ASSISI – Banners of Calendimaggio

Mirrors of Conflict

by Peter Orenski

(Note: click on thumbnails or hyper-linked text to expand graphics)

Flags are the shorthand of history
Whitney Smith

St. Francis (ital = Francesco), nickname: Poverello (little poor one), 1182-1226. St. Clare 1194-1253 (ital = Chiara), Asisium = Roman ‘municipium’. Umbri & Etruscans B4. Rufino = 1st Assisi Bshop, martyred 3rd C ... ~ 1100 AD Assisi = indp’t CT, blue/red own clrs. St. Francis: prays Mt. Subasio ... tames wolf Gubbio (medieval power, Umbria; now Perugia = KPtal/capoluogo Umbria) ... stigmata @ Monte della Verna ... Franciscans Greek ‘tau’ symbol (~ †?). Guelf/Ghibelline blood feud/« » factions Italian Middle Ages ... Guelfs = » papacy; Ghibellines » German emprors ... ÷÷ 2 Assisi factions, Fiumi ( = river, ital) & Nepis famls ... blood-feud late-14 C ++ ... ø city: lwr Parte de Sotto (Fiumi)/Guelf/merchants & uppr Parte de Sopra (Nepis)/Ghibelline/ nobles.... gatti (cats, ital) Mammoni ... Mammone family ½ cat/ ½ lion ... CALENDS = 1st D any mo. Roman cal’dar frm whch Ds of preced’g mo. counted ‹ ‹ (OED+RH-CUD); maggio = May (ital) ... Calendimaggio/ Cgg /feast (greet spring) in mdrn 4M = Thur/Fri/Sat after 1st of May ... and the contest is granted, but not by arms: only by ingenuity and art, only to those who best sing of May and of Spring, like Francesco, every Spring, during moon-filled nights, on the streets of Assisi. Mario Ortensi ( 1954: modern Cgg, CT dvd’d 6 rioni (districts, Ital.), 3 Sotto, 3 Sopra, each w\ own COA from Assisi hstry. 2001 – final Fs graphics: Francesco Mancinelli, Giovanni Bastianini; archvst/hist’n: Pier Maurizio Della Porta.

Some shorthand. Some history.

fig. 27.gif (10523 bytes)And some flag fest: I have never witnessed a city more joyously flag-filled – imbandierata, as Italians say – than Assisi during the 2001 Calendimaggio. From every house, at every window and balcony, on every street leading to the central Piazza del Comune, a riot of colors, a fancy flutter of flags, a bounty of banners, gonfalons galore– all reborn in final form in the spring of 2001 at the fine hand of Francesco Mancinelli, the multi-talented graphic artist, former sbandieratore and self-professed ‘lover of Assisi.’

Assisi, home to the revered Saint Francis, since 1939 the Patron Saint of Italy, is an easy city to love. And if you love the excitement of discovering new banners and you chance upon Assisi during Calendimaggio, well, I’m sure there are other times and places that feel like Heaven, I just don’t happen to know them. Here endeth the objective part.


Great flags, like great nations and great Saints, are born of conflict. The flags and gonfalons of the Assisian Calendimaggio are no exception. They reflect the tension, the duality inherent in commingling the sacred and profane, the pagan rite with the spiritual experience – just as they reflect the taming of ancient blood feuds into artistic contest. A few brief historical excursions will illustrate these thoughts.

First, an excursion into Assisi’s history.

Although it is true that without Saint Francis Assisi would be just another medieval fortress-town perched some 1300 feet (400 meters) up the side of a hill in the center of Umbria, it is also true that Assisi does have a long pre-Franciscan history. And it even has a foggy pre-history, involving the Umbri, a people of uncertain origin who inhabited central Italy, and later the Etruscans, of equally uncertain origin, who settled in the region around the 6th century BC. A reasonable guess would have these pre-Roman peoples celebrating the coming of spring – just as the Celts had done for a thousand years before, in more northern climes, greeting the rebirth of life, after winter hibernation and hardships, with cults based on flowers and trees.

What forms only an educated guess for the Umbri and Etruscans is an established fact for the Romans, who moved into the region by the 3rd century BC. An orderly people, the Romans kept a contingent of deities ready to account for most of life’s turns. The goddess Flora, for example, was entrusted with the flowering of plants and the springing of spring, and Botticelli depicted her promotion from wood nymph to goddess in his famous 1477 painting La Primavera, now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. A zestful people, the Romans instituted a festival for her in 238 BC, the Floralia, and honored the goddess by placing her head on coins of the republic. It was also the Romans who gave our city its name – Asisium, after the Asi hill on which it stood – and elevated it to a municipium, a city whose citizens enjoyed the privileges of Roman citizens.

And so, for the flag enthusiast in Assisi in early May, it all harks back a couple of millennia – as most things do in Italy, and many in Europe – to the Romans, who brought flags, springfest, and Assisi together for the first time: some Roman cavalry unit carrying a vexillum in Asisium during the Floralia.

After enduring, along with many others cities in central Italy, the devastation and pillage of the Dark Ages, Assisi emerged as an independent city – il libero comune di Assisi – around 1198 and chose red and blue for its colors. 10A The exact reasons for that choice are lost in the mist of history, but given the sway the German Emperor held over the region, and given the emergence of the Catholic Church as a formidable religious, monastic (Benedictine, at the time), and temporal power, one could speculate that blue refers to secular authority and red to pontifical potence. 10B Two primary colors standing for the primary forces of temporal and religious authority – a first expression of the tension and conflict mirrored in the Banners of Calendimaggio.

Such dichotomy is also encased in the stone-and-brick masonry of the Porta San Giacomo (Saint James or Jacob) to the north-north-west of the city, in the Parte de Sotto, a couple of hundred meters, or yards, due east of the St. Francis Basilica. Clearly visible alongside older arms, one shield bears the Christian cross, another a lion rampant. Both are of more recent vintage, judging from their greyish concrete color that contrasts with the older masonry surrounding them. Cross and rampant lion – obvious references to the kingdoms of God and emperors. According to Historian Pier Maurizio Della Porta – another self-proclaimed ‘lover of Assisi’ and a major contributor to the modern Calendimaggio – the arms are of more recent date than the older shield nearby, which date to 1354-67. 10C

fig.1.gif (7057 bytes)These colors and symbols are brilliantly juxtaposed and conflicted in the arms of Assisi, showing the cross, in white, on a blue background and a golden-yellow lion rampant on a red field, thus placing the cross on the ‘secular color’ and the lion on the ‘papal hue’. The green turf 11 supporting the lion completes the green-red-blue triad of primary colors, which combine to yield white, which in turn is the color of the cross in the arms. This subtlety, long with the placement of the cross in the dexter position of strength and honor on the shield, leave no doubt about which of the two symbols Assisi considers its keystone. In addition, according to Della Porta, there is credible testimony for the colors and symbols of Assisi going back to the 1300's, though the first extant records are only found in city statutes dating from 1469. Della Porta considers it likely – verosimile was the word he used in Italian 12 – that the cross symbol was granted Assisi by the papacy shortly after the former became independent. That would make the cross the older of the two symbols and thus provide a historical perspectives for its preferred position on the shield.

Following its independence, Assisi was subject for some three centuries to the same crosswinds – the conflicting pretensions of the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy – that blew across most central-Italian city states in Umbria and Tuscany. The sword’s point of that conflict were the bloody feuds between Guelfs (pro-papal) and Ghibelline (pro-imperial) factions in various cities – beginning with Florence, where the Guelfs were exiled twice (1248 and 1260) before the invading Charles of Anjou, King of the two Sicilies (or two Naples) upended the Ghibelline power monopoly in 1266.

In Assisi, starting in about the 14th century, the local antagonists in this region-wide conflict were the Fiumi (Guelf) and Nepis (Ghibelline) families, who divided the comune into, respectively, Parte de Sotto and Parte de Sopra, that is, into the Lower Part and the Upper Part; 13 they used this artificial partition of an area barely wider than a mile (1600 meters) to pursue a brutal vendetta, which contributed, as blood-feuds usually do, little or nothing to the city’s artistic and cultural development. After some two centuries of such medieval mindlessness, Assisi in 1500 came under the protection of the Papal States, where – except for a brief period during the Napoleonic mindlessness – it enjoyed an undistinguished but peaceable existence until the unification of Italy in 1860.

fig. 2.gif (8619 bytes)And so we find that Assisi’s history sinewed by primal conflicts, all of which are reflected in the Gonfalons of Calendimaggio: a violent regional conflict between spiritual and temporal powers represented by popes and emperors, and an equally feral, intramural, 14 inter-family sideshow of the regional struggle, which divided the city for centuries and survives in attenuated, stylized form until the present.


We saw that the impulse to celebrate the returning spring, the blooming earth, the cosmic thrust toward longer days dates back to the earliest stirrings of communal life. In Assisi, such joyful celebrations fell victim first to the bloody rituals of the Fiumi-Nepis struggle in the Middle Ages, then to a general degradation of manners, which culminated in 1615 with "honorable citizens" erupting on horseback into the chruch of the St. Apollinare monastery. It was not until 1927 that the so-called Calendimaggio Brigade made the first organized attempt to recapture the essence of a medieval celebration, where choral music and songsters, accompanied by mandolins, guitars and lutes, would reclaim the geniality and charm – while banishing the bloodshed and degradation – of old. Unfortunately, the worldwide depression of the 20's and 30's, the straightjacket of Italian fascism, and the upheavals of World War II soon snuffed out that noble effort.

Following the war, in September 1952, a re-energized Calendimaggio Brigade charged a local ‘triumvirate’ – Paolo Biffis, Fioravante Caldari, and Francesco Saverio Sergiacomi – 10C with organizing a spring festival based on the happier notes of medieval themes. By 1954 the diligent efforts of the ‘1952 triumvirate’ yielded a Calendimaggio celebration – parades in medieval costumes, choral and poetry challenges between the two city sectors, themed spectacles, archery and rope-pulling contests – that has not only endured for almost five decades but has steadily grown in complexity, sophistication and allure. Some images from past festivities can be seen in the accompanying photo gallery or on the Internet. 15 Due to these efforts and to the enthusiastic and capable participation of well-nigh the entire population of the comune – it takes some six moths to prepare for the three-day event – the Assisi Calendimaggio is today among the top ten medieval festivals in Italy. As the poet Mario Ortensi wrote: ... and the contest is granted, but not by arms: only by ingenuity and art, only to those who best sing of May and of Spring, like Francesco, every Spring, during moon-filled nights, on the streets of Assisi. 16

Saint Francis

Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,

in Heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,

and through the air, cloudy and serene,

and every kind of weather through which you give sustenance to your creatures.

Canticle of the Creatures

No story of Calendimaggio banners would be complete without encountering the peerless Saint who singlehandedly placed, and kept, Assisi on the map of modernity. As Sir Walter Scott might have written: Lived there a man with soul so dead, / Who never to himself hath said, / The star-besotted Brother Sky, / The flashing hoofs of Sister Foal, / The Brother Wind of whispered sooth, / All these are but the crumbs of Truth, / But shards of my Immortal Soul? 17

Apparently so, for the soul of Francesco – Giovanni 18 – Bernardone started out a mess, according to the online Catholic Encyclopedia: Although associated with his father in trade, he showed little liking for a merchant's career, and his parents seemed to have indulged his every whim ... No one loved pleasure more than Francis; he had a ready wit, sang merrily, delighted in fine clothes and showy display. Handsome, gay, gallant, and courteous, he soon became the prime favorite among the young nobles of Assisi, the foremost in every feat of arms, the leader of the civil revels, the very king of frolic. 19 And yet, as St. Augustine had proven some 800 years before and the Buddha one millennium before that, messy beginnings sometimes cradle great Saints and Teachers.

Setting a hopeful example for the rest of us, young Francesco resolutely pursues a fast-track to failure. He enlists in the war against neighboring Perugia and is promptly taken prisoner in the battle of Collestrada; he spends a year in jail before his father reluctantly pays a ransom to rescue him. He dreams of being a Crusader; joins an expeditionary force; gets no farther than nearby Spoleto before falling ill and having to abandon the idea. Returning to Assisi, he starts hearing voices – Francesco, ripara la mia casa! Francis, go repair my house – while praying in the dilapidated little church of San Damiano, just outside the southeastern corner of the city walls. The voices neglect to specify, as voices often will, a source for the bricks and money needed for the repair. Left clueless, the future Saint decides to rustle a horse and to purloin bolts of cloth from his father’s business; hastens to a close-by market in Foligno; sells the stolen goods, evidently planning to purchase bricks for San Damiano with the proceeds. His father uncovers the escapade, drags Francis home, beats and binds him, then locks him in a dark closet. Such is, at times, the path to sainthood.

The rest, to coin a phrase, is history. What is not (yet) history, is how St. Francis’ rich playboy-poor Saint conflict can be rediscovered in the manner Assisi displayed its Calendimaggio standards in the two city sectors during the 2001 festivities. The Nobilissima (most noble) Parte de Sopra, reflecting St. Francis’ early silver-spoon years, had secured the latest brand-new flags and gonfalons and displayed them cleanly and uniformly from every possible venue. To a guest, there was a distinct air of elegance and regularity – bordering on the showy and pedantic, on the ostentatious – in the colorful banners highlighting structures throughout the three districts of the Upper Part. Not a flag out of place, not a gonfalon askew.

By contrast, flag displays in the Lower Part conveyed a hint of St. Francis il Poverello, the little poor one, the unpretentious monk in his simple habit: gray sackcloth, hemp chord, sandals.20 One felt the impulse to stop and help out these folks. Some banners were old-looking, almost ragged, could have used a good cleaning; others were of outdated design (Figure ???); still others were hanging upside down; some belonged to another district. If it felt like the Saint’s domain, it was. One resident, confronted with these observations, said wryly: The people there [in the Upper Part] have a need to look perfect; we down here just muddle along. The ancient divisions, the never-forgotten conflicts, the centuries-old ghosts from the Saint’s riches-to-poor odyssey are well alive, mirrored in the Banners of Calendimaggio.

Banners of Calendimaggio

1. General Observations

When members of the now-famous Assisi ‘triumvirate’ decided in 1954 to record some joyful echoes from the city’s often unjoyful medieval past, they envisaged an expanded Calendimaggio festa or festivity. They also decided to separate each city sector into three districts – rione in Italian – develop coats-of-arms for the districts, and add some panache to the names of each sector, such as Magnifica for the western sector and Nobilissima to the Upper Part or eastern sector. Accordingly, the Lower Part, home to St. Francis’ Basilica, became the Magnifica Parte de Sotto and was divided, viewed north to south, into Rione San Giacomo, Rione San Francesco, and Rione San Pietro. The Upper Part became the Nobilissima Parte de Sopra and was partitioned, again going north to south, into Rione Porta Perlici, Rione San Rufino, and Rione Porta Moiano.

The triumvirate team members researched medieval documents and derived appropriate symbols for the arms (just shields in all cases) of the two sectors and their new districts. District names was based – with one glaringly unfortunate exception 21 – on the names of nearby city gates. This is an important point, worth stressing: all names and symbols discussed in the following pages were invented in 1954, are therefore, in a sense, artificial, and are in every sense of relatively recent vintage. Though artificial and relatively recent, the symbols were nonetheless conscientiously developed by highly regarded scholars steeped in regional history and local customs. They were decidedly not the haphazard product of political horse-trading, nor the fruits of arbitrary decisions, nor the monotonous repetition of threadbare patterns, as is often the case elsewhere. Recent vintage, deep roots, original concepts, one unfortunate omission.

A word about the overall design of the flags and gonfalons in Figures 2 and 3, and the arms, which are shown by themselves in Figure 3A. Whereas the shape of the shield is invariant and derives from the contours of 14th-century Italian arms, the layout of the flags and gonfalons is innovative, strikingly varied and esthetically pleasing. Layout and shapes were finalized only in early 2001 by a modern Assisian triumvirate: historian Pier Maurizio Della Porta and designers Francesco Mancinelli and Giovanni Bastianini. Together, over several years, they arrived at what is arguably one of the most diversified and interesting collection of gonfalons and flags in modern Italian history.

Each rione was assigned a set of two colors derived from colors present in the shield. Flags stem from the corresponding gonfalons, after removing the arms from the latter. This innovative approach has two advantages: (a) it doubles the vehicles for displaying the specific colors of each district by presenting them both on vertically displayed gonfalons and on flags hanging from poles mounted in wall brackets; (b) it lowers the cost of flags by omitting the shields, which are often distorted or hidden by folds of flags during display from vertical or angled poles. Gonfalons, on the other hand, being always displayed vertically, highlight their charges well and show them distinctly. The innovations also fit comfortably within Italy’s historic tradition that accords gonfalons a higher status relative to flags.

The innovative design of Assisi’s gonfalons and flags harbors and interesting contradiction, a subtle conflict, that permeates the entire festa di Calendimaggio: While literally thousands of residents from the comune participate in the festa, this is essentially a private affair – a gift Assisians offer to themselves. Visitors are welcome, naturally, no Italian city would do otherwise. Outsiders are invited, of course, but within reason.

Truth be told, this is still in many ways a fortress libero comune, an up-to-date city crisscrossed by a web of narrow streets full of medieval echoes. With the exception of the grand Piazza inferiore di San Francesco, where tens of tourist busses hum daily before the stunning Basilica, the city is well-nigh helpless to accommodate a mechanized 21st-century tourist assault. Assisi, bless it, still harkens to the laid-back stile and rhythms of the Umbrian countryside. A magnet to the world’s faithful, a Mecca for art lovers and spiritual seekers – Assisi yet remains coyly old-fashioned, resolutely independent, serenely self-sufficient.

The same conflict is evident in its new colors. Although a potential magnet for flag-lovers, they are also essentially a private affair, shown only during the few weeks bracketing the spring festival. The very variety of their forms precludes mass production. Like Assisi itself, they are meant primarily for the vessillo-buongustaio, the flag gourmet. Like the Calendimaggio, they are mostly a gift from Assisians to themselves.

2. Colors of Assisi 22

The official arms of Assisi are shown in Figure 4. Except for the curious crown, the symbols and colors require little explanation. Actually, this is not entirely accurate, but let us first dispose of the crown.

Crowns are the one graphically unhappy feature of Italian arms, and hence of Italian regional, provincial, and municipal flags. 23 Nearly a century’s worth of Regno d’Italia by the House of Savoy – let alone a millennium’s worth of papal, imperial, and princely pretensions – will have that effect on a vexillo-heraldic culture. This anachronistic appendage is particularly irritating in Fig. 5.gif (5732 bytes) the arms of Assisi because – even after ignoring itsfig. 6.gif (5275 bytes) cookie-cutter, assembly-line look – it defies the city’s carefully balanced two-sector sensitivity. The five crown battlements, probably specified decades ago by some bureaucrat in Perugia or Rome, all show the acute angles characteristic of Ghibelline merlons, much as they appear in the arms of the Parte de Sopra. Equal time for the right angles of Guelf merlons? Not in this crown.

The colors of Assisi have been mentioned before, but do require another moment’s attention. The known facts are few. A fire in 1442 burned all city records, and so one must proceed with circumspection. Assisi Historian Della Porta places the year in which the city became a libero comune at around 1198. 10C At that time Europe had awakened from some five centuries of Dark-Ages squalor and was starting its artistic rejuvenation of the Middle Ages, over which the Catholic Church, rising to unprecedented authority, reigned. The primary antagonists, and most important institutions, of western Europe during the next few centuries were the Holy Roman Empire – which Voltaire famously described as "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire" 24 – and the papacy. Originally allied, these two medieval superpowers became involved in a fierce struggle for the leadership of Christian Europe between the mid-11th and the mid-13th century.

Because this was precisely the period during which Assisi became independent and chose blue and red for its colors, we may reasonably assume that the choice reflects the political polarity of the times. Which color stood for what? Blue is difficult to assign, 10B unless one chooses to associate it with purple, 25 a color connected since at least Byzantine times with imperial rank. Red, however, was known as the color of all papal flags (with two crossed yellow keys), 9 and a much-revered tradition of French dynasties recalls Pope Leo III granting Charlemagne "a red standard symbolizing temporal authority" – the famous Oriflamme, the sacred banner of St Denis. 26 Since apparently it was a papal prerogative to bestow a red symbol on Frankish kings, the papacy must have assumed it had a right to that color. 27, 28 Finally, the case for assuming that red stood for the pro-papal sentiment is clinched, at least for modern times, by the information presented in the next section.

3. La Magnifica Parte de Sotto

fig. 7.gif (2177 bytes)This lower, western section of town, traditionally controlled by pro-papal Guelf faction, has the Fiumi family arms placed on a red background, one-third the distance from the top, and a base with three tails. The arms are described as "a tower with Guelf merlons on a blue field, standing on green stripes, which are crossed by blue water, on a 14th-century Italian shield". 29 Since fiume is Italian for ‘river’ (plural = fiumi), the connection with the Fiumi family is clear. The colors are naturalistic hues usually associated with the design elements, were first developed by the ‘1952 triumvirate’ and werefig. 8.gif (2162 bytes) finalized by Mancinelli. The flag is derived from the gonfalon and – unlike all district flags, which have no arms – preserves the shield and shows it displaced one-third from the hoist.

3A. Il Sestiere San Giacomo (Rione San Giacomo)

Sestiere is an Italian word derived from sesto, ‘sixth’, and has no single-word equivalent in English; it means ‘one-sixth part’, that is, one of the six quarters of Assisi, each sector of the city being divided, as we saw, into three rioni (singular, rione) quarters or districts. Therefor in this context the words sestiere and rione are equivalent

fig. 9.gif (3587 bytes)The gonfalon for the Rione San Giacomo (St. Jacob or James) shows the arms in the upper left corner of a swallow-tail design, which is diagonally divided by a red-over-green crenelation. The latter graphically reinforces the tower crenelation seen in the arms, which are partitioned along a ‘raguly’ diagonal.fig. 10.gif (1879 bytes)

The corresponding flag is also of swallow-tail design, but without the arms.

The arms, which are bordered in white, are describes as "A 14th-century Italian shield with, in the center, a red Guelf tower pierced by a red lance, on a field of three [diagonal] stripes of green, white, green." 29

The somewhat curious symbolism of the pierced tower has been attributed by Breschi 30 to the small church San Giacomo de Muro Rupto (St. Jacob of the broken wall 31) situated some 50 yard or meters south of the San Giacomo gate for which the quarter is named. The green-red color symbolism is apparently arbitrary.

Gonfalon and flag designs were finalized in the spring of 2001 by Mancinelli.

3B. Il Sestiere San Francesco (Rione San Francesco)

fig. 11.gif (2980 bytes)The gonfalon for the district that encompasses the Saint’s Basilica, which assured Assisi its world-circling fame, has a vertically divided field of red and blue with the district’s shield centered one-third the length from the top of the banner. In base is a single rounded tail that mirrors the symbolism found on the arms (below). Inspired, appropriately enough, by the shield of the city, the gonfalon shows the colors in reverse order: red on left, blue on right from the observer’s view.

The corresponding flag is divided horizontally into two segments,fig. 12.gif (1560 bytes) blue on top, and maintains the same unusual rounded-tail design at the fly. As with all other flags developed for the spring festa, it carries no shield.

The shield, bordered in white, is described as having "a cut-off cross standing on three hills, all in red, with three blue five-pointed stars on either side." 29 This description, though essentially correct, is about as satisfying as describing St. Francis as a frail Italian monk practicing penance, poverty, and fasting: True enough, but it doesn’t begin to convey the story. The same holds for the above shield description.

First, the main symbol of the shield is not a cross but rather the letter tau, the name of the letter ‘T’ in the Greek, Hebrew, and ancient Semitic alphabets. It has stood as a sacred symbol for St. Anthony's cross, and formerly was also applied to a hand-made sign of the cross. Its connection to the T-shaped cross on which Christ died is clear. Clear also is the direct connection, uncovered by the research of Sophie Rault, between this letter and its actual use by St. Francis in September 1224, two years before his death. Writing a benediction for Brother Leon, the Saint signed it with tau in the form of a T, traversing Leon’s name, apparently intending it to validate the benediction. Nowadays, Assisi’s souvenirs shops are jam-packed with all manner of tau-shaped souvenirs, some of which swing from the habit of Franciscan monks as they sandal-walk through the city.

Next, notice next the adjective ‘cut-off’ as in ‘cut-off cross’ in the description above. The Italian is Croce mozza. A cross cut off, docked, mutilated, broken. What the symbol really represents, according to Graphic Artist Mancinelli who actually designed it, is a cross mounted on the Three Hills. Why the initial capital letters? Because these hills are deeply meaningful in the legend of the Saint: He regularly retired to pray on Mount Subasio near the city; on Mount Ingino, on whose side lies Gubbio – the independent comune and medieval powerhouse of Middle Age Umbria until it was surrendered to the dukes of Urbino in 1384 – he tamed the wolf that was terrorizing the comune, and in a manner typical of St. Francis, established a bond of peace with Brother Wolf, as narrated in the Little Flowers. In 1224, two years before his death, he was immersed in prayer and meditation on Monte della Verna, Mount Verna, when he received the famous stigmata, the ‘wounds of Christ’, a fact he carefully hid to the end of his life, but which, within half a century, the Florentine early-Renaissance master Giotto di Bondone and his followers immortalized in frescoes gracing the upper church of the Basilica.

Various interpretations can be accorded the three blue stars, whose topmost point is inclined to the left by 30 degrees for purely reasons of overall visual dynamics. Breschi has suggested that they represent either the Trinity or the three Franciscan orders. 30, 32 I am attracted to the idea that they stand for the first three followers of St. Francis, "Bernard of Quintavalle, a magnate of the Assisi, was the first to join Francis, and he was soon followed by Peter of Cattaneo, a well-known canon of the cathedral. ... A few days later Giles, afterwards the great ecstatic and sayer of ‘good words’, became the third follower of Francis." 19 Whatever the meaning, the symbolism is inspired.

3C. Il Sestiere San Pietro (Rione San Pietro)

The arms of the San Pietro district – which the 13th-century church Chiesa di San Pietro, with its stern Romanesque façade and unadorned interior, dominates with quiet dignity – are replete with symbolism referring to St. Peter – Simon, renamed Cephas (‘rock’ in Aramaic) by Jesus fig. 13.gif (6174 bytes) – thus foretelling his role as first among Christ’s Apostles and the rock of Catholic papacy. The description of the arms reads, "a 14th-century Italian shield, bend, bordered in red, with a three-banded background, blue, gold, blue, with a red boat in the middle on three blue waves, with two crossed golden keys in the upper blue band, and on the lower blue band on the left side, a Lorraine cross on three hills." 29, 39 As usual, a picture is worth a thousand words, in this case exactly fifty-four.

The fisherman’s boat recalls Peter’s occupation of fisherman in Galilee before he received the fateful call from Jesus to become one of His permanent, at times irresolute, disciples, with the words, Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men. 33

The golden keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, which tradition assigns to St. Peter and which later became part of the Vatican flag under Pope Pius VII in the 19th century, stand for the power of popes over matters both spiritual and temporal.

The Lorraine Cross, as both Rault 42 and Breschi 43 noted, was early-on identified with the Patriarchal Cross, and St. Peter is considered the first Patriarch of the Roman Church.

As to the three hills, Sophie Rault proposed an ingenious solution. 37 Why not regard the three hills as a unit, she suggested, hence allegorically as one rock, hence as symbolizing the foundation of the Church of St. Peter, a k a Simon, a k a Cephas, a k a Petrus. Why not, indeed. A simple stroke of a pen would correct the official description from ‘three hills’ to ‘one rock’, at least half of the problem in the lower third of the shield would be solved. 40 Breschi noted that a monte a tre cime all’italiana (Italian-style hill with three peaks) is a common heraldic device, sometimes associated with the calvary of Jesus, but more commonly used to highlight the hilly character of a region. 43


fig. 14.gif (3784 bytes)The gonfalon of the Rione San Pietro shows the above arms, bordered in red, on the gold upper portion of a gold-and-red background, vertically divided by a round-edged crenelation, and ending in a double swallow-tail, again with rounded edges. The pleasing graphics of the gonfalon are achieved, in part, through its diagonal partition that mirrors the partition of the shield.

The flag of the district – with its highly original three rounded tails – is derivedfig. 15.gif (1823 bytes) from the gonfalon by removing the arms. It is divided into red and yellow regions, both relevant color symbols for the papacy.

4. La Nobilissima Parte de Sopra

This upper section of town was transformed into a Ghibelline (pro-imperial) stronghold, as we saw, by the Nepis family, who moved there from the Lower Part sometime in the 14th century to continue their bloody family feud with the Fiumis from a more advantageous geographic location. When the ‘1952 triumvirate’ seeking to reinvigorate the Calendimaggio tradition asked the Nepis for use of their family arms on the blue background assigned the Upper Part, the descendants of the Nepis refused. Given the obvious current of civic pride flowing just beneath the relaxed demeanor of Assisians, this refusal is strange, is poorly understood by local historians, and questions about it are parried with an awkward silence. A gallant explanation has it that the latter Nepis were a shy lot and wished to protect their privacy. Let’s leave it at that.

Forced to seek another family’s symbol, the triumvirate settled on the Mammone clan about fig. 16.gif (5689 bytes) whom little is known. Even less is known about the gatti mammoni, the Mammoni cats – a poorly defined mythological lion-cat hybrid, 34 whose association with the homonymous family seems to be about as certain as its pedigree. Nonetheless, two red gatti mammoni are shown supporting a two-storey tower, also in red, with its characteristic sharp-angled Ghibelline merlons. The Tower and supporters are centered on the white field of a 14th-century red-bordered Italian shield.

fig. 17.gif (2218 bytes)To design the Parte De Sopra gonfalon, Mancinelli placed the shield toward the upper edge of a blue filed, where blue was clearly chosen to represent the ‘most noble’ Upper Part – hence the certain association of blue with nobility and secular power, at least in the Assisi colors. The unusual crenelation of the gonfalon’s lower end adds an attractive visual note, but works less effectively in the flag, giving the latter a somewhatfig.18.gif (2284 bytes) ragged look in actual use. The shield is displaced two-thirds toward the hoist, a graphic touch that is particularly effective on flags, because it displays the shield well in actual use.



4A. Il Sestiere Porta Perlici

Of the six porte, or gates, that allow access through the outermost defensive walls of Assisi, 35 Porta San Perlici watches over the northeastern front. Two major roads, via della Rocca (which becomes via Porta Perlici) and via Eremo delle Carceri, 36 form a vague ‘Y’ as they converge onto the gate – providing the inspiration for the Rione Porta Perlici arms: "On a blue field, a two-storey tower, in gold, with two entrances, supported by a green hill crossed by a street that divides into a "Y" toward the entrances, in gold, on a gold-bordered 14th-century Italian shield." 29

fig.19.gif (3263 bytes)On the gonfalon, with its three pointed tails at the base, the shield is centered one-third the distance from the top, on a green area that merges into a golden-yellow "Y", skillfully blending the motifs and colors of the shield and producing once again an original artistic effect. The mid-section is properly described as a ‘yellow pall.’

As we have seen before, Mancinelli derives the flag from the gonfalon byfig. 20.gif (1962 bytes) retaining its all shapes and colors but omitting the shield.



4B. Il Sestiere San Rufino

San Rufino, is the central district of the Upper Part and its spiritual heart. It honors the first bishop of Assisi, Rufino, who was martyred in the 3rd century by being tied with a knotted hemp rope to a millstone and drowned in the nearby river Tescio.

The beautiful Romanesque San Rufino Cathedral, with its three-tiered variously decorated façade, is the artistic and sentimental focal point of the district. Here is preserved the baptismal font where both St. Francis and St. Clare were baptized, here St. Francis preached his first sermon, and here St. Rufino lies entombed in a 3rd-century Roman sarcophagus.

On the red field of the white-bordered shield are displayed, on the right, the white millstone and the blue knotted hemp rope of the martyred saint and, on the left, the traditional green palm of Christian martyrs.

fig. 21.gif (3380 bytes)The gonfalon has a field of white over red divided by a horizontal three-pointed serration. The arms are placed toward the upper part of the red portion. The colors likely refer to the blood of sacrifice and purity of sainthood and form, along with the symbolism of the arms and harshness of serrated edges, a richly suggestive and appropriate banner for this district. The flag maintains the colors and serrations of the gonfalon but lacks the arms. As noted before in the case of the Parte de Sopra flag, serrations at the fly tend to detract from a flag’s appearance by giving it a somewhat ragged appearance.



fig. 23.gif (2745 bytes)4C. Il Sestiere Porta Moiano

The swallow-tailed gonfalon of the Rione Porta Moiano is quartered golden-yellow and blue, and in the center is the shield of the rione, bordered in yellow. The shield itself consists of the seven stars of thefig. 24.gif (1811 bytes) constellation Ursa Major, in golden-yellow, on a field of blue. The corresponding flag is derived from the gonfalon by removing the shield.

So much for the good news. The critical news is that of all the city’s districts, the symbolism of Porta Moiano’s shield and gonfalon fails for two primary reasons: (1) Ursa Major has no verifiable connection to this sector, nor with Assisi, nor with any other discernable historical fact of the surrounding Umbrian countryside; 44 (2) By ignoring the most significant structure in the sector, the Gothic-style basilica of Saint Clare, Santa Chiara in Italian, the current shield and gonfalon do injustice to the memory of one of Assisi’s, and Italy’s, two most beloved saints.

It is of course difficult to say what went through the minds of the ‘1952 triumvirate’ members who first divided the city into six districts or sestieri and then had to find appropriate symbolism for each. What caused them to exclude Saint Clare?

Surely it could not have been the physical presence of the basilica itself, for it had been standing for some seven hundred years (since 1265) at the heart of the district; it was built on top of the small church of Saint George, San Giorgio, where St. Francis had been entombed in 1226; it contains the burial chapel of Saint Clare, erected in 1850. This is not a building easily ignored: it is the district’s largest structure, second in size only to the Saint Francis Basilica at the western end of town, where Giotto depicted St. Clare alongside St. Francis in a fresco of the upper church.

Surely it could not have been the stature of the Saint herself, for St. Clare overshadowed St. Francis in both longevity and physical courage. 21 She outlived the Saint by 27 years. Legend has her facing the troops of German Emperor Frederick II – which in 1234 were busy devastating the valley of Spoletto south of Assisi and had then moved north toward the city – armed only with a holy chalice, and twice she is said to have driven the invaders from her San Damiano monastery holding aloft the Blessed Sacrament, thus saving Assisi. 19 The monasteries for women which she established had spread far and wide through Europe even during her lifetime. Like the Saint almost 30 years earlier, the First Abbess of San Damiano was canonized barely two years after her death, by Pope Alexander IV at Anagni in 1255.

Why, then, exalt the constellation of Ursa Major and ignore Santa Chiara on the shield and gonfalon of this district? Why call the district Porta Moiano, after an insignificant locality – by comparison with the towering legacy of St. Clare, at any rate – situated just outside the southeastern gate of the city, one of six city gates? Why not Rione Santa Chiara? Was it a failure of imagination in 1954? Unlikely, for other shields show copious scholarship, historical fidelity, and imagination. Was it unfamiliarity with the sector’s geography? That is an outrageous suggestion, bordering on the insulting. What then? Good old-fashioned male chauvinism? Not likely, for Santa Chiara is one of the most beloved saints of the Italian pantheon, worshiped and respected by men and women alike.

My guess: the ‘1952 triumvirate’ goofed, plain and simple. A case of brain-jam. A lapsus calami. A mistake. But one that should be remedied: all three gates in the Lower Part are named after saints, one gate in the Upper Part, San Rufino, is also – why not rename the southeastern gate Porta Santa Chiara, honoring the saint and putting paid to a mistake? No law stands in the way, just precedent. And that precedent is mere human contrivance less than 50 years old. So on the left pan of the balance we have the weight of a 50-year contrived custom. On the right, we have the honor due a great saint who lived, fought, and died in Assisi – a tradition old seven hundred and fifty years. Is there a choice?


The Banners of Calendimaggio, which burst in final form upon the flag world in May 2001, are a joyous celebration of Assisi’s past. That past is replete with conflict – between spiritual and temporal claims to power, between ascendancy claims of individual families, between medieval and modern rhythms, between nobility and common folk, between sainthood and venality – and this essay has focused on how Assisi’s conflicted history is present in the flags and gonfalons of its annual early-May festa. 38 From the imperial blue and papal red colors of the city, to their reflection in gonfalons of the two sectors, to ancient family feuds mirrored in arms and gonfalons, to the mixed sacred and lay symbols in the six district shields, to the manner of displaying the banners in the two sectors of Assisi during Calendimaggio – everything echoes multi-layered conflicts and exhibits them in vexillographic form.

Demonstrating a typically Italian (and European) respect for learning, tradition, and careful research, the Banners of Calendimaggio are chock-full of history and meticulous attention to graphic form and detail. As a result, they place at the head of original vexillographic expressions in modern Italian times. Particularly noteworthy is the innovation of deriving flags from gonfalons by removing the arms, as is the inspiration to individualize gonfalon shapes. The resulting design originality is such – for instance, the gonfalons for the Parte de Sopra and Rione San Pietro – that even experts are baffled at times trying to describe the banners in heraldic terms. 41 This is no average achievement. It is, rather, a product of exemplary scholarship and graphic virtuosity.

That said, a few constructively critical comments are also in order:

a. The symbolism in the lower third of the arms of St. Peter’s district needs to be reviewed. The cross of Lorraine – though a tenuous connection to ‘Patriarchal Cross’ was uncovered by Rault 42 – is, at best, a curious choice for symbolism relating to St. Peter. The shield could be improved by changing its formal description and graphics from ‘three hills’ to ‘rock’;

b. Deriving flags directly from gonfalons by removing the arms (except for the flags of the two sectors, where the arms are preserved, Figures 7 and 18) has several advantages, as we have seen. One of the disadvantages, however, is that flags with multiple irregularities at the fly end – Parte de Sopra, Porta San Rufino, for example – present a ragged, unaesthetic form in actual use. The usual rectangular shape would be preferred for such flags;

c. Omitting St. Clare from the vexillography of the Assisian Calendimaggio – an omission directly related to the unfortunate choice of Porta Moiano for the name of the district over which towers Santa Chiara’s Basilica – is the most serious lapse of all. It is a lapse justified neither by history nor by modern sensibilities, and it deprives Assisi of a legitimate, worthy, and holy symbol.


Roberto Breschi pointed to a critical aspect of this term. Though ‘gonfalon’ is the precise translation for the Italian gonfalone, the latter has a most special and specific meaning in Italy: a unique symbol within a community, province, region, institution, association, fraternity, etc., with multiple (usually rectangular) tails, carried hung from a crossbar during solemn occasions and ceremonies always accompanied by ‘valets’ or ‘honor guards.’ It is much esteemed and complex in design and is richly decorated – often with military or civilian honors. The Assisian ‘gonfalon’ version with arms described in this essay properly would be called bandiere murali (wall banners), bandiere da finestra (window banners), or bandiere da balcone (balcony banners) in Italian.

Also, the word ‘arms’ in this essay, when referring to Assisian gonfalons, always means simply ‘shield.’ The word ‘banners’ is used to indicate both flags and gonfalons, and the word ‘flags’ is sometimes employed to include gonfalons.

1. Festa del Calendimaggio, brochure published by the Caledimaggio Center of Assisi.

2. Umbria Mistica – Itinerario Francescano, Brochure published by the Conferenza Episcopale Umbria, 2000.

3. Sbadieratori di Assisi brochure.

4. Assisi Mia, special Caledimaggio supplement to no. 9, 1997.

5. Ibid., no 21, 2000.

6. Designs and city plans kindly provided by Francesco Mancinelli.

7. Rizia Guarneri, Assisi, Edizioni Litovald, 1998.

8. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition.

9. Whitney Smith, Flag Lore of All Nations, Millbrook Press, 2001.

10. Websites:



10A. The flag and arms of Assisi result from the municipal statutes of 1469, but the flag is in actuality much older, going back to the age of the ‘comune’ [approx. 1098] when it used to be raised on the carroccio on top of a very long pole. Italian text supplied by Breschi from Vexilla Italica, vol. 1, 1975, and vol. 1 1985. Translated by the author.

10B. Raw Rault research data indicated several other cases of credible association of blue with nobility and special privilege. For instance, in the cities of the Byzantine Empire, the factions representing the aristocrats were dressed in blue 37, 39

10C. Pier Maurizio della Porta, e-mail dated July Fourth 2001.

11. In the official rendition of the city arms, the green turf is inexplicably divided by as many as 15 black horizontal lines that a graphically flawed, esthetically unappealing, and symbolically meaningless – the only serious defect in an otherwise fine coat of arms.

12. Telephone conversation, June 16, 2001.

13. The Nepis family originally lived in the lower part of the comune, alongside the Fiumis, and probably moved uphill to the eastern end of town to establish a stronghold from which to pursue what was at origin purely an inter-family feud.

14. Assisi is ringed by three sets of walls, the first dating from the Roman period, the second from 1260, and the last, which encompasses the precious St. Francis Basilica, from 1360.

15. as well as ... /2000.htm and ... /2001.htm. See also the original, unedited copy of this paper along with photographs taken by Friedrich Nekolar at the 2001 Calendimaggio on the URL <>

16. From <>, translated by the author.

17. Adapted by the author from The Lay of the Last Minstrel, canto VI, stanza 1, lines 1-2.

18. When the child was born, Pietro di Bernardone – his father, a wealthy Assisian cloth merchant – exhibiting the prototypical father’s genius for avoiding domestic duties at difficult times, was on a business trip to France. The mother, Lady Jeanne "Pica" Bernardone, daughter of a noble French family, therefore felt free to name the child Giovanni. Upon returning home, Pietro Bernardone apparently had a fit over the name, and renamed his son Francesco.

19. Online Catholic Encyclopedia <>

20. Hence their name, Gray Friars. In the 15th century, the habit color was changed to brown.

21. It is one of those mysteries wrapped in the enigma of male chauvinism why the southernmost district of the Upper Part was named Rione Porta Moiano – for an insignificant locality just outside an insignificant gate – instead of the starkly obvious Rione Santa Chiara – for the great Saint Clare, devoted companion to St. Francis, who overshadowed the latter in both longevity and physical courage. Her mother, Ortolana Scifi, belonged to the noble Fiumi family and later joined her daughter in the San Damiano cloister. Her strength of character, her heroic unworldliness was on display when she rebuked Pope Gregory IX – the Pope! – as he tried to change the rule of poverty instituted by St. Francis. 19 See also the text discussion of Sestiere Porta Moiano.

22. fig. 25.gif (3591 bytes) All designs shown in this article – with the exception of the proposed flags for Assisi  – are faithful reproductions of professional-quality artwork generously given to the author by Francesco Mancinelli, whose artistic skill is only surpassed by his love for his native city.

23. Italy is divided into 20 regions – two of them, Umbria and Tuscany, featured in this article – and 102 provinces, which contain some 8,102 municipalities. The brilliant artwork of Roberto Breschi, appearing in Vexilla Italica since 1997, documents the many handsome Italian regional and provincial flags. The latter are particularly crown-happy – actually, oak-branch crowned crowns – mostly because of strict state regulations, which only heavyweight provinces like Rome and Milan can afford to ignore.

24. Essai sur les Moeurs, 1756

25. Purple, itself a mix of blue and red, and is also associated with the rank or office of a bishop or cardinal of the Church. An alternate meaning is clearly "imperial, regal, or princely."

26. Whitney Smith, Flags Throughout the Ages and Across the World, p. 63.

27. There is also the cross of red cloth worn by the first Crusaders on their right shoulder as they left for the first of eight Holy Wars (just imagine Voltaire commenting on the ‘Holy’ part!). On the other hand, associating blue with the traditional cloak of St. Martin (shown red-cloaked in the remarkable St. Martin Abandoning His Arms fresco by the early-Renaissance painter Simone Martini in the lower Church of the San Francesco Basilica in Assisi) or with the Virgin Mary is, in my opinion, a conceptual stretch. In addition, it is hard to resist the tension inherent in the concept of a lion prancing on papal colors and the cross reigning over imperial ones – a precise mirror of the polarity and conflict of the age. This assignment of colors is therefore as dramatically compelling as it is historically unprovable.

28. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, CD-ROM version, 2.0

29. Annuario Calendimaggio 2000, pp. 78-79.

30. Communication at the national CISV meeting, May 26-27, 2001, Lucca, Italy.

31. ‘Broken’ is rotto in modern Italian. Rupto was the medieval Italian word, and is still, by the by, the modern Romanian form. Unlike English, which still clings to inelegant consonant clusters like ‘pt’ and ‘ct’ (prompt, distinct), Italian has long shed such unsingable noise.


32. These three orders – the Friars Minor, the Poor Ladies or Clares, and the Brothers and Sisters of Penance – are generally referred to as the First, Second, and Third Orders of St. Francis. The First Order comprises priests and lay brothers who have sworn to lead a life of prayer, preaching, and penance; it is divided into three independent branches: the Friars Minor, the Friars Minor Conventual, and the Friars Minor Capuchin. The Second Order consists of cloistered nuns who belong to the Order of St. Clare and are known as Poor Clares. The Third Order consists of religious and lay men and women who try to emulate Saint Francis' spirit by performing works of teaching, charity, and social service. 19

33. Gospel according to St. Matthew, 4:19.

34. The maleness coefficient (MQ) of the Mammoni cats seems do vary, possibly following the vagaries of local Viagra® supplies from flag to flag, description to description, and year to year. This is probably the first documented ‘little blue pill’ effect in vexillography. See Figs 5 & 16.

35. The others are: Porta San Pietro to the southwest, Porta San Giacomo to the northwest, [Porta Perlici to the northeast], Porta Capuccini to the west, Porta Nuova to the southeast, and Porta Moiano to the south.

36. Literally, ‘hermitage of the prisons’, an interesting concept, which could refer either to a medieval prison-reform initiative or to the monastic life of the times.

37. Sophie Rault, la première Première Ministre de la vexillologie bretonne, E-mail dated 30 June 2001, birthday of the PM. La vraie vexillonnaire, elle, ne s’arrête jamais.

38. Homo Sapiens seems genetically coded to seek patterns and uniformity in life and nature, to postulate first causes and teleological arguments . This is a source of great strength, for it emboldens us to strive onward while providing some measure, or illusion, of control over our surroundings and our future. And it is a great weakness, for it can lead to fanaticism and worse. Seeking a pattern of duality and conflict in the Banners of Calendimaggio is neither. It is really a question mark, a proposition, at most.

39. Sophie Rault, still on 30 June 2001, points out that the same symbolism of three hills surmounted by the Lorraine Cross exists in the arms of Hungary, approved by Parliament in 1990. Image reference:

40. Another possible solution, of course, would be to change, for Assisian purposes only, St. Peter’s name to San Tre Monti, or Saint Three Hills. Problema risolto.

41. For providing everyday English descriptions of Assisian arms and gonfalons, my warm thanks to James Croft, Director of the Institute for Civic Heraldry, PO Box 365, Northampton, Mass. 01061, USA. E-mail:

42. Sophie Rault – citing Les Armes, initiation à l'Héraldique by Pierre JOUBERT, Editions Ouest-France, 1977, p. 43 – points to the connection of the double-barred cross to the Duke of Lorraine, who inherited this family reliquary, believed to contain a piece of the True Cross of Jesus since the knight Jean II of Alluye, returning from the Holy Land in 1241, received from Bishop Thomas a piece of the True Cross in the form a double-barred cross. Because it has since acquired the name ‘Patriarchal Cross’, one could read into it a heraldic reference to St. Peter, the first patriarch of the Catholic church.

43. Roberto Breschi, e-mail dated 2 July 2001.

44. One has to reach to poetic inspiration, as Breschi has done, to connect Ursa Major with Porta Moiano: He who has gazed on clear and limpid nights, into the twilight of the eastern skies, has surely spied, from Santa Chiara’s airy square, the twinkle of first stars, the stars of Ursa Major. 43