Floral fantasies in Italy.
In a wonderful custom whose origin is a 13th-century miracle, many small towns in Italy make tapestries from thousands of flowers to cover their streets for the Feast of Corpus Domini, nine Sundays after Easter. The sheer artistry is astounding: reproductions of famous Renaissance paintings, religious and modern scenes, local architecture, geometric, abstract, flora and fauna patterns. Locals lovingly create flower carpets from petals, or whole flowers for a striking 3-D effect, and other natural materials, marking borders with soil or coffee grounds. Ornate chalk designs, often planned months in advance, are drawn on the street in the infiorata, which means “decorated with flowers.” A procession led by the local priest or bishop then walks the carpets on the feast day, which is generally in June, sometimes in May. Afterward, children are invited to play on and destroy the carpets, called the spallamento. Poof! The gorgeously photogenic carpets are gone—until next year.
“This tradition is very strong in the center and south of Italy, where people are more religious and connected to local traditions,” says Claudia Fanini of The Italian Planners, a travel and event firm in Milan. “In southern Italy, local celebrations are part of people’s identity and territorial heritage.” Some towns have celebrated the tradition for decades; one, in particular, for almost 250 years. Here are 12 towns to look for. (Due to COVID, check to confirm they’re still on in 2021.)
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The oldest and biggest infiorata is less than 20 miles south of Rome, in one of 13 towns in the green Alban Hills called the Castelli Romani. About half a million flowers (about 50 tons!), such as carnations for red, wishbone flowers for blue and broom for yellow, compose 15 panels of designs on the street leading from the Church of Santa Maria. While flowers were first placed in mosaic-like designs in 1625 inside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by the Vatican’s head florist for the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, the city’s patron saints, Italy’s first outdoor infiorata took place in 1778 in Genzano. Though the tradition died out in Rome, it remained in the Castelli Romani. Over 100,000 people visit Genzano’s festival annually, which features a different theme each year (Fashion designers like Versace and Fendi signed their names in flowers years ago.). In 2019, the theme was la via della bellezza (“little things that make life beautiful, like art and nature”).
Sicily’s most beautiful Baroque town, a UNESCO-designated gem packed with sandstone palaces and churches, has held an infiorata since 1980—unlike other towns, it’s in mid-May. Also unlike other towns, it draws visitors worldwide, and its spectacular designs are secular. One long 7,000-square-foot flower carpet, featuring 16 different panels, leads uphill to a church on the Via Corrado Nicolaci. It’s themed each year. Myths and legends around the world was the theme in 2016; in 2018, the China theme meant pagodas, pandas, and women holding fans. In 2020’s virtual version, it was the triumph of beauty over fear, with a tree of life. A parade in Baroque costumes, bands, and flag-wavers are part of the extravaganza in this town in southeast Sicily, located near Syracuse, famous for its ancient Greek ruins.
This tiny hill town of stone houses brimming with flowerpots and narrow streets paved with brick is known for very elaborate flower carpets about a mile long, often breathtaking reproductions of famous paintings by Botticelli and Giotto, and religious and local scenes. Strict rules allow flowers, leaves, berries, and herbs only—no artificial materials—in the infiorata, held since the 1930s. All year long, locals gather and preserve plants and herbs from nearby Mount Subasio and the Apennine hills. After the feast day ends, plans for next year’s designs and colors start. A Museum of the Infiorate exhibits photos and drawings from past festivals. When the Villa of Mosaics museum opened in 2018, 10 artisans created a large flower carpet depicting its Roman mosaics, a toga-clad Roman, local buildings, and backpack-wearing modern-day walkers. Spello is so flower-mad, the annual festival isn’t enough: citizens also compete for the loveliest flower displays on balconies, windows, and alleys, from May to August.
The site of the 13th-century miracle that inspired the feast day, this town in northernmost Lazio honors it with almost two miles of flower carpets. In 1263, a visiting priest was reportedly celebrating mass when blood started flowing from the communion wafer onto the white altar cloths. Astounded, he told the Pope about it, who, after investigation, declared it a miracle and had the cloths placed in the Cathedral of Orvieto, a hilltop town in Umbria almost 15 miles away, and announced the Feast of Corpus Christi the following year. It wasn’t the first miracle for the town on Lake Bolsena, one of Europe’s biggest volcanic crater lakes, sacred to the ancient Etruscans. The Church of Santa Cristina, where the miracle occurred, is named for a Christian convert who was thrown into the lake by her pagan father with a rock tied to her feet to weigh her down. She survived. Chestnuts, marsh reeds, and wild onions in addition to flowers like roses, carnations, and hydrangeas, compose the designs (whose borders of black sawdust lend a stained glass-like effect).
In this mountain village at the foot of a 14th-century castle in northern Sicily, surrounded by the forested Madronie mountains, the festival is much more rustic and local than the world-famous version across the island in Noto. Besides flowers, lavender, fennel, wheat, myrtle, sunflower seeds, beans, and olive tree leaves are gathered from the countryside for sweet-smelling carpets that depict religious scenes and local buildings. A little-over-an-hour hour drive east of Palermo, the town is very proud of its castle, which was once owned by one of Sicily’s top noble families, and its medieval and Renaissance history. So parades include historical costumes and musicians playing brass instruments and drums.
Located in the so-called “Valley of Round Hamlets,” this village is about 15 miles inland from Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost of five pastel towns clinging to cliffs on the Mediterranean coast that is Cinque Terre. A village of 1,300 people in a pristine green river valley, the Val di Vara, about 40 miles east of Genoa (Liguria’s capital), it’s one of many picturesque towns whose houses and streets were built to encircle their medieval cores. In front of houses painted rust-red, peach, pink, and yellow, religious symbols like chalices and angels and floral designs dominate the flower carpets. Restaurants and bars offer special menus and a street market sells crafts and food for the infiorata.
In this state best-known for its breathtaking Amalfi Coast, this medieval town of gray limestone (population: 4,000) built around Colonna castle is almost 40 miles northeast of Naples, high in the green hills of Matese Regional Park. Gospel scenes, reproductions of famous paintings, angels, and swirls adorn flower carpets on streets, as well as inside the Church of St. John the Baptist, which was first built in the 10th century and then rebuilt in 1550. The International Infiorata Festival in 2013 even featured a flower carpet of tango dancers from a contestant in Buenos Aires (Argentina has a large Italian community; its most famous Italian export is Pope Francis.).
WHERE: Le Marche
In this village of 2,000 people in rural Le Marche, the state east of Umbria, locals make a rustic infiorata of religious symbols in squares from local flowers like roses, daisies, and lilies, using sprigs of rosemary as borders. They start about an hour or so before the procession, which ends at a peach-colored church on a hill. Piobbico is a half-hour drive from Urbino, a UNESCO-designated town of Renaissance art and architecture (where painter Raphael was born), and about an hour’s drive from the Adriatic seacoast. An inn and cooking school in a 500-year-old farmhouse owned by two young expatriates from Brooklyn, La Tavola Marche, is six miles away.
In this town of under 3,000 people in southern Italy, in the state located on the heel of the “boot,” the infiorata may be younger (2013) and smaller than elsewhere, but there’s a distinction: everybody participates, young and old. Elaborate flower “carpets” in repeating geometric patterns extend on the main street from the main square to city hall. Surrounded by green hills, packed with Baroque buildings and boasting Italy’s narrowest alley (14 inches wide) has another distinction: its mayor announced in 2017 he was paying people to live there. Too many people had fled its easygoing, slow lifestyle for cities.
This seaside resort town that boasts one of Liguria’s longest sandy beaches, located in the western Italian Riviera near the much snootier French Riviera (about 60 miles east of Nice and 60 miles west of Genoa), has held an infiorata since 1963. Here on the aptly-named Riviera of Flowers, where hibiscus, bougainvillea, roses, and violets bloom in profusion, flower carpets cover 2,000 square meters in the center of the town nicknamed the “City of Orange Trees.” A whimsical sped-up video depicts the chalk drawings the day before, the ornate designs the next day, and their vanishing afterward.
INSIDER TIPAn annual flower pParade is held in nearby San Remo, and an annual Battle of Flowers in nearby Ventimiglia.
This small town about 30 miles west of Florence has held an infiorata since 1990, though the custom of throwing flowers and branches on its streets began in the 1930s. A close-up of a tiger in front of a building resembling the Taj Mahal, a peacock, and a cherry tree in bloom were some depictions included in striking flower carpets in recent years, amid more traditional religious figures and symbols. The Medici family turned the town’s Palazzo Corsini, a former fortress, into a farm during the Renaissance.
Potenzoni di Briatico
In this tiny Southern Italian village of under 200 people in the state on the toe of the “boot,” the face of Jesus, the Madonna and child, and Jesus on the cross are some of the Bible scenes depicted, with realistic skin shading and contours that are a wonder to behold. Four districts compete for prizes in this village that belongs to Briatico, a port on Calabria’s Mediterranean side studded by cliffs, bays, and turquoise sea.