The word “mattanza” derives from the old Spanish word “matar” which means “to kill”. No worries. I won’t “kill” anybody in this post. 😀 I’ve always been a very peaceful creature. I am just going to share with you some things which I know about tuna fishery among the Egadi Islands. 🙂 (You yourselves will see what my personal point of view is at the end of this article) . Now back to the topic. As a matter of fact, other words like “rais” (or this is the “boss” of the group of the fishermen of the mattanza) are of Arab origin and were introduced by the Arabs during the Arab dominion in Sicily in the 9th century and their techniques of fishing became too popular on the island. In fact, some experts also think that the origin of the word “mattanza” is even older and relate it to the Phoenician or Carthaginian eras. And what is exactly mattanza?
It is an old and traditional method of fishing of bluefin tuna (tonno rosso) in Sicily, in the province of Trapani, in particular. Some hundred years ago the Sicilian coasts were dotted by a great number of tiny tuna canneries (tonnare). Tonnara (the singular form) is, actually, a word that refers to a complex series of nests thrown into the water during the mattanza. This occupation related to tuna fishery was extremely widely spread among hundreds of tuna fishermen (tonnarotti) throughout the whole island. Unfortunately, it was a seasonal job in Sicily and i tonnarotti caught other fish in autumn and winter periods.
Nowadays this quasi-spiritual fishing procedure takes place in May and June and it is a true spectacle for visitors, especially among the Egadi Islands. The main “characters” are unexpected floats of bluefin tuna that pass through this water territory. I tonnarotti place a network of chambers called un’isola (an island). These isole become progressively smaller and smaller in size and they finish with the final and the shallowest net chamber called “the chamber of death” (or “la camera della morte”).
Mattanza is team work and each catch involves numerous fishermen who wait for tuna in their small boats, armed with spear-like weapons. Their rais has his own boat from which he directs the work of i tonnarotti in the other vessels. Once bluefin tuna is captured the spear-like weapons plunge again and again into the flesh of the tuna while the rais gives them instructions more and more and incites his fishermen to ever greater intensity. Once having reached the chamber of death, the fish struggles for the last time before being lifted onto the boats and taken back to the islands. The whole ambience gets dirty with blood and the sea has the “task” to clear the bloody waters and wash away the memory of this old-age massacre and restore its usual calm.
I don’t really want to take any position but my personal opinion is that this traditional tuna fishery is extremely cruel and probably that’s why the word mattanza has turned into a synonym for a “massacre” in the Italian dialect.