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Long before the romantic, peaceful “flower power” movement of the 1960s in which hippies decorated their cars and homes with flowers, cities in Italy were decorating their streets and alleyways with pretty, intricate flower petal designs. Since the 1600s, certain Italian cities have held flower art festivals, known as Infiorata, each May and June. The most important festivals occur in Noto, Genzano, and Spello.
Artists use flower petals to make artwork that they display in streets, abbeys, and often in front of churches. The word “infiorata” means “decorated with flowers”, and the pieces can also be made with soil, beans, wood, or other plants.
On June 29, 1625, the Vatican’s head-florist Benedetto Drei and his son made mosaics with flower petals to decorate Saint Peter’s Basilica on the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, Rome’s patron saints.
Baroque artist and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) spread this flower art throughout Rome. He used it especially for the baroque festivals he sponsored. Bernini is well known for creating St. Peter’s Baldachin or Baldacchino, the large bronze canopy atop the high altar of the famous papal enclave. He was appointed chief architect for the basilica under Pope Urban VIII.
The flower custom faded out of Rome in the seventeenth century, but the Castelli Romani townspeople continued the tradition. It eventually became part of the Christian Corpus Domini (Corpus Christi) celebration in Genzano in which a brightly colored flower carpet would lay in the center of the long street.
It is held each June on Corpus Domini, the Sunday nine weeks after Easter. In Genzano, Lazio, twelve grand flower paintings cover the ground. The Corpus Domini procession walks down the center of the carpet made out of flowers, and the children later run through and undo the flower display to symbolize rebirth and renewal.
Noto’s Infiorata festival in Sicily occurs during the third weekend of May. Beginning in 1980, this spring celebration allows local artists to showcase their skills using a uniquely natural medium. Everyone participates – including the local prisoners, who feature their own flower petal art. The main exhibition happens on Via Nicolaci, where people are surrounded by flower images below them and baroque balconies above them.
The small Umbrian town of Spello has a big infiorata in which thousands of people work together to create and place flower art along Spello’s narrow streets. Originating in the 1930s, Spello’s festival occurs on the ninth Sunday after Easter at the Corpus Domini Feast.
Spello originally featured a simple, long flower carpet, but now the drawings have become more sophisticated and grand. Unlike many other infiorata festivals, Spello’s uses wild, uncultivated flowers. The festival requires a year-long effort to acquire all seasonal flower types in the diverse Umbria countryside.
Artists usually spend months painting the flower design itself. Then, they sketch the image in the floor with chalk or pencil and mark the separating lines with coffee grounds or dirt before filling them in with flower petals. The infiorate festivals are proud to only use fresh flowers (not embellished with dye or other color enhancers). The flower paintings are made on clay canvases with the original drawing below serving as an outline.
The Infiorate-decorated streets are generally selected months before the event, and they are matched with the Corpus Domini Procession. The town people play vital roles in carrying out the celebration, from hosting culinary options to organizing the flower arrangements.
Throughout time, flowers have been sources of peace, joy, and beauty, and the infiorate festivals are no exception. These incredible, vibrant flower creations are the perfect way for Italians to celebrate the spring season. The intense work that the artists put into the festival may not be a bed of roses, but it is certainly admired and enjoyed by tourists and locals alike.