Tuscany – Lucca’s Crossbow Tournament

by Samuele Sodini

balestrieri-lucca

Lucca can present a no more seductive nor lasting image than a tournament of its Compagnia Balestrieri, its Company of Crossbowmen, dressed in full medieval regalia-bold patterns and colors, brilliant against the white stone facades of one of the city’s venerable piazzas. Accompanied by its retinue of heralds, standard beakers, knights, clerics, city officials, damsels, pages, drummers, trumpeters and flag bearers the Compagnia is a memorable sight  indeed. By ardently plein their ancient skills, these modern-day balestrieri link themselves in our imaginations directly to their military forebears, a group of the city’s earliest defenders, and to a history of gallantry almost a sold as the Comune itself.
Introduction of the balestra, or crossbow, into the written history of Lucca began in 1169, when the Comune di Lucca, finding itself once again at war with its powerful and always uncomfortably close neighbor, Pisa, asked an old ally Genoa for the loan of a company of crossbowmen to assist in the defence of the city.
Use of this potent weapon, perfected by the Genovese for their naval fleet was thus transferred here and soon Lucca’s deadly expertise with the crossbow rivalled any in Italy. During rare interludes of peace in the early 1300’s, Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, lucca’s famous condottiere, encouraged military preparedness in the city by instituting an annual competion with a rich prize a san incentive for maintaining a high level of marksmanship.
Later in that same century, the Comune di Lucca established a permanent contingent of citizen crossbowmen in each of its terziere, San Martino, San Paolino, San Salvatore, the city’s three geopolitical subdivisions wich also mustered its militia.
However, it was not until 1443 that the Consiglio Generale della Repubblica  di Lucca instituted a true Palio or tournament to be held twice annually by the crossbow underwent its final stages of tecnica development, althoughout antiquity. A balestra essentially a bow fixed to a perpendicular frame or stock, but the bow initially made simply of wood or horn, evolved into a hybrid of wood reinforced with laminated strips of horn, bound together with animal tendons and wrapped tightly in a leather covering.
In the end, bows constructed of iron and then steel replaced these more primitivematerials, but the real piece of medieval genius that gave the crossbow its deadly power and supraq-human range was a small crank-operated windlass that mechanically drew the bow string taut to where it could be held in place by a trigger made of wood, bone or metal.
Frecce or arrows (also called darts, quarrels or bolts), had wooden shafts with one  end fitted with twin rows of duck feathers on opposing sides for stability in flight and the other endd tipped with metal points of varriuos shake depending one its use warfare tournament large game hunting or bird hunting.
Of course the advent of black powder weapons ended the reign of the balestra as the “queen of battle” just a sit brought down the era of walled cities and the comunal governments behind them. In 1970, some private citizens of Lucca, motivated solely by their spirit to revive this historic part of the city’s military tradition, formed the Compagnia Balestrieri di Lucca and re-instituted the two annual tournaments under the same rules as set out in the original statutes of 1443. Held ina a major piazza usually at night, the summer tournament in the Palio di san paolino on the 12th of July, the feast day of the patron saint both of the city and of the Archdiocese.
The fall tournament is the Palio di Santa Croce, held some time during the week before the 14th of september, the feast day when all of Lucca pays homepage to the Volto Santo.
Each balestriere seated at a cavallo or wooden shooting platform, has two shots at the target, still called by its traditional name brocca, or pitcher that was used in the Middle Ages, but today a fixed wooden bull’s ye 13 centimetres in diameter, located 36 meters away. The winner is decided by a panel off ive judges. Often callipers must be used to make the final decision!
With a membership of over 500, the Compagnia has found a fitting home on Le Mura ( the Walls) at the Casermetta San Pietro. Use of this 16th century military barracks located near Porta San Jacopo was generously donated by the Comune di Lucca to the Compagnia for its many social activities and for storage of its splendid costumes. Each of the Balestrieri is requie to own his crossbow.
These weapons are designed by senior members of the Compagnia and assembled by other members from metal parts custom made in lcal machine shops, steel bows imported from specialized metal workers in Gubbio or San Sepolcro, and walnut stocks crafted by wood workers here at Lucca.
Other re-enactor organizations in the Province of Lucca-Altopascio’s Cavalieri del Tau, and the Balestrieri di Gallicano join the Compagnia in taking part in many annual civic and religious ceremonies.

For more informations, visit www.compagniabalestrierilucca.it

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