Italy, “Italian Traditions”

Italian popular culture is rich in traditions rooted in venerable rites and customs, handed down from generation to generation, expressing an oral and material culture that the celebrations keep alive.

Tied to ancestral rites of passage from Winter to Spring, the Carnival of Venice provides an elegant, masterfully constructed stage for the carnival ritual of switching roles, with the poor, under the cover of a mask, having the chance to belittle the rich at least once a year, in what formerly served as a mechanism of social control and is now played out symbolically as a game, amidst the narrow streets and mysterious settings of this most charming of cities.

History and legend combine in the equally venerable Carnival of Ivrea (in the Piedmont Region), where the freeing of the city from the tyrant who oppressed it during the Middle Ages is re-enacted. Especially enthralling and entertaining is the Battle of the Oranges, the highpoint of the celebration, which still symbolises the city’s spirit of self-determination.

Proud tradition is featured at the Palio di Siena (in Tuscany), a horserace in which the city’s different quarters compete under rules that have held since 1644. The first horse to complete three laps of the central square wins, to the immeasurable joy and ovations of its supporters.

Known as the most pagan of Christia rites, the Procession of the Snakes is held every year in the town of Cocullo (Abruzzo) on the first Thursday in May, when the statue of the patron saint, San Domenico, is paraded along the streets of the town, covered with live snakes whose movements are seen as earthly signs of divine messages. When the snakes wind themselves around the Saint’s head, the sign is a good one and met with applause, but if they twist around his body, then dire predictions are heard among the crowd.

Elements of charm, often suspended between the sacred and the profane, can also be found in the solemn Easter processions in Sicily, where the religious event serves as a pretext for a more ancestral need for social intercourse. It is only during a feast, write Leonardo Sciascia, that the Sicilian stops being a solitary man and becomes a member of a circle, a class, a city or town.

Immerses in an endless, touching silence, the re-enactments of the Mysteries of Santa Cristina of Bolsena (Lazio) are dedicated to the young martyr, who was tormented until she die for having chosen to practice Christianity.

A reminiscence of a medieval religious celebration containing no lack of pagan elements, the Candle Fest of Gubbio (Umbria) is an event that draws much participation from local communities, offering them a chance to express their strong sense of belonging. When the three large wooden structures holding the candles, with statues of the Saints Ubaldo, Giorgio and Antonio on top, are carried at a run, for four kilometres, by the Ceraioli – who bring considerable skill, dedication and training to the task – the onlookers take part in the thrill as well.