The locals of Montone love two things: their town and Andrea Fortebraccio, the most famous and important mercenary leader of Central Italy, called Braccio da Montone.
Braccio’s son, Carlo Fortebraccio was the Count of Montone. He, too, was a soldier of fortune and fought for the Most Serene Republic of Venice between 1470 and 1477 and, for his services, he received a thorn from the crown of Christ as a gift.
Back in Montone, he gave it to the town, decreeing that it be displayed on Easter Monday, which is the origin of the festival of the Donation of the Holy Thorn, which is sponsored by UNESCO and takes place every year also on the last weekend of August.
Montone is only ten minutes by car from Umbertide, the town where I was born, and so I have visited quite a few Donations of the Holy Thorn, because I always missed the one on Easter Monday. So, one cold, dreary Easter Monday, still damp from the rain, I tried the Donation of the Holy Thorn in the “spring” version, at least according to the calendar.
I entered Montone, strictly on foot, from Porta del Verziere. The flags of the neighbourhood were flapping, as well as those of Porta del Monte and Porta del Borgo.
There was an air of festivity that one felt immediately: in a town with just over 1,600 people, it is unusual to meet someone walking in the centre but, this time, I saw locals and people from other villages.
There are even some foreign tourists, those who have already discovered the hidden Umbria and that, between a word of Italian and one of English, move through the narrow streets with the nonchalance of an Expert Traveller of the Hidden Umbria.
I enjoyed the atmosphere of Piazza Fortebraccio that was hosting a market of ancient crafts and, among the extras in period costumes, I was intrigued by two ladies who were telling the story of the Fortebraccio family.
I decided to follow them up the stairs leading to the beautiful Piazza San Francesco, which offers a spectacular view of the valley and surrounding hills.
Shortly after, I came upon ladies, knights, drummers and the “Malatestas”, which is to say the archers of the neighbourhoods of Montone who challenge each other to elect the lady to rule over the village. Their name comes from this challenge, which honours Margherita Malatesta da Rimini, the Chatelaine who ruled Montone during the absence of Carlo Fortebraccio.
To the beat of the drums, arrows are launched at targets.
I enjoyed the competition. There weren’t a lot of people. I breathed fresh air and filled my eyes with the landscape. I smiled.
In the faces of the extras, I saw pride in being Umbrian. I fully agree.
After the dip in Renaissance history, I decided to end my Donation of the Holy Thorn to the Church of Montone with a moment of silence before the Sacred Relic.
Once again, history, traditions, beliefs and religion were mixed in that typical good-tasting Umbrian recipe.