Parades and Pageants

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Parades and Pageants

Parades and pageants were a major part of civic* life during the Renaissance. Frequent, lavish, and costly, these public events took place in the city streets, where all residents could view the spectacle. Although displays of this type had been common during the Middle Ages, the revival of classical* culture during the Renaissance gave many of these events a new look.

Occasions for Display. Parades and processions were held on several different occasions. For example, nearly every city held an event each year in honor of its patron saint. On the saint's feast day, priests and town officials formed an elaborate public procession through the streets, either to visit the local church that bore the saint's name or to display items associated with the saint to the population. Events honoring patron saints became particularly important in the city-states of Italy as a way of building civic identity. In some places the law required all citizens to participate.

Processions also occurred to mark the arrival of distinguished visitors to the city, such as foreign rulers, diplomats, or high church officials. Such formal entries were called receptions when local officials treated the entering guest as a formal equal. A triumph, by contrast, honored a guest who ranked above the hosts, such as a visiting king or pope. The name referred to a type of procession held in ancient Rome to honor a general returning to the city after a victory. Renaissance triumphs pointed up this link with ancient Rome through their decorations, which might include classical arches, columns, and chariots. The arches constructed for triumphal entries were temporary structures, often labeled with Latin mottoes or verses. Monarchs and popes sometimes made several such entries in the course of a long journey.

Some of the grandest processions occurred during events such as royal marriages, funerals, and coronations. In England, for example, new monarchs paraded through the streets of London on the day before they were crowned. Noble brides arriving in their new homes also received grand entries, often followed by courtly entertainments such as comedies. Solemn processions often formed a part of funeral ceremonies. Many cities even held elaborate processions to honor rulers who had died and been buried elsewhere. The grandest funeral procession of the Renaissance occurred in Brussels (then part of the Netherlands) in honor of the Holy Roman Emperor* Charles V, who had died in Spain. This event featured a chariot in the shape of a ship, decorated with painted scenes. The Italian city of Florence also staged many lavish funerals for foreign rulers. In 1564, however, it held an equally magnificent funeral for Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the city's most famous artists.

Features of Public Displays. Since the Middle Ages, public processions had involved ceremonial costumes and precedence—a specific order in which the participants appeared. A person's position in the procession reflected his or her rank or public role. The link between precedence and power was so strong that any change in the ranking seemed to be a political statement and could cause a public dispute.

Many civic processions, especially during the 1400s and 1500s, included a type of drama called a pageant. There were three main types of pageants. In a tableau vivant, or "living painting," the actors stood silently, arranged in poses to illustrate a scene from the Bible, mythology, or ancient history. In pantomime pageants, the actors moved to enact a scene but did not speak. Only the third type, known as a set piece, included spoken lines—usually verses recited in the local language, rather than in Latin. Pageants could take place on floats that moved along the procession route or on fixed stages that the people in the procession would see as they passed by. More than mere entertainment, pageants became the chief way for civic officials to promote ideas to the public and to make political announcements to outsiders.

Public displays also sometimes included complex devices designed to amaze viewers. Leonardo da Vinci is thought to have created a moving mechanical lion for the entry of the French king Louis XII into the Italian city of Milan in 1507. About 20 years later, Genoa received Emperor Charles V with a globe of the world that opened to release perfume.

Parades and pageants were vast, living works of art. Humanist* scholars helped plan and design them, poets wrote verses for pageants, and cities hired large numbers of artists to create decorations on short notice. After the development of printing, a tradition arose of preserving these splendid events through books of descriptions and illustrations. About 250 such books survive for Italy alone from the years 1475 to 1600. Planners of entertainments began collecting these festival books as sources of ideas for their own events.

(See alsoFairs and Festivals. )

* civic

related to a city, a community, or citizens

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living