Tuesday, November 8, 2011



The Seventh Bootsnall prompt is "Celebrate" - as in, join in a celebration while on your travels:

Joining in a local festival, holiday or special event is a great way to learn more about a local culture. Share the story of a celebration that meant something to you on your travels.

This one invites me to reminisce about the festas of Southern Italy - most recently I posted about the Chestnut Festa, since chestnuts are in season. In July the religious festas were in full swing, and it was both fun and fascinating to become part of the village for the festa. Even sitting through a two hour Mass was absorbing - watching the rituals and the people. An Italian friend was surprised, and said "you don't speak Italian and you're not even Catholic?" But I felt very privileged to be granted a peek into private village life: they don't put on these shows for tourists.

But perhaps the most startling religious feast I saw celebrated - if that's the right word - was the Easter Friday parade in Trapani, a small town on the west coast of Sicily. And the effort of the neighbouring town of Marsala was impressive in its won way. Here's a recap if you missed the original post:

Misteri di Trapani

I spent Good Friday this year in the towns of Trapani and Marsala in Western Sicily. All over southern Italy, towns large and small hold processions through the streets, usually bearing a life-sized figure of Christ in one of the stages of his Easter passion (the processions have Spanish origins and similar procession occur there too). It is community occasion, but also a funeral procession, and a deeply serious thing for the people. In Sicily, they do dark and tragic very well, and nowhere is this more evident than in their Good Friday processions. In Trapani, they have been doing their “Procession of the Mysteries” – Misteri di Trapani – since at least 1612.

The dolorous statues kept coming.
Trapani’s is a particularly famous procession, which lasts for 24 hours. Yes, you read right – from 2 pm on Holy Friday until 2 pm on Easter Saturday. Much as I knew you would want a full report of this event, I regret that I wasn’t up to staying for the whole 24 hours. I did arrive early enough in the proceedings to snag a position relatively close to the front of the crowd lining the barriers around a very small square in front of one of Old Trapani’s many churches, the Church of the Purgatorio. This is where the Easter statues spend the year, before they come forth for their annual airing, atop platforms decorated with fresh flowers, candles, ribbons and lace, and carried by teams of men. We in the crowd waited patiently while the local dignitaries assembled, the mayor donned his red, white and green sash, the head bishop arrived in his hot pink outfit, various ecclesiastical persons fluttered about in white frocks, and the local TV cameras waited on scaffolds. Eventually the bishop made a speech, a band formed up, and we had kick-off. The band wailed out a funeral dirge, like something out of ‘The Godfather’, various versions of which were to echo around the streets of Old Trapani for the next 24 hours.

I watched, quite transfixed, as the first of the statues emerged from the church porch, inched over to one of the ecclesiastical gents, paused for a blessing, then slowly processed off down a side street. Each statue was not only carried by a large entourage of men, but was also accompanied by its own 40 or 50 piece band, a bevy of strange religious acolytes (children in red Klu Klux Klan hoods, young girls carrying sheathes of roses, little children with golden wings, serious boys with candles on poles), and – importantly – representatives of various town guilds carrying the banners and insignia of their Guild. It is said that the statues were granted in trust, by deeds, by the Brotherhood of St. Michael the Archangel, which instituted the rite in the late 16th century, to the members of the local Guilds in exchange for the promise to carry them during the passion procession every Good Friday. And a promise made is a promise kept, in Sicily.

Most impressive of all were the men carrying the statues. Each wore a suitably solemn expression, most were in suits and ties, or the uniforms of their guilds. There were young men and old men, all with a bowed-down stance and a long 24 hours ahead.

A serious business.
I watched for about an hour and a half, and saw five or six of the statues emerge. For each one, a new group of acolytes assembled, and a new band appeared (where all these people were marshalled remains a wonder). I was thinking that it might be time to move on, that perhaps most of the statues had now emerged, when a conversation in the crowd around me revealed that there are in fact twenty of them. Twenty! By my reckoning, it would take about six hours for them all to emerge and join the procession. I retired for a well-earned gelato.

Works of art.

It is always difficult to see much from amongst a crowd, but I certainly got a good dose of atmosphere, if no very good photos. The dirge-like band music haunts me still. But by good fortune (rather than good management) I had that morning happened upon another of Trapani’s churches, Sant’Agostino, a 14th century church of the Knights Templar (the only building left in Sicily that is associated with the order). It was badly bombed in WWII, but on this particular Good Friday its claim to fame was that it housed an exhibition of the very wood, straw and canvas statues that are carried in the Easter parade. I was thus able to inspect some of these rather crude but uncannily life-like figures up close. They are traditionally made of light materials so that they are not too heavy to be carried all day.

The Madonna of Marsala
Later in the day, I found myself on the sidewalks of Old Marsala, having successfully negotiated the parking question again (aren’t cars a pest when you want to leave them?) Here the locals didn’t try to compete with their close neighbour’s famous parade on the question of quantity. They went for quality. The parade here was just reaching the main street at about 4 pm (it too goes on for hours). Various members of various congregations were marching in matching purple (“if there’s purple, someone dies”, as we learnt a couple of blog posts ago); there were some dirge-like intonations and readings over a tinny loudspeaker, one band (only one!)...and two statues. I didn’t notice the dead Christ at first, because he was carried lying down. All attention was on the Madonna – carried high, and with her own purple velvet canopy carried aloft behind her.

And what Madonna she was! The artist had created an epitome of agony. All along the street, as she was carried past, grown men had tears in their eyes, everyone bent their heads and crossed themselves piously, an old lady watching from her balcony wept openly. I was a little aghast. The Madonna had a silver sword piercing her heart! Made the hairs stand up on the nape of my neck, I must say. Very Sicilian – the agony and hardship of all those centuries of oppression transmogrified into their religious observance.

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get any dinner in Marsala that evening. Everyone was so sad and lachrymose. But in the end, Marsala came through, with the fresh fish I by now demanded. Hopefully everyone would cheer up on Easter Sunday.

A sad spectator in Marsala.

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