One of the more memorable experiences of my life, the Marostica Living Chess Tournament certainly lived up to the hype. Taking place only every even year, select nights during the month of September, the central piazza of Marostica is transformed into an epic Renaissance spectacle. The entire square is lined with stadium seating while the piazza serves as stage for the evening’s festivities. Arriving two hours early, we beat most of the crowd, and found parking along the street just outside the western city wall.
This event is not one you can just show-up to and hope to get good seats. The best views sell out months in advance, or are sectioned out by corporate sponsors. A few seats are available last minute, but will be relegated to the poor views in the corners of the stadium stands. Expect to pay anywhere from 50 to 75 euro for a decent seat in the mid sections along the sides, and more for the front row.
After making our way into the city, we quickly discovered everyone else who arrived early took advantage of the time to grab an early dinner, or have a quick drink at one of the many bars which line the piazza. We ducked into a small hole-in-the-wall aperitivo bar immediately inside Porta Vicentina, enjoyed some tramezzini sandwiches, and had a glass of prosecco while waiting for the gates to open. We relaxed and chatted while the crowds continued to grow just outside.
While a bit chaotic on the outside, once through the gates logistically things were very organized. Ushers were everywhere to quickly guide us to our assigned seats as the stadium quickly filled with people. Anyone who has visited Marostica on a normal day will be amazed by the transformation. We've been here on antique market days and the square seems huge. The U shaped stadium seating here tonight must take up nearly fifty percent of the space, so all that is left is an open area in front of and behind the chess board in front of the spectacular Castello.
The spectacle begins with a scene of a Renaissance market. An enthusiastic narrator tells the story as the townspeople go about their business. Suddenly two feuding noblemen begin to sword fight in the market, only to be broken up by the town friar. The narrator goes on to explain the basic premise… two noblemen are vying for the right to marry the Lord’s eldest daughter. The Lord however, will only offer his daughter to the nobleman who wins a mock battle (the chess tournament). The scene set, elaborately costumed “guests” from across the realm being to arrive to witness the tournament.
After all the guests file in and pay their respects to the Lord and his entourage, flag dancing troupes from both sides perform in the arena accompanied by drums. This part seems to be a bit overdone, but captivating nonetheless. Colorful flags are tossed high into the air and juggled by the whole group, tossing them to one another while running around at speed in synch with the drum beats; it really is a sight to behold. As the dueling flag dancers depart the stage, the processional of the living chess pieces begins.
In a manner somewhat less exciting than expected, a trumpeted introduction signals the arrival of the feuding noblemen with their “armies”. Marching over the traditional chess board of 64 squares, the “pieces”, after formally introducing themselves to the Lord’s family, begin to position themselves in their proper places. The more spectacular pieces are the knights on live horses, and the rooks with actual castles on wheels. The horses while initially agitated, eventually settle down as the game play progressed.
Each nobleman now stands on a platform in front of the illuminated edifice of the Castello and begin to make their moves. The instructions are given in the Venetian dialect without translation, but it isn’t difficult to figure out what’s going on. All the moves are made according to the traditional rules of chess that any novice to the game can easily follow. As game play advances, pieces are taken by either side by characters simply lowering a spear and then a cursory bow before walking off the board. When a King is placed in “check” trumpets sound to indicate the significance. The match lasts maybe half an hour, ending without much fanfare, and the surviving pieces pay respects to the Lord before marching out.
The winning nobleman is then announced, and the Lord presents to him his eldest daughter to be married. The losing nobleman doesn’t leave empty handed however, as he gets to marry the Lord’s youngest daughter. A wedding is performed on the spot, and to great celebration, more flag dancing, and dramatic narration, the happy couples are led out through the castle gate.
As a grand finale, the entire cast is marched back in to pay respects to the event organizers with presentation of flowers by the Kings and Queens of the chess game. The central square of Marostica is now filled with people dressed in Renaissance period costumes; soldiers, merchants, horses, flag dancers, drummers, the noblemen and their new wives, all the distinguished guests and their entourages. Set to drums and trumpets, cascading fireworks flow from the walls of the Castello, topping off an amazing cultural experience we will never forget.
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