The Italian region of Apulia (or also known as Puglia) lies to the south and makes up the high heel of the Italian boot. A greater part of its coastline lies on the Adriatic Sea to the east but technically the sea borders of the region washes into the Ionian Sea as well to the southeast. The place where the two seas meet between Italian Puglia and Albania is the Strait of òtranto while the instep of Italy’s boot is the Gulf of Tàranto. This Italian region is the most “party” one, or not “party” but “carnival” one because it’s thought to have the highest number of Carnival celebrations. I am going to tell you about only one of them in this post which is the most important, the longest and the oldest carnival celebration in Europe. It’s simply …
I l C A R N E V A L E D I P U T I G N A N O
It is an annual festival that starts on St. Stephen’s Day (il giorno di Santo Stefano) and it finishes on Shrove Tuesday which means that it lasts for plus minus two months (sometimes and even more). Its origins date back to the times when the Kinghts of St John governed that zone. They reached a decision to transfer the Saint’s relics inland to Putignano from coastal Monopoli where they were kept in the Abbey and Castle of Monopoli. Their motive was to move them to a safer place where they would be kept better in case of Saracen or other invaders’ attacks.
The troop of the Knights of Malta escorted the remains of Saint Stefano on 26th December 1394. Reaching Putignano, the escort attracted the attention of local peasants. The curious locals left their daily activities in the nearby fields, abandoned the vineyards and followed the procession. Upon arrival in the town, people accompanied the Knights to the final resting place, namely the Church of Santa Maria della Greca. Before entering the church for the Mass, the pilgrims dusted their faces with flour in order to show and exhibit purity.
I will open a bracket here. The flour of that time was known as Farinella which, as a matter of fact, was the name of a peasant dish from ground chickpeas and barley. Moreover, Farinella is the name of the spirit and the mascot of the Carnival, that always wore a mask, a green-and-white costume and a three-corner hat while flitting and marking the beginning of the festive celebrations. Bracket closed.
After the religious ceremony and the end of the Mass in the Church, people started celebrating with festive songs and dances and “gave a birth” to the ancient Carnival which is supposed to be the most ancient one in Europe, I am repeating once again. At that very time, the unique custom of i Propaggini was born as well. That tradition of Propaggini was connected with the numerous recitations in the local dialect mixed up with improvised verses (sometimes too ironic). This custom has still been kept up to present times. What do I mean?
Poets and even bands of poets together with musicians and dancers go to a stage on the main square (la Piazza del Plebescito) and recite verses in the local dialect on the 26th of December. They alternate one after another for hours. Their satirical, biting and spicy rhymes, “dedicated” mainly to politicians, modern habits and even the Church, amuse and entertain the crowds of people. A “mask ball” and papier-mache floats appear and the procession goes round the whole city in its great, colourful splendor and magnificence.
I told you at the beginning of the post that the Carnival of Putignano is the longest one and it could last for more 2 months until Shrove Tuesday. Each day period is a festive day during the Carnival and it’s dedicated to something or somebody. For instance, each Thursday is a feast and it’s dedicated to a certain class and category of people. Thus monsignors and priests, widows, the mad (i.e. youngsters who haven’t been trapped in family life yet), married women and of course, married men and Cuckolds who are mostly men (… poor married women) have “il loro giovedì” (“their Thursday”) when there are masked balls and lots of dances.
Then people celebrate the Candlemass or also known as the Festival of the Bear (la Festa dell’Orso). A human being dressed in a costume of a bear is led on a leash along the town’s streets. And this “human bear” sniffs the air and predicts what the weather will be like in the forthcoming spring. If the bear decides to build only straw den as a shelter against cold weather, spring will be nice, pleasant and warm. But …. but if the “Weatherman-bear” of Putignano decides something else, Jesus ….. the weather will be rosy.
Surely, the most joyful, the most colourful and the most entertaining are the four parades. Three of them are held three on the Sundays prior to the Lent and the last one is on the night of Shrove Tuesday. And what happens, exactly? Well, there are a great number of hand-made papier-mâché allegorical floats which are lavishly ornamented and decorated as well as painted in various colours. Most of them are of less religious significance since nowadays they’re more satirical and are aimed at mocking celebrities and famous persons. Some of the giants are really very eye-catching and well seen from a distance as they are about 40-50 mietres high. Local artisans spend much time during the year and do their best to make true papier-mâché wonders because they take part in the numerous competitions at the four parades and they hope secretly to win some of the prizes and awards for the best entries.
All of the parades are held this way. There’re long processions along the streets under the sound of music, lots of entertainers, musicians, artists and mimes, crowds of joyful locals and tourist alike, parades of kids dressed in colourful costumes representing the countries in the world, and of course, stalls where you can buy whatever you want to, from trinkets to food. By the way, you ought to try Porchetta which is carved from whole roast pigs. Mmmmm … yummy-yummy. 🙂
And the culmination of this festivity is the fourth parade on the night of Shrove Tuesday when la festa should end and Lent should start. The beginning of this period of reflections and fasting is laid out with a very remarkable and at the same time profane way. How? Fake priests run all over Putignano dipping their small brooms in improvised, miniature toilets and “blessing” all of the passers-by with some splashes. While they are give their blessings to ordinary people, these “priests” cry out “The Carnival is dead” and the Church bells ring 365 times. Each “farewell” is for each day of the year until next year when the Carnival will start again. Hmmmm ….. if you’re not lucky enough to make either January of February, no worries. Locals have worked it out. 😀 They organize a mini summer carnival at the beginning of the month of July when you can enjoy this colourful event combined with with your summer vacation in Apulia. Nice, a? 🙂
P.S. 1: Buon onomastico a tutti che si chiamano Stefano, Stefania e così via. Che il vostro Santo sia sempre con voi. 🙂
P.S. 2: Happy name’s day tomorrow to all who bear the name Stephane, Stefan e so on. The 27th of December is St. Stephane’s Day according to the Orthodox Church. 🙂
P.S. 3: Let the Carnival start in Putignano …. nooooow. 🙂