When I was a kid, we would occasionally find a garter snake living in our small urban garden along with our collection of 15 box turtles. I always loved snakes... smooth, silky, muscular and graceful. On our country property today, I've often seen several species of snakes: garter, ribbon, black rat. The hill behind our home is called Rattlesnake Hill, but I've never seen one. I still find it interesting when I come across snakes... but I don't honor them in any way and couldn't dream of anyone holding a festival for them!
Yet, each year in the beginning of May, in the small towns of Cocullo and Villalag0, La Festa dei Serpari is held. The festival is held in honor of Saint Dominic, protector of toothache, reptile bites and rage. But the festival also has ancient pagan roots in honor of the Oscan healer and snake goddess, Angizia. Also known as Angitia to the ancient Romans, she was revered by the Marsi, a warlike tribe of people who lived to the east of Rome in the Apennine Mountains.
Angizia possessed an ability to heal those who had been poisoned--especially by snakes--and had the power to kill serpents by casting verbal spells. First century Romans knew the Marsi region contained many healers, magicians, and snake-charmers was infamous as a hotbed of witchcraft. The Festa dei Separi honors the modern-day separi (snake wranglers), with many of them catching and contributing snakes to the festivities.
In preparation for the Festival, during the last half of March, the separi spread out across the countryside in their hunt for snakes. Once captured, they are carefully stored in wooden boxes, or as in ancient times, inside terracotta containers for 15-20 days. The snakes are fed a healthy diet of live mice and hard-boiled eggs.
On the day of the festival, pilgrims gather in the church of San Domenico to be healed. After Mass, the statue of the Saint is draped with live snakes and carried into the piazza where believers gather to touch both the Saint and the snakes for their healing powers. The local separi also drape themselves with snakes and follow the procession.
In years past, the snakes were killed afterwards and eaten in a feast, but now the bread is substituted, formed into various snake shapes... interlocking rings of snakes, biting their tails, or as serpents with sliced almond scales and coffee bean eyes. The snakes are no longer killed, but released back into the wild when the festival is over.
Some other scholars argue that the festival dates back even further to the Greek hero and god, Hercules. Supposedly, jealous Hera sent two snakes to kill him in his crib. The infant Hercules was unusually strong and fearless and strangled the snakes before they could strangle him. In the nearby hamlet of Casale votive bronzes representing Hercules have been found.
Saint Domenico himself is particularly revered in Cocullo because some personal relics are kept in the church there: a molar and a horseshoe from his mule. Villalag0 also has one of his molars. There is no telling who has the rest of his teeth. Perhaps they were eaten--by snakes.
In the United States, May Day isn't really a holiday at all. All we know about it is when people with roots from Germanic countries celebrate the return of summer with children dancing around the ribboned May Pole. We also know it as a day of marches for left-wing or worker political parties promoting their agendas for various worker's rights, similar to how workers in many countries treat May Day.
In Italy, the 1st of May is called Festa dei Lavoratori (Workers' Day), similar to American's Memorial Day or Labor Day. While there might still be workers marching and holding protests depending on which way the the political and economic wind is blowing, for most workaday furbo Italians, it's simply a day off from work and a long weekend to go to the beach, attend one of the many rock concerts, have a barbecue or rent a holiday cabin in the mountains. After all, it's a lot of work to organize and protest on hot city streets, isn't it? Easier to just go to the beach and throw some steaks on the grill.
Most museums are closed as well as many other shops for the entire holiday weekend. This is perhaps not the best weekend to visit major tourist destinations in Italy simply because this is one of the holiday weekends where Italians do the tourist thing... just the way Americans might visit tourist sites in the States during Memorial Day or Labor Day weekends.
Still, in some parts of Italy (southern Marche, for example) a red flag is placed at the top of a poplar tree as a Socialist party symbol. If you're overly anti-communist, don't get paranoid... Italian socialists--and communists--mix well with other Italians and tourists alike. You might meet them later on during the weekend at the beach...
Have a great May Day!
Every year around this time, the town of Altamura in the Alta Murgia region of Puglia settles down to bed in the 21st century and awakes the next morning in the Middle Ages. The Federicus Medieval Festival is a historical re-enactment dedicated to Frederick II of Swabia who stopped in Puglia during his return journey after the Crusades. In 1232 Frederick II decided to have a cathedral built, around which the town center developed.
Held this year from April 28th through May 1st, the festival consists of an historical parade with jugglers, jesters, street performers, flag bearers, and of course, medieval ladies and gentlemen, ancient music and of course, food.
Frederick II was heading towards Bari to sail to the Holy Land, and needed to leave some of his soldiers suffering from malaria in Altamura. Miraculously, they were healed. To celebrate the miraculous recovery, the Emperor had a cathedral built in 1232. Opposing this legend, what the Emperor really wanted was to build a church to obtain the benevolence of Pope Gregory IX (who had previously excommunicated him) in a city with a strategic position within the Pope's beloved Apulia.
When visiting Altamura, don't forget to sample their amazing Pane di Altamura, a wonderful, tasty bread that can stay fresh for up to a month!
For more info: Federicus Festival
Typically, there are no Easter egg hunts in Italy, but nowadays you will find Il Coniglietto di Pasqua (the Easter Bunny) and hollow chocolate eggs with a surprise gift inside. There are also Pannetone and Colomba (dove shaped) breads given as presents when visiting relatives.
Pasqua is the second biggest holiday, just behind Christmas. But the days leading up to Easter include solemn processions, masses, and celebrations in virtually every region of Italy, each having its own traditions. La Pasquetta, the Monday after Easter Sunday, although not a national holiday, is a public holiday throughout Italy where families stay home from work, enjoy good food and exchange gifts of chocolates.
Good Friday and the Via Crucis with the Pope
On Good Friday evening, the Pope celebrates the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) in Rome at the Colosseum. Mimicking the Passion of the Christ, a huge cross with burning torches lights the sky as the stations of the cross are described in several languages. At the end, the Pope gives his blessing. There have been younger Popes who have carried the cross during the procession.
Easter Mass at St. Peter's Square
In virtually every church in Italy an Easter mass is held. The Pope himself officiates at the Easter mass at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. Although tickets are free, people wanting to attend the mass at St. Peters Square need to order tickets to this mass 2-6 months in advance.
Florence and the Scoppio del Carro on Easter Sunday
On Easter Sunday in Florence, the Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the cart) is the event to attend. A tall, decorated cart is pulled by white oxen until it reaches the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence's historic center. Immediately after East Mass is completed, the Archbishop shoots a rocket into the fireworks-filled cart, creating a terrific pyrotechnics display. Afterwards there are displays with people dressed in medieval costumes.
Sardinia's Holy Week
The island of Sardinia is a part of Italy steeped in tradition and influences from other lands and cultures. Some of its Easter traditions have evolved from the Spanish Catalan, Semana Santa, such as the Riti della Settimana Santa in Alghero. The celebrations last for a week with different processions and festivities each day coming ending the final day with fireworks. If you're still in Sardinia the second Sunday after Easter, check out the Torrone (Nougat) Festival’ in Tonara--just done tell your dentist!
As an example of the uniqueness of celebrations in small towns, the Umbrian hill town of Panicale, celebrates with cheese on La Pasquetta. The game of Ruzzolone is a competition with elements of bocce, bowling and even yo-yo. This game has been played for over 2000 years. The giocattori (players) attach a large, leather strap around a nine pound wheel of pecorino cheese and in yo-yo or sling-shot fashion, launch the cheese wheel through the streets that wrap around the village walls. In the piazza afterwards, there is music, dancing, wine--and of course--cheese!
Enna, in Sicily, has a series of events and processions during the entire Easter season. On Palm Sunday, the brothers put on a live scene of Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem on the Papardura Sanctuary, clinging to the side of the mountain, with olive branches and palms gracing the path.
On Wednesday, a singing mass is held, while the members of the confraternities take over local taverns in the historic center, filling it a party atmosphere. On Holy Thursday, there is a foot washing ritual and pilgrimages that last into the night. On Good Friday, more than 2,000 friars dressed in ancient costumes walking through the streets of the city. The statue of the Holy Mary is carried by dozens to the Cathedral with the brotherhood entering the church to pay their respect to Christ. In the evening, the longest parade in Sicily starts, with all confraternities taking part, all wearing hoods of penitence and carrying torches.
Confraternities of Penitents or Congrèe in Italian, are Roman Catholic religious groups, with bylaws prescribing various penitential works. Beginning in the mid 12th century, a members of these brotherhoods were referred to as converso, Church laymen who had made a "conversion of life" and were affiliated to a monastic order as lay brothers.
Penitents, also called Addolorati, are those who adopted asceticism, of which there are two types. "Natural asceticism" is a lifestyle with lessened material aspects, fasting, refraining from sexual relations without actually entering a monastery. "Unnatural asceticism" includes self infliction of pain or flagellation.
These Penitents lived fairly normal lives, while adhering to rules against blasphemy, gambling, drunkenness, and womanizing. In 1227 Pope Gregory IX recognized his "Brothers and Sisters of Penance". As with today, most penitent confraternities were involved in charitable activity and considered benefactors to both Church and their local communities.
In the past as well as today, the penitent brothers are known for wearing robes and pointed hoods during public processions on Catholic holy days, such as Good Friday, to hide their identities, both for purposes of hiding their sinfulness and providing anonymity for their charitable works. I feel it must be pointed out (unintended pun here), that these are good-hearted, devout Catholics.
Although their pointed caps and white robes (there are other sects throughout Europe with other colors: black, red, blue, etc.) repulse most Americans, the similar garb worn by the extreme racist members of the Ku Klux Klan and these pious Catholic brotherhoods have absolutely nothing in common with each other. The Klan sides with the Devil... the Penitents with God...
Known as Quarrelsome, or the 40th day, in Italian, Lent is the word Catholics use to describe the fast before Easter. Of course, one of the more well-known traditions during Lent are Meatless Fridays, on which Catholics refrain from eating meat. This Lenten fasting really begins on Ash Wednesday (Mercoledì delle Ceneri) and every Friday until Easter arrives.
Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday, and is chiefly observed by Catholics, although many other Christians observe it too. Ash Wednesday is the day after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday or Martedì Grasso in Italian), the last day to party--essentially the end of the Carnivale season in Italy.
Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person's forehead, he speaks the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Even though Italy is a strictly Catholic country--where most Catholic holidays are also National holidays--self-denial during Lent it is no longer a strict requirement but a matter of personal principle. In modern times, fasting during Lent in practice doesn't mean starving oneself, but professing a Lenten Promise, such as giving up foods that are seen as excesses... typically, dolce and chocolate. But giving up meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent is still a popular notion, with fish becoming the main protein during this period.
With a commanding view of the Amalfi Coastline, the Auditorium Oscar Niemeyer in Ravello is balanced on its perch at a height of 1200 feet above the sea below. Before it was built, the "City of Music" (as Ravello is called) featured several beautiful outdoor venues--but none with more than a hundred seat capacity. Villa Rufolo, Villa Cimbrone, Piazza Duomo and Piazza San Giovanni del Toro all offered concerts, dance performances and plays. But Ravello desired a new, dynamic structure, allowing it to extend the concert series all year round to a greater number of fans and admirers.
The project was assigned to the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer who delivered his plans on September 23rd 2000, after only seventy days of work. From the outset the architect found himself in front of problems related to natural unevenness of the terrain:
"... the uneven ground, narrow with a very strong transverse orientation. Hence the initiative to build a model." ... " I did not think an expensive operation involving an unnatural development of the land was necessary, so I took as a starting point the exact inclination of the parterre and the project started to take its present shape".
Niemeyer died at 105 years old in 2011, one year before construction was completed.
The architecture of Ravello has Roman and Medieval roots and is strongly characterized by architectural elements typical of such periods, such as vaulted ceilings, terraces, columns, classical statuary, arches, and formal gardens. One would think that the first obstacle to overcome was just to design a structure that was not in conflict with the architectural identity of Ravello and the Amalfi Coast.
In reality, the Auditorium is an assault against the traditional lines of architecture. It is a cornerstone in aesthetic and cultural modernization of the countryside, jumping out of the surrounding environment with its curved lines and the blinding white color. The shape of the one side of the structure reminds one of the eyes painted on the prows of fishing vessels harking back to the time of the Greeks. Others might think the building looks like a large bird about to fly from its nest to soar the coastline below, or its shape like the wing of an obese jetliner.
The Auditorium is accessed by an oblong square, which allows its visitors to enjoy, at the same time, the amazing landscape and view of the sea. From a vantage-point from above the large glass entrance, one can see the mountains' reflection. The main concert hall defies the natural slope of the land... the orchestra stand and the foyer are projecting over the cliff without a visible support.
"It's not the perfect angle that attracts me, and not even the straight, hard, inflexible man-made one. What really attracts me is the free and sensual curve. The curve that represents the meeting of the mountains of my homeland, the figure of a beautiful woman, the clouds of the sky and the waves of the sea. The same curves which create the Universe. The curved Universe of Einstein. "
There has been--and still is--controversy about the design and placement of the Auditorium. For one thing, the architecture sticks out of the landscape and surrounding architecture like a sort, bright white thumb. Some complain that Neimeyer didn't design the structure to take full advantage of the amazing panoramic views of the coastline below, leaving only the large windows the the left of the audience, a rather low and narrow "eye" window situated right behind the performers, and a round window too high for anyone to see much of a view.
The room--acoustically speaking--is a very difficult one, in terms of producing the best sound for the audience's pleasure. Some experts claim it is flawed, while audiences suggest the opposite. First of all, it's not symmetrical... the floor on the right side extends further from the audience than the left side. The sound is no distributes equally to all seats (the center seats are louder than the ones along the side).
Another issue with its design is parking. Although it contains a lower level parking garage, there are only 107 parking spaces, some argue not enough for the 400 seat auditorium. There are also problems with the daily running of the venue... cafes being closed for no reason, people still entering the auditorium 20 minutes after a concert has started, etc. There are also some signs on the smooth, curved surface of the roof having many patches in it... surprising for such a young structure. One wonders if the building will last for a millennia as others have along the Amalfi Coast.
And if you visit the Auditorium during the months when there are no concerts scheduled, you can still see a feature film there. Bigfoot Junior is showing this week.
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