Begun in 1987, the official Renaissance Faire has developed into a major tourist event in northwest Alabama. For many years it has been named one of the Top 20 Events in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourist Society in Roswell, Georgia; giving it recognition by more than 800 media outlets throughout the region.
Although the Faire takes place in the fall, excitement for it begins in the spring with the statewide announcement that the annual poster contest has officially opened. Entries from throughout Alabama are submitted, with the artist of the winning entry receiving $500. The image is then used throughout the year to promote the Faire and to be replicated on posters and t-shirts, etc.
Held in Wilson Park (renamed Fountain-On-The_Green for the two days of the Faire), this unusual event draws 30,000 – 35,000 people each year to its site in Wilson Park in downtown Florence. It is always held on the fourth Saturday and Sunday in October, taking advantage of the balmy weather and the gorgeous fall foliage in the park.
As the Faire has grown, so have the other events which surround it during Renaissance Month, as October has been officially designated by the local government. In fact, brochures advertising Florence, Alabama, as the Renaissance City have been published by the Florence-Lauderdale Tourism Bureau and are circulated throughout the region. Among the Renaissance-related events held during October are musical programs, public lectures, dramatic performances, art exhibits, and dance programs. All of these are of the highest quality, and they set the stage perfectly for the Faire.
One of the major events of the month is an authentic Renaissance Feast. It is held on the Saturday evening a week before the Faire in the Florence-Lauderdale Coliseum, which is transformed into a baronial hall and features food and entertainment of the period. The chef uses authentic recipes from the Renaissance Period, though he does make a few concessions for the modern palate. Although it is not a requirement, people who attend the Feast are encouraged to follow the customs of the era by bringing their own tableware, table decorations, and eating utensils. (This was routinely done during the Renaissance because the nobility liked to flaunt its wealth by displaying its gold plate and its candlesticks of brass, silver or gold.) Seating is limited to 200 people.
A free costume-making workshop is held on the second Saturday in October at the local Kennedy-Douglass Art Center, which is conveniently located directly across the street from the Faire Site. People of all ages are invited to bring three yards of fabric, at least 54″ wide, and the rest (measuring, cutting, and sewing) is done by men and women connected with the Faire. A person literally walks away with a simple costume in hand which he/she can embellish with jewelry, belts, etc. That a large percentage of people attend the Faire in costume is directly attributable to these workshops.
Since education regarding the historical period known as the Renaissance is a primary goal of the Faire, activities are in place to encourage the involvement of students. Among them is an annual art contest for students in grades K-6, with the requirement that the subject matter of the entries reflects the era. There is also a yearly sonnet-writing contest for students in grades 7-12 to commemorate the fact that the Renaissance poet Petrarch originated the sonnet as an art form. Chess tournaments are held at all grade levels in area schools, with winners of these tournaments competing in playoffs at the Faire.
Students and others learn about all aspects of the Renaissance – the rebirth of learning in almost every discipline, the social\cultural characteristics of the period, and the roles that the church and powerful families, such as the Medicis, played.
At the Faire, there is entertainment, and food and crafts reflective of the Renaissance. Sword fighters, dancers, musicians playing period instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy or singing ballads with Renaissance roots, jugglers, and magicians perform on both stages. Crafts on display – with most for sale, too – include handmade baskets, handcrafted chain mail, and hand-thrown pottery. Delicious period food includes huge turkey legs, as well as breads and pastries based on Renaissance-era recipes.
The Faire is planned and executed by an all-volunteer Roundtable. From within the Roundtable, there is a Board of Directors composed of 18 people who serve three-year terms. The Board meets quarterly to guide the overall planning and to set policy. But it’s the roundtable, with an unlimited number of members, that executes the plans, and stages the Feast and Faire each year. There are no paid employees.
The Faire is financed primarily through the fees that vendors pay to reserve spaces. Whatever profit might accrue in a given year after expenses are paid goes directly into the Faire treasury to be used for the next year. The City of Florence contributes to the Faire through in-kind ways: e.g. including the two-day Faire in its liability coverage, providing overnight security for the weekend, and waiving the fee for the use of the Florence-Lauderdale Coliseum on the night of the Annual Feast.
October is a great time to be in Florence, Alabama — especially the fourth weekend!