A Buyer’s Guide to the Gonfalon

What does gonfalon mean?

GON-fuh-luhn or GON-fuh-lon

Nearly every different dictionary entry for the word “gonfalon” puts forward some variation on a banner hung from a crossbar, often with streamers, and a note referring to their most likely origin in medieval Italy.

As vague as that sounds, it’s about as accurate a definition as you will find because the very thing that makes gonfalons unique is their capacity for uniqueness. In fact, the added note about streamers might be a touch too much specificity.

Though you may not have known what to call them, you’ve seen them in various settings. You can’t help but notice them — that’s the whole idea. They are not shaped like typical flags because they are not displayed horizontally. A gonfalon is a vertical banner that is more ornate in shape and visual appeal than what most people think of as a standard flag. The purpose of a gonfalon is to establish and reinforce an identity. When it comes to flags, gonfalons are special — they speak to a more sophisticated way of communicating quality and substance.

Where are gonfalons used today?

Gonfalons are most likely to be seen at graduation ceremonies for universities. As students of the different colleges or schools within the university parade down the aisle to be awarded their diplomas, the procession is proudly lead by a gonfalon. The gonfalon is a prominent visual element that conveys pride, unity, and a sense of the greatness of the moment in the graduates and their supporting faculty.

A gonfalon may also show up at churches, period movies, royal milieu, or outdoor events. They can be used as wall hangings, or created specifically to decorate an outdoor space, and now they are even appearing at weddings. All the more, businesses use gonfalons as a form of outdoor signage, usually by hanging them on horizontal posts that are mounted to the side of their building.

Where and how were gonfalons used historically?

Vertical banners have a long history of being employed (and noticed) in a lot of different places and situations. The most notable uses were military and religious domains.

Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman army first draped small flag-like cloths from a horizontal crossbar suspended from a standard. These were carried to identify specific military units within each legion. Members of the unit could easily locate their flag during combat and closely defended it in the heat of battle.

Perhaps second only to military use is that gonfalons have also been used for centuries to lead religious processions, often bearing painted images of saints or other religious icons.

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that a banner draped from a horizontal crossbar became known as a gonfalone. Why? A neighborhood meeting in medieval Florence was called a gonfalone. To proclaim their identity, each neighborhood and township had their own unique flag and coat of arms. Eventually the word “gonfalone” became associated with these vertical flags. From there, “gonfalone” became what the rest of the world now knows as “gonfalon.”

The Romans called any of their small flags a “vexillum,” from the Latin word “velum,” meaning “a sail.” Borrowing from Roman vernacular, Vexillology has become the name for the study of flags. Extending the term a bit further, vexilloid is the label given to a standard that is not of conventional flag form, which is an apt description of a gonfalon.

What factors influence gonfalon design?

From a design standpoint, gonfalons present enormous flexibility. Even their sizes and shapes are wholly subjective — though gonfalons are nearly always taller than they are wide. When you are devising your custom gonfalon(s), considerations that will impact cost and delivery time are the size, shape, and the complexity of the artwork. Considerations that will impact the visual effectiveness of your custom gonfalon(s) are color selection, and the balance between font selection and artwork.

Unlike a typical flag, a gonfalon offers far more latitude to incorporate features such as streamers, tassels, cords, rounded or pointed ends, swallow-tailed ends, embattled ends, winged ends, or just about anything the designer can imagine.

Most modern, professionally-produced gonfalons will be comprised of three layers of nylon for the banner itself. One layer of backing, one middle insert, and a front layer where the graphics and lettering are placed. These layers are useful for a few reasons. First, they prevent the design from being visible through the back (backward). Second, for gonfalon sets like those that a university might need, the use of a single backing color to create an overarching sense of uniformity allows the front layers to have differing designs that represent various colleges/schools within that university. Third, the layers provide the necessary weight for the elegant presentation of gonfalons of any size.

On the front layer of the gonfalon, a design may be printed, appliquéd, embroidered, or any combination of the three. Printed graphics can handle just about any level of complexity, and appear flat against the surface of the banner. Appliquéd graphics are usually cut from tackle twill for the material’s sheen (a compliment to the nylon banner material) and the added weight it provides. The appliqué work is done by hand sewing multiple pieces of colored material in layers to render the final design image. Embroidered designs are fully sewn onto the banner. Often, a combination of appliqué and embroidery work is used to create the most polished, dynamic visual appeal.

Other custom gonfalon considerations

Because the range of gonfalon options is so wide and varied, an article like this may not answer all of the questions you encounter. Contact your custom flag professional to make sure that your exact gonfalon needs are met. A qualified flag expert can help you predict things like how long your gonfalon(s) will take to produce — e.g., fully embroidered gonfalons can take months to produce. Lastly, always be sure to order your sets of gonfalons at the same time whenever possible, as batches of dye for fabrics can change from year to year and a color you ordered yesterday may turn out differently today.

Need custom gonfalons?

LIBERTY FLAGS, The American Wave® is here to help! From traditional to modern, and in any size or shape, we produce gonfalons for organizations all over the United States and — of course — every gonfalon is 100% American-made.

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