Corpus Domini, a movable feast that occurs in the late spring, on the ninth Sunday after Easter, was introduced into the liturgical calendar by Pope Urban IV in 1264
It is celebrated in other Umbrian towns like Orvieto and Assisi, and in other parts of Italy. Spello's festivities began in the 1930's with the inspiration of an elderly woman who composed, on a small stretch of street before her door, a carpet of flowers to render her homage to Christ. Neighboring families, appreciative of her effort, banded together in succeeding years to create larger, more elaborate carpets.
What started as a personal gesture in front of a doorway expanded to a municipal project that progressively decorated the whole route of the annual procession.
People, sometimes not even belonging to the same neighborhood or district, work in groups. The individual creator sketches out his vision weeks beforehand, and assembles a team of anywhere from 20 to 60 others to execute it.
Every age group feels valued for its contribution. Spello's children begin helping as early as age 6, so they can learn the techniques. When I asked an artist's wife where all the flowers came from and who paid for them, she articulated her reply with a ripple of fingers under the table, a gesture that means ''stolen.
'' So, 6-year-olds are given license to scramble over fields and guiltlessly ''borrow'' flowers for the cause -- roses and carnations, also sunflowers, broom and wild thyme. Their grandparents and great-grandparents are charged with separating the blooms from stems and leaves. Grade-school children are the shaders, sorting the petals into labeled boxes. Teenagers are allowed to stay out all night, catnapping side by side, and filling their assigned sections within chalked lines.
inally, the afternoon before the infiorate, some 2,000 volunteers pour into the streets to begin the feverish work of arranging the millions and millions of petals that will produce these tapestries
Men string lights and raise canopies to shelter the compositions from wind or rain through the long night's work. Many of the town's women offer sweets and espresso to keep the workers going. This interplay of individual vision and team effort is the very essence of Spello's Infiorate
''While we are working, we all bend down together,'' said Giovanni Buono, president of the Associazioni delle Infiorate di Spello, who won a prize for his first carpet at the age of 14. That was 50 years ago, and now, as an art history teacher, Giovanni is training a third generation of eager floral artists.
Through this festival, Spello's residents enjoy a resurgence of the communal values that were the core of survival in this silent, landlocked center of Italy. The groups become so absorbed in their joint effort, politics fall away and even squabbling over space or who does what is forgotten.
. As dawn signals the end of the night's work, teenagers stretch out like lion cubs alongside the carpets to guard fiercely against the wayward footfalls of onlookers. Old men armed with spray bottles periodically refresh the petals.
Until the 1960's, the Infiorate was just a folk festival, and the carpets were simple strips of color with a religious figure surrounded by geometric designs.
But in recent years, abstract art has worked its way into the designs as the artisans have found inspiration in Kandinsky, Miro, Picasso, even Jackson Pollock.