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Flag throwing

Last modified: 2011-12-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: flag throwing | palio | italy | switzerland | siena | twirling |
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Flag throwing in Italy, Switzerland, Belgium

In many Italian towns there are anniversaries of historical (especially medieval) events with costume parades and flag throwing. Most Italian towns were founded many centuries ago, therefore everywhere there is a battle or another historical event to celebrate. In the last years there is a renewed interest for this kind of celebrations, often for tourist purposes; many of them are called "Palio", the same name as the famous "Palio di Siena". There are also rentable flag throwing groups in costume. If you search Internet for "sbandieratori" you can find some of them, e.g.

Giuseppe Bottasini, 4 June 1996

I have witnessed a couple of these events. There are at least two "tossers". One throws the flag, which is attached to a pole weighted at the base to offset the weight of the flag. The other catches it, or one individual will toss it into the air sometimes making the entire flag & pole twirl in the air and catch it himself. As far as I know, the contest is for most elaborate tossing (flips, twirls etc.) and height and distance.
Don 5 June 1996

Don described exactly the way flags are thrown. During parades, flag throwers march holding the flagpole by only one hand and fluttering the flag and from time to time they throw the flag overhead. The effect is quite impressive. The flags used are historical (e.g. related to urban districts) or monochromatic.
Giuseppe Bottasini 6 June 1996

Flag throwing is common in Switzerland as well as Italy. Like palio flags, Swiss national and cantonal flags are square, which probably makes for better throwing. The flag bearer of the Swiss Olympic team is occasionally a thrower. IRC the Swiss put on such a display for Hitler (well, for everybody) at the 1936 Olympics. Almost every Swiss parade has flag tossing.
T.F. Mills 5 June 1996

In Siena page there is a sample of one of the 17 contrade of the Siena Palio. Depicted in this series are the main standards and standard-bearers. The throwing versions of the flags are somewhat smaller and less elaborate, and the latter seem to be most evident on the Siena websites.
T. F. Mills 26 August 1997

The Italian practice of 'flag flourishing (or tossing)' is an almost unique survival of what was, in fact, general military practice throughout (at least) Western Europe until the mid-late 17th Century so that could be said to provide a link to square flags?

Venn in his book 'Military and Maritime Discipline', London 1672, devotes considerable space in Chapter VI to the "Postures and Flourishing" expected of an Ensign or Colour Bearer (on the march, on parade and in battle), and the descriptions given match exactly those shown by the colour bearers of present day Italy. Captain Thomas Venn was not a theorist, he was a soldier who had seen much action in the (English) Civil War, and there is little doubt that he had seen most (if not all) in use. As examples:

4. With (and from) the right hand with lofty turns throw your Colours under the left arm, recovering them speedily back with conceived flourishes, you deliver them into the left hand; you may execute the same with the left hand. or:

10. Tis by some termed the Figure of Eight, that is with the right hand the half wheel on the left side, and so back on the right side, then delivering into the left hand perform the same.

Source: Appendix IV, "Ensignes of the English Civil Wars", Stephen Ede-Borret, Gosling Press, Pontefract, 1997
Christopher Southworth, 15 August 2004

I think it is important to distinguish between battle flags (regimental colours) in the 17th-18th centuries and modern throwing flags. The former were huge -- two to three times larger than regimental and throwing flags today. Their size alone precluded the need to "throw" them in order to gain attention. Swiss throwing flags today are 120 cm. square, and their purpose is clearly to achieve great height in the throw. But both may have evolved from 16th century military flags.

Documentation on 16th-17th century military flags is sparse, but there are indications that they were actually designed (e.g. short staffs) for a lot more flourishing than today. I think Landsknecht company banners of the late 15th through 16th centuries were the first truly modern military "Colours" in the sense of having signal functions, providing unit cohesion, and having a sacred value to the unit. Landsknecht banners of the 16th century seem to have been quite small, and were well- designed for one-handed signaling while fighting with the other hand. I have posted a photo "Landsknecht-flag" in XX/MIL. Note the small size of the flag, short staff, and the classic outstretched arm pose. E. A. Gessler, Flottez Drapeaux! [ges43] shows the ancient Swiss canton flags as small banners in variations of this stereotypical Landsknecht one-handed pose while later cantons are depicted in 19th century military poses with much larger flags. I have certainly not done an exhaustive study, but I don't recall ever seeing a contemporary illustration of a Landsknecht actually throwing his flag. I would be curious if anybody has contrary evidence.

Military unit flags as carried on the battlefield probably evolved from the Landsknecht banners, which would explain why regiments of 17th-18th centuries had one flag per company instead of one or two per regiment. Regimentation of companies into battalions evolved in the early 17th century, but it took another hundred years for battalion colours to supplant company colours. The flags may have grown in size as increased use of firearms clouded the battlefield in smoke. When flags were no longer carried in battle (late 19th century) their size decreased again. Some 17th century and very early 18th century illustrations suggest that staffs were normally still quite short (i.e. well designed for flourishes), and colour belts (worn over the shoulder) were as yet unknown.

Christopher quoted from Thomas Venn (1672). The full text can be seen at:

It is evident from the context that Venn had observed the Army in the early British Restoration period and found that Ensigns (colour-bearers) had largely lost all sense of who they were and how to handle flags (including undignified flourishes like passing the flag under their legs). It is also evident from the content and the title ("Military Observations for the Exercise of the Foot") that all the flag movements he describes are in the name of drilling troops, i.e. signaling them how to move (much as a drum major does with his staff). Venn seems to be attempting to revive a use of Colours that was well-established during the English civil wars in the 1640s.

John Blackwell in his "Compendium of Military Discipline..." (1726) repeats much of Venn, but goes on to note that "8 flourishes of the colours, which formerly were very much in use, but of late years it has been laid aside, however I shall mention and describe them, in order to raise an emulation in the ensign bearers to revive the practice." The flourishes referred to by Blackwell are said to have been a signaling system invented by Capt. William Burrell around 1707, and that the Duke of Marlborough liked this system, but the exact details of the drill movements performed at these signals seems to have been lost.

That is just Britain. I don't know what was happening on the continent. As the inventor of ballet to keep his officers busy, I am sure that Louis XIV must have had a strong interest in drill and the use of Colours.

I have loaded an illustration of unknown nationality, ca. 1700 which depicts Colours flourishes: This came from a Fahnenschwinger website, but if anybody knows the origin, it would be good to know. It shows two poses -- 7 and 8 -- which means the other poses must be instructive. It looks similar to Diderot's Encyclopedie. Note the short staff and the lack of a colour belt. Lacking a belt, the normal poses were with the butt resting on the bearer's hip or the staff sloped on his shoulder.

It should be noted that from the time of the Landsknechts, colours were sacrosanct. Even if small enough to throw, I don't think anybody in their right mind would tempt the enemy to catch such a trophy by tossing it around. Also, the risk of dropping it on the ground would be very undignified. I think any "throwing" was limited to a quick pass from one hand to the other.

Modern throwing flags seem to be about the same dimensions as Landsknecht banners with similar weighting in the staff. The staff is only long enough for one hand to grip (and thus well weighted for throwing). From what I can make out of the murky accounts on Italian and German websites, flag-throwing seems to have begun in Renaissance Italy as a celebration -- a victory, or the announcement of some other event. These were probably just decorative flags, introduced to add colour, and without any sacred value like a military colour. There are also no inherently undignified moves with such flags. Flag throwing was revived as a sport in the past 100-150 years. Much more recently it has become regulated by national bodies.

Some flag-throwing sites:

Quite a few Italian cities have their own Sbandieratori websites. Some Italian clubs have travelled far and wide, so we may see the sport spread to unexpected places.

The latter site has one of the more extensive histories of the sport:

More history here, with some historical illustrations:

Bern Canton Yodeling Club (BKJV) has a little explanation of flag-throwing.

If you search fahnenschwingen/fahnenschwinger and sbandieratori as images in Google, there are some impressive collections. In fact, as word searches, they turn up many clubs. There seems to be very little in French (lance de drapeau, lanceur de drapeau).
T.F. Mills, 21 August 2004

This link mentions the Swiss mercenaries who brought the knowledge about the military flag tossing from their Italian and French services to Switzerland. So it may be possible that it was practiced also in other language areas.

This link reports the foundation of the Western (francophone) Swiss Yodel Association in 1937. The Yodel associations pratice also the flag tossing. If the foundation of this association was an adoption of German Swiss custom or does it have deeper cultural roots, this question can be asked to the association itself. To the flag tossers of today this question may be secondary, as well as to the Swiss Germans who see foods like Fondue or Raclette as typically Swiss.
Martin Karner, 18 May 2005

I have seen a parade at The Vatican during Epiphany, three times during the reign of John Paul II in the late nineties. This involves three men riding horses dressed as the Three Wise Men, accompanied by a large number of people tossing flags in a procession. It might be that there is some connection with the Swiss Guard.
Colin Dobson, 18 May 2005

Flag tossing is actually a survivor/extension of standard 17th Century military practice ("posturing"), as shown in at least one English Manual of Arms from that period and was apparently common throughout Western Europe (as has been previously discussed on the list).
Christopher Southworth, 18 May 2005

Flag twirling in USA

[US twirling flag] image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 29 March 2008

The custom of flag twirling exists in the US. I, for one, know nothing about it, apart from disparate references like this: It seems to be popular among certain modern subcultures and urban tribes. At this link the flag design used is ~1:2 with a “peacock tail” style half gyronny of seven fanning from four bottom half-stripes, ranging in color from maroon to pale yellow (11 different shades total).
António Martins-Tuválkin, 29 March 2008

There's twirling with marching bands, sometimes with flags. Similarly, colour and winter guard teams twirl flags. In these cases the performance aspect is the most important, which means flags will usually be in team or performance style, not showing actual symbolism as for the flag throwers. (It also means the twirlers see no problem in letting flags fall on the ground if that's what the performance requires.) The one in the photographs looks like a baton style twirling staff to me, but I'm no expert.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 30 March 2008