In Puglia, Basilicata, Lazio, Umbria, Lombardy and other regions of Italy, many towns and villages celebrate la Festa di San Giuseppe (March 19th) in a unique way... by lighting Fuochi nella Notte, fires of the night--or bonfires. The bonfires and festivities are on various days (depending on the town), from March 17th through the 19th. Known by different names, the bonfire festival might also contain the words Torciata (torch), Fiaccolata (torchlight procession), Falò (fire).
For example, in Tuscany's Pitigliano, the event is called Torchiata di San Giuseppe with people dressed in medieval costumes and a procession of men and boys dressed in hooded monk's robes carrying flaming reed torches that will help build the bonfire. After the bonfire has burned down to ashes, tradition calls for people to collect and keep the ashes, ensuring their good luck in the coming spring.
As with other holidays beginning in the New Year and throughout lent, the lighting of bonfires has a long history going back to the time of pagan worship. Through the last 2000 years, the activity has morphed into a Christian tradition. This tradition also coincides with the need to burn the trimmings from vines, olive trees and other woody crops.
While Christians claim the fires are a representation of the good father, Saint Joseph, striving to keep the infant Jesus warm during winter nights, others say the tradition is from the ancient Romans celebrating the dark winter being overtaken by the light of spring. Many modern observers say it's just another way for fun-loving Italians to throw yet another party, for as with most festa and sagre, there is always the food, and a great sense of community.
And if the truth is to be told, Italians love bonfires so much, you will also come across other Fuochi on other saint day festivals across Italy.
The cimaruta is a very old Italian portafortuna (good luck charm) rooted in the lore of the ancient Pagan religions of Italy. It can be worn around the neck or hung above an infant's bed to ward off any evil. Like many of the lasting ancient symbols and beliefs, the cimaruta design eventually took on certain symbols of Catholicism. One example of a Christian addition to the design is the appearance of "the sacred heart" of Jesus. However, ancient Roman charms did include a heart symbol, which may indicate that the heart on the cimaruta isn't an entirely new addition.
The traditional cimaruta is fashioned after the leafy sprig of rue, which is an herb that is highly featured in Italian magic and lore. The branch of the rue is divided into three stems symbolizing the three forms of the goddess Diana. Rue was a sacred herb for Diana.
Various charms appear on the rue design, each having its own meaning. The main symbols are the moon, serpent, and key. These represent the goddess as Hecate (the key), Diana (the moon) and Proserpina (the serpent). There may also be a rose; a hand holding either a wand or a sword; a flaming heart; a fish or dolphin (a nod to Diana); an owl (to flirt with the Devil); a plumed medieval helmet; a vervain blossom (a flower from Italian fairy ore); a cherub; a rooster (watchful guardian); and an eagle (able to see evil coming from far away). One cimaruta, for example, might bear the collective imagery of a key, dagger, blossom and moon. The cimaruta is worn nowadays more by women than men.
Mano in Fica
The clenched fist with a trusting thumb is known as mano in fica or simply, mano figa ("fig-hand"), or far le fiche ("c*nt gesture", pardon the profanity), for the resemblance to female genitalia. The word figa itself is a very vulgar word to describe a vagina in Italy. Such a rude hand gesture was common in past centuries, similar to "giving the finger" or "flipping the bird", but has fallen out of use. Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto XXV) mentions the mano in fica. Supposedly, this charm is used to insult the devil and others casting evil spells.
The cornetto, shaped like a horn or chili pepper, is still popular in Southern Italy around Naples, Calabria and in the rest of Mezzogiorno (southern Italy). In Calabria and Naples this charm is worn as jewelry, hung on rear view mirrors, hung in shop windows, on key rings, and on t-shirts. It is more effective if it is red (representing an enemy's blood) and topped with a crown (representing wealth). The cornetto is a symbol of virility (obvious with its phallic shape), but it also brings luck, wealth, success and can also used by women. A similar magical horn of plenty was carried by the Roman Goddess Abundantia to represent abundance, and many think the cornetto has its roots in ancient Roman times.
An alternative to the cornetto, some claim the Mano Corno can ward off the malocchio (evil eye). However, in Italy, the Mano Corno can be seen as offensive... this hand gesture is called cornuto, or a cuckolded man. Give this hand sign to an Italian man and you are basically calling him weak, pathetic and unmanly. This sign--along with sticking up a middle finger--are the most insulting signs you can insult an Italian man with. This charm directly insults the devils and his demons himself.
The Coccinella, or ladybug (ladybird) charm brings luck in the arena of love and romance. it's a very common charm in Italy, especially with women. The red color has multiple meanings... red represents victory over one's enemies (spilling their blood); red helps ward off malocchio; and red also is the color of passion and romance. Another fact about the ladybug is they eat the bad bugs who would eat a farmer's crops, so of course they came to be thought of as a sign of good luck, helping prevent crop failure.
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.
When considering a visit to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum tour, perhaps you've had doubts about the long lines, heat, the expense, hours on your feet slugging through the 5 miles of museum corridors, shoulder-to-shoulder with the cruise ship tour groups, trying to soak in all of the Sistine Chapel's majesty within the 10 minutes they allow... well, you may now have a serious option for enjoying the art of the Master in a unique and new way...
Artainment Worldwide Shows, along with the expertise of the Vatican Museums, have produced Giudizio Universale's Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel.
The multimedia and live performance show aims to be an important event for art lovers and will be a must-see for the millions of Italian and international visitors who place Rome and the Vatican Museum at the top of their Must See List. Conceived by Marco Balich, the show is the first example of an innovative format that combines the narrative of the origin of a masterpiece with the most sophisticated and technologically advanced instruments of live entertainment.
For this project, Marco Balich has collaborated with world-renowned musician Sting, who composed the original theme music. The other names of the cast are stunning: the voice of Michelangelo will be by Pier Francesco Favino (known for the Disney fantasy “The Chronicles of Narnia – Prince Caspian” and the collaboration with the Oscar-winning director Ron Howard’s “Rush” and “Angels and Demons”). Together with the original theme performed and arranged by Sting, there will be new music composed by John Metcalfe, a leading figure in the contemporary pop-rock scene and producer of artists such as Morrisey, Blur and Coldplay.
The show explores more than just the Sistine Chapel, but the history and works of the Master himself--Michelangelo and the 16th century Renaissance. The show is a mix of art history, theatrical performance, both photographic and physical special effects, words, images, dance and music.
The most impressive thing about the production are its 270° immersive projections, together with larger-than-life stage effects and live performances similar to Cirque du Soleil acrobatics. During a 60-minute show, spectators will follow the story of the origin of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, from Giulio II‘s commission of frescoes of the vault to the realization of the Universal Judgment, through a reenactment of the Sistine Chapel as the place for the papal election.
Through the storytelling about Michelangelo, modern special effects will animate the frescos of the Sistine Chapel to end with the wonderful Universal Judgment that will come to life throughout the space around the public. A new chapter of the Italian cultural offering, Giudizio Universale is a long-term project with a typical Italian style. It will run from March 15, 2018, at the Auditorium della Conciliazione in Rome. The audience will be able to choose to attend the show in Italian or in English (starting March 24).
Let's hope that the production draws away some of the crowds that are overburdening the Vatican Museum itself... and that the Vatican helps to publicize the show. It's become obvious the Vatican has oversold both the Museum and St. Peters Basilica with a fear that they are destined to become a tourist destination with as little passion and meaning as a visit to Euro Disney.
From the Mouth of the Bocca: This is a great option for people who normally would never spend an entire day in a hot, stuffy art museum and prefer lighter entertainment.
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.
When I lived in Paris years ago, one of the most unexpected pleasures was when I visited the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Often, people regard this unusual site as a place of pilgrimage, to pay homage to the likes of Chopin, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde or even rock legend Jim Morrison (his grave littered with graffiti and drug paraphernalia was distasteful to me). But I went for a different reason... the art. Admittedly, wealthy families could possibly afford to commission a granite temple, travertine pyramid or marble sculptures to honor a lost beloved member--and truth be told, perhaps the effort is really a monument to perpetuate the myth of their family's importance for the ones still living and yet to come.
In any case, I didn't visit to pay homage to any heroes of mine. I went for the art itself. In Italy, it's also possible to do the same as a number of cemeteries contain some amazing monumental art.
Most modern Italian cemeteries sit on the outskirts of their towns and consist of a mix of traditional graves and headstones and multi-level rows of vaults, a method used by the both the ancient Etruscans and early Christians. The vaults are simple affairs, sealed with a marble stone, names and dates with a small medallion containing a photo of the individual as they appeared in life.
However, over the years, many wealthier families commissioned architects and artists to create chapels, tombs and sculptures resulting in many Italian cemeteries becoming open-air museums of funerary art, known as Cimiteri Monumentali (Monumental Cemeteries). I've put together a collection for you to enjoy...
Cemeteries Worth Visiting
Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno
One of the largest cemeteries in Europe, the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa covers nearly a square mile on the hilltop district known as Staglieno. It was opened in 1844 at a time when Genoa was home to affluent bourgeoisie businessmen, politicians and artists. To honor their accomplishments, realistic sculptures were commissioned for their tombs. This is without doubt, one of the most visited monumental cemeteries in Europe.
San Michele Cemetery, "Island of the Dead", Venice
After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, Napoleon prohibited any burials in town centers and in Venice, this meant that a new walled cemetery was commissioned on the island of San Michele, within reach of gondolas from the Venice waterfront. The island is landscaped with tall cypress trees, a 15th Century church and cloister. The shallow graves are occupied a dozen years and afterwards are exhumed with the bones interred into mausoleum niches or dumped into a communal ossuary.
You'll find graves of 19th and 20th Century foreigners, including celebrities like Ezra Pound, Serge Diaghilev (whose grave normally is decorated with a ballet slipper), and Igor Stravinsky.
Cimitero Monumentale di Torino
The Monumental Cemetery of Turin was commissioned in 1827 to replace the small and ancient cemetery of St. Peter in Chains. It contains numerous historical tombs and 6 miles of porticoes adorned with sculptures of artistic interest.
Cimitero Monumentale di Milano
One of two large cemeteries in Milan (Cimitero Maggiore is the other), Milan Monumental Cemetery was designed by architect Carlo Maciachini and contains a multitude of sculptures by renowned artists: Giò Ponti, Arturo Martini, Lucio Fontana, Medardo Rosso, Giacomo Manzù, Floriano Bodini, and Giò Pomodoro.
Visitors enter through an impressive Medieval style building of marble and stone that contains the tombs of the country's most honored citizens. Besides having mostly Catholic graves, there are also sections for Jews and other non-C Catholics. The cemetery contains the tombs of composers Corelli, Verdi and Toscanini.
Cimitero Monumentale di Messina
The Monumental Cemetery of Messina, in Sicily, is one the best for funerary art. In 1854, it was designed as a urban park and gardens as well as a cemetery. The cemetery is divided into the Jewish cemetery, the Catholic cemetery, and a monument to the victims of the First World War. The art in this cemetery is second only to Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa.
Click on the photo above to see a high resolution image
The whole world has heard of the "newly discovered" or "recently accredited" painting called Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) becoming the highest price ever paid for a painting in history... $450 million. Wait. Let me put all those zeros back in for effect. That's $450,000,000. Nearly half a billion dollars! And of course, the main reason is that art experts claim the painting was created by the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci himself. But is this a fact, or merely the opinion of a bunch of art historians and experts hired by the 20 person American consortium that owned the painting?
To add more drama to the transition from muddled, awkward, damaged painting to one touted with little doubt as one touched by the Master's Hand (and to trump up its predicted value at auction), Christie's auction house put together the following time-lapse video of the "transformation". (Yes, they actually tend to use the word "transformation", not "restoration"). Check out this video...
Even though the consortium of Americans, led by Robert Simon of Robert Simon Fine Art (in the business of marketing Old Masters paintings), who raked in $450 million (less the 30% fee for Christie's) are very happy about the sale, many others still have doubts about the painting. At this point, no one is certain who bought it, but you can be sure we will see it again, marketed like crazy by some big name museum, with a full compliment of T-shirts, books, posters, pillows, mugs to bolster profits.
Thomas Campbell, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was quoted recently that, while the sales price was “eye-popping, it should come as no surprise in a market where speculation, marketing and branding have displaced connoisseurship as the metrics of value” and that the price alone would "guarantee notoriety” even if their were ongoing doubts about its authenticity. He continued, “Someone is gambling that this painting will attract audiences in the way that the Mona Lisa draws crowds at the Louvre.”
For the last several decades it seems that art "experts"--especially those associated or hired by fine art auction houses--hype and pump up prices as their main raison d'être. Even if the art is unworthy of attention, if they can draw attention to a work, its auction price will climb ever higher. Hucksters have invaded the fine art world, for sure.
Many other experts aren't so sure this is in fact a painting by Da Vinci himself. In fact, until the last time it was sold at auction in 1958 for a mere £45, its authorship was unclear. It was previously attributed to the hand of Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a student in Da Vinci's studio and a Master in his own right. Compare the beauty and quality of his work below. Pay close attention to the hand, eyes, nose and curls of hair...
Let's get into some of the "evidence" about why these experts think the Salvator Mundi is "the" Salvator Mundi by Da Vinci...
Some claimed that the wood panel is similar to the panel in size and type that the Mona Lisa is painted on. They aren't.
Next, consider that Leonardo Da Vinci was left-handed. There is evidence in the Salvator Mundi that it was painted by a right-handed artist, as illustrated below...
Then there is the orb that Jesus holds in his left hand. Most consider this to be a solid crystal orb rather than a hollow, blown glass sphere, as many other artists' versions of the Salvador Mundi illustrated. The artist painted bubbles trapped in the orb, as a solid quartz crystal would have. But many doubt that Da Vinci, who was as much a scientist as artist, would make a mistake about how the light would react when looking through such an orb. As anyone who studies optics knows, the orb would essentially become a lens, inverting the image seen through it, as Da Vinci himself illustrates in his notebooks...
Here are side-by-side images. One of the Salvator Mundi as it shows the orb, and one that I retouched in Photoshop to show how DaVinci might have properly shown the optical effect of the orb. Not how even the drape in the garment is inverted...
And as you can see from the un-retouched photo of a solid crystal orb above, the hand would not show through, as the Salvator Mundi showed Jesus' hand in the orb. Da Vinci would have known this.
I also find it curious, that there is no major film documenting the step by step restoration of the Salvator Mundi--at least, not that I can find. Typically a find of this magnitude would have an episode of PBS' NOVA documenting the science behind the discovery, analysis and restoration process. The person doing the restoration, Dianna Dwyer Modestini, is a fine artist in her own right, capable of restoration--or mimicking--the style of Da Vinci, or any other Old Master, for that matter. She worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art until she and her husband went into the business of restoring paintings for major museums along with many private galleries. The question is, did her restoration go too far, or just far enough?
The attribute the name of Da Vinci to such a work requires lots of science and trust. In this case, who do we trust? The consortium whose interest was motivated by the potential profits? The restoration expert who has been in the business of restoring paintings for private galleries to increase their appeal--and value? The museums who will surely put together huge exhibitions based on the Mundi and sell millions of dollars in ticket fees and gift shop products?
Perhaps we'll never know for sure. For me at least, I won't be buying a T-shirt until I'm convinced...
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