to make it "soft and springy," said Pyhrr. The materials for the various parts were all natural, including wood, bone, tendon, and glue. Steel-made bows, which were stronger than composite bows, came into use by the 14th to 15th century.
Many modern crossbows are made of lighter materials and have sighting mechanisms and other modifications to make them more efficient.
Today, the Gubbio and Sansepolcro contenders are required to use crossbows modeled on the traditional design, although the style and size can vary slightly to suit the individual owners and teams. "Some balestre (crossbows) are handed down from the families, but some of the balestrieri are very good at creating and producing them for competition," Ubaldo said.
"To become a balestriere is very hard," Ubaldo explained. An aspiring bowman must practice and master the sport on his own, and pass an exam to demonstrate knowledge about crossbow engineering and the traditional palio.
A committee of highly experienced marksmen in the Crossbowmen's Society ultimately decides whether to admit the newcomer into the group. "To enter is quite impossible. There have been just two new balestrieri in the last four years," said Ubaldo.
Last May the crossbow competition in Gubbio was held in the plaza between the 14th-century Palace of the Consuls and the town hall. The activities featured 600-year-old music, colorful flag-throwing exhibitions, and men positioned precariously inside a high open tower to ring the town's massive bell.
Officials and other representatives of the two competing towns accompanied the teams to the shooting grounds. Many of them were dressed in costumes inspired by figures in the famous Renaissance paintings of Piero della Francesca, a native son of Sansepolcro.
Patti Absher, the owner of Great Travels in Washington, D.C., who has taken tour groups to the Gubbio event for the past five years, noted the striking resemblance of the characters in the paintings and their modern-day counterparts. "It's not just the costumes that are so amazingit's also the faces," she said.
One after another, the 41 bowmen from Gubbio and 46 from Sansepolcro took their places at the cobbler-style shooting benches. In rapid successionthwack, thwack, thwackmost of the bolts hit the black-and-white target 118 feet (36 meters) away. As the bolts piled up in a massive cluster, some were displaced by others and fell to the ground.
Later, when the bull's-eye was removed and examined closely by a committee, this year's winner was Marcello Pasquinia sixtyish dark-horse contender. "Nobody expected that from him. He is really an outsider. His turn to throw the arrow is around the 40th to 50th place," said Ubaldo.
With Antonio Madonnini and Claudio Mancini placing second and third, the event was a sweep for the Gubbio team.
Bearing the coveted palio banner, made this year by Florence artist Imperio Nigiani, the joyous Pasquini was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates and carried through the streets of Gubbio.
For this story, Paolo Clementi of Gubbio did the English translation of quotes and information provided by Orlandi Ubaldo.
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