Italian traditions: Italy's most beautiful Easter rituals

Apr 20, 2019 739

There is no doubt that religious festivals represent a large part of the traditional Italian heritage. An expression of faith, of course, but also events with a strong social significance and bond of belonging to the community, especially in the South: Leonardo Sciascia, in "Corda Pazza" (Mad rope), about religious festivals wrote that in Sicily they were "everything", a collective existential explosion whose boundary "could not be marked in any way by the religious perimeter".

Among the religious festivals, the most numerous and heartfelt are perhaps those that celebrate the Easter period, even more than Christmas or Epiphany: from north to south, especially the Passion of Good Friday has inspired rituals that include processions, re-enactments, staged scenes whose origin is often lost in the mists of time.

Making a choice is complicated, at least because in regions such as Apulia and Sicily the rituals are counted well beyond the fingers of two hands. We tried to include the oldest, most interesting, most significant events: as always, tell us what we have forgotten!


There are not many Easter celebrations in Piedmont. An exception is Romagnano Sesia (Novara) where on Thursday and Good Friday (but only in odd-numbered years) the Passion is staged, with real living paintings that walk through the country: it is a great outdoor spectacle, in which viewers actively participate. In Vercelli, on Good Friday, the Procession of the machines, born in 1833, is scheduled: eight heavy groups of sculptures carried on the shoulders are carried in procession through the center of the town.


Interesting is the precise and meticulous ceremonial of Vertova, in the province of Bergamo, where in the Good Friday procession Jews and Roman soldiers parade, while a believer represents Christ, with a red habit and barefoot; a wooden statue of Christ, with articulated arms, is carried on the shoulder. Processions also in Bormio (Sondrio) and Mantua, where on Good Friday there is the opening ceremony and exhibition of the Sacred Vases, containing the relic of the Precious Blood: after the rite in the Basilica of Sant'Andrea, a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance by Leon Battista Alberti, the vases are taken through the streets of the historic center of the town.


A Good Friday procession also takes place in Savona, but only in even-numbered years: the Gospel story is evoked by fifteen boxes, splendid wooden groups of great artistic value, carried on the shoulders, which precede the ark of the Holy Cross, where a relic of the True Cross is kept. Processions and traditions also take place in Genoa, both on Thursday and Good Friday; and in the small village of Ceriana (Imperia), where a sepulchre is set up with ancient life-size wooden statues and typical bark horns are played, with a gloomy and intense sound.


In Emilia Romagna we recommend the living "Via Crucis" of Frassinoro (Modena), perhaps the most important religious and popular event in the region. The ceremony in which the inhabitants of the village compose living paintings depicting the various episodes of the Passion of Christ is of great beauty and dates back to the times of the Counter-Reformation. The Way of the Cross is held only every three years and 2019 is one of them: appointment on Good Friday, April 19.


The tradition of Cantiano (Pesaro and Urbino) has the crowd (joined by the Turba, a multitude of figures in Jewish and Roman costumes) moving from one place to another of the town to attend the main scenes of the Passion: the Last Supper, the trial, the flagellation, the ascent to Calvary (which takes place at night, in the light of the torches). It is always held on Good Friday. We also recommend the Good Friday celebrations of Piandimeleto (Pesaro and Urbino) and Porto Recanati (Macerata).


At least three celebrations to remember in Umbria. The one in Assisi, where the rite of the Deposition of the Crucifix (Excavation) and its meeting with Our Lady of Sorrows are celebrated, through processions involving the Cathedral and the church of San Francesco. Then the procession of the dead Christ of Gubbio, on Good Friday, that winds in the historical center among songs and simulacra; and the Sacred representation of Città di Castello.


It is one of the oldest in Italy, if not the oldest, the Good Friday procession that takes place in Orte (Viterbo): groups of confraternities parade in the evening bearing crosses and symbols of the Passion, followed by barefoot penitents who wear chains to their ankles. Then follow the coffin with the dead Christ with the weeping ones, the black dressed Maries, and the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. At the end, the brethren distribute many flowers, which are kept by the people. Of course, we remember the Way of the Cross on Good Friday in Rome, led by the Pope, and the representations of Sezze (Latina) and Tarquinia (Viterbo).


We move to Abruzzo to follow the procession of the dead Christ that takes place on Good Friday in Chieti: dating back to 842, is considered the oldest in Italy (the record is disputed with Orte) and attended by hundreds of participants and 13 congregations. The brotherhood of the Sacred Mount of the Mountains, which organizes the event, dates back to the seventeenth-century; the tradition of 150 singers and musicians accompanying the procession of the hooded dates back to the seventeenth-century; and the groups of sculptures of the Passion, whose bearers are handed down the task from generation to generation, date back to the nineteenth-century. Also worth mentioning are the celebrations in L'Aquila and Sulmona.


The most heartfelt representation of Molise is probably the one that takes place in Isernia, where on Good Friday there is a procession of hooded penitents with their heads surrounded by crowns of thorns. From eighty to one hundred believers carry heavy crosses and statues.


In Calitri, in the province of Avellino, the Good Friday procession, known as the Mysteries Procession, is particularly solemn: the members of the Archconfraternity of the Immaculate Conception are dressed in white, with their heads hooded and crowned with thorns, and carry a cross on their shoulders up to the hill of Calvary. It seems that the rite dates back to the period of the first crusade, when a knight brought a piece of the Cross from the Holy Land. Also to remember are the procession of the tables of Lapio (Avellino), the procession of the Dead Christ in Procida (Napoli), the procession of the Mysteries in Sessa Aurunca (Caserta) and the procession of the Dead Christ in Sorrento (Napoli).


The performance of Good Thursday and Good Friday in Taranto is unforgettable and particularly heartfelt: it consists of three processions, all slow and evocative. The first is called the Perdùne, as the pilgrims who went to Rome for the Jubilee were called: the head covered by a long white cap surmounted by a black hat, parade barefoot from the afternoon of Thursday until late at night. At this point the second one starts, that of Our Lady of Sorrows, opened by the Troccolante, who gives the rhythm by playing the troccola, a wooden board with iron teeth: to cover four kilometers it takes more than ten hours. In the afternoon of Friday the procession of the Mysteries starts, with groups of statues and the simulacrum of the dead Christ: the parade takes place until dawn on Holy Saturday. In total, more than 40 hours of almost continuous procession.

Then, in a vast panorama, let us remember at least: the procession of the crucifers in Francavilla Fontana (Brindisi) and Noicattaro (Bari); the procession of the fracchie of San Marco in Lamis (Foggia); the procession of the morning of Holy Saturday in Mottola (Taranto) and of the Desolata in Canosa di Puglia (Barletta), the latter followed by hundreds of women dressed in black and covered face that intone screaming the hymn of the Desolata; the processions in Andria (Barletta) and Gallipoli (Lecce); Holy Week in Troia (Foggia).


At least a hundred people in costume embody the protagonists of the Passion in the representation of Barile, in the Potenza province; but to them, in a procession even a few kilometers long, are added pagan characters, such as a gypsy, who according to popular tradition provided the nails to crucify Jesus, and the Moor, characterized by flashy necklaces. We also remember the procession of the Mysteries in Montescaglioso (Matera), opened by the mamuni, hooded and crowned with thorns, followed by the brotherhoods and the six statues of the mysteries.


The Holy Week of Nocera Terinese (Cosenza) reaches its climax during Holy Saturday with the flagellants or victors in the procession, figures who beat with blood their thighs and calves in intense moments of great scenic power. But since Palm Sunday the whole town has been involved in a series of rituals: from the blessing of the palms to the Cyrenean ceremony, until Wednesday, when the frenzy reaches very high points when they "caccianu a Madonna", that is, the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is displayed for a year hidden in a veiled niche. Only on Friday it will leave the church for the evening procession that ends at midnight. Saturday is finally the time for the victors.

Smaller in numerical terms, but no less involving is the ritual of Verbicaro (Cosenza), which begins on Holy Thursday with mass and continues, after midnight, with the rite of the doors. Few very devout people travel three times around the village and the churches beating their thighs. They are dressed in red and, at the end of the self-flagellation, they wash in the fountain of the village. We also remember the rituals of the Affrontata in Bagnara Calabra (Reggio Calabria), Vibo Valentia and Briatico (Vibo Valentia), that of the Caracolo in Caulonia (Reggio Calabria), the Giudaica in Laino Borgo (Cosenza), the feasts in San Demetrio Corone (Cosenza) and Pizzo (Vibo Valentia).


The Mysteries are also celebrated in Trapani: these are the twenty sculptures that represent the episodes of the Passion and that parade from 2 pm on Friday to dawn on Holy Saturday, along with twenty bands, women dressed in black, hooded, boys in costume with candles lit.

Intense and very participated celebrations throughout the Holy Week take place in Caltanissetta, where processions parade incredible for majesty and magnificence; Marsala (Trapani), where on Holy Thursday there is the solemn procession of the Dead Christ, with scenic seventeenth-century paintings; Piana degli Albanesi (Palermo), San Fratello (Messina), Enna; Petralia Sottana (Palermo).


Finally, there is also Sardinia with the Holy Week of Iglesias, which culminates in the night procession in the evening of Good Friday, when it is staged a pompous funeral procession of Spanish and Baroque origin, which seems to be that of a king. Also Alghero (Sassari) has characteristic and very popular celebrations that take place during the Holy Week: of great beauty is for example the raising of Christ on the cross that takes place on Holy Thursday. We also recommend the Holy Week of Castelsardo (Sassari), Oliena (Nuoro) and Aggius (Oristano).

by Tino Mantarro and Stefano Brambilla


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