The Giudei of San Fratello: part 1

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Photo by Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

San Fratello is perched high up in the rambling Sicilian highlands, nesting itself in the crown of the Nebrodi Mountains, which run along the Tyrrhenian coast towards Palermo.

The road on the way to the town negotiates its way through the mountains like an elaborate obstacle course; every car is climbing up navigates hairpin curves and steep ascents.

Driving up to San Fratello I am distracted by the endless mountains, with their irregular shapes. It’s as if this part of the earth was once a giant cauldron, filled with melted pitch left to cool after being violently boiled.
The escarpments left behind after the creation of these mountains are outlined by an expansive cloak of forest that distends out like an insidious moss, covering wet stones. The greenery of the invading vegetation expands to the length and breadth of the island, the uneven growth interrupted by the scars of past landslides and roads that cut through the slopes.

The colours, too, attract my attention; it is early spring, and the heavy greys of winter are being surpassed by the bounties of the goddess Demeter, who has reigned over the island since time began. The countryside is filled with fresh new grasses, and the dead almond trees are being resurrected by blossoming pale pink flowers.

Arriving near the town, I see paddocks divided by clumsy fences, which hold the robust San Fratello horse breed, grazing on the springtime grass. These thoroughbreds are as noble as their Arabian origins. They are the essence of strength and elegance, with their fresh, velvety black coats and steadfast physiques. They fit precisely into the landscape, as wild and intense as any steep climb or precipice.

The history of the San Fratello breed dates back to the Sicily of the eleventh century. They are said to be descendant from the remnants of cavalry left behind during one of the many battles for Sicily’s possession. The Arabs came up against the Norman invaders from France, towards the end of their period of domination over the island, from 827 to 1060 A.D. The struggle between the two powers lasted some twenty years, and one of the points of focus was here in the fertile Nebrodi Mountains.

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I haven’t come to San Fratello to see the horses, even though they are a fascinating sidetrack: I’ve come to witness an ancient Easter celebration, which is part spectacle and part mysterious ancient ritual.
Easter is one of the most important feasts in the Roman Catholic Church calendar, and in Europe, it’s more widely celebrated than Christmas. It also comes together with the welcomed spring, so the celebration at San Fratello is a mixture of religious ceremonies and pagan rites associated with the seasons.
There are endless Easter celebrations in Sicily, from processions re-enacting the last moments of Jesus’ life, with antique statues, which meander through small towns, to decorative Palm Sunday celebrations showing the journey of Jesus from triumphal acclamations, to betrayal and execution, death and resurrection.
These festivities are all pure theatre and spectacle, dating back to medieval times when the church sought to educate the common people about the central figure and founder of the Roman Catholic religion, with the aim of bringing people into the church. Easter in Sicily is full of traditions, the most colourful of which happens here at San Fratello.
The Diavolata of Good Friday is a mixture of the diabolical, as its name suggests, and of many other complex strands of history, exhibited by the spectacle of the costumes and the music, which is filled with both pagan and Christian energy. Good Friday is when Jesus is crucified and is considered a day of mourning for the church, but at San Fratello the characters of the Giudei, or the Jews, as they are known, turn the solemn funeral of Jesus into a macabre celebration, which mocks both Christ and those who condemned him to death.

Driving along the main street of San Fratello, I see a Giudeo for the first time. He’s one of a series of men in the most confusing fress, which seems both comical and sinister at the same time. The Giudei slowly begin to multiply, ambling by in bright red jackets with yellow lapels; pantaloons, pseudo-military trimmings, and ridiculous helmets decorated with different shapes and designs. They are soldiers from an army that never existed; gathering together every year to disrupt the Easter celebrations, and the town, with their masked faces, ridiculous appearance, practical jokes and trumpeting.

Each Giudeo has a cornet slung over his back, the straps of the instrument hanging over the elaborately embroidered designs on the back of his jacket. They are all dressed alike, but with a subtle difference in the details of their costumes, which reflects a lack of discipline in their characters and dramatically raises the level of madness and confusion in this truly unique celebration.

One Giudeo has a long white tuft of hair hanging down from his shoulder, another a long black donkey’s tail pinned on his buttocks, hanging down suggestively between his legs. They are a strange mix of elegance and silliness, complete with military jackets and white gloves.

Some Giudei gather together and line up on either side of the main street. A reporter and two cameramen from the Rai Italian broadcaster are standing near me, ready to record, which means I’ve inadvertently chosen the best vantage point to observe the procession. The second group of Giudei comes around the corner, and this time I get a better look at them from the front, as they walk past in pairs. The first one has a large red and blue pom pom feather duster on top of his helmet, like a cruel imitation of the Italian Carabinieri’s ceremonial headdress.

They all have a Klu Klux Klan sack mask over their faces, always in bright red, with circled black eyes, designed and cut out like a Zorro mask. The sbirrijan, or hood, is completed by a long, yellow, cartoon-like nose. Some have dark moustaches, like old black and white movie villains, ready to tie helpless damsels to railway tracks, while twigging at their whiskers and sniggering at their own dastardliness.

But it is the tongues that stand out the most on the Giudei’s masks; they are long, hanging down about ten centimetres, with a cross at the centre designed in silver studs. It is this symbolism, together with the name “Giudei,” which suggests that these masked men represent a synthesis of the Jewish leaders and the Roman military that condemned Jesus to death. Their long the black tongue is a symbol of the hearsay and deception that occurred during the schizophrenic turn of public opinion, which according to the Bible story led to the condemnation of Jesus.

The crowd of masqueraded men makes up a strange collage of colours; bright red military costumes, the jackets with lapels of gold fringes all the way down the front, each with a different design on it, and on the back a long strip of yellow. These men are the symbols of a military hierarchy; not just simple soldiers, but decorated generals or officials, like high commanders in the Kiser’s German army of the early twentieth century.

But even this reference to a central European military tradition is a contradiction, undercut by the yellow strips on the men’s backs, yellow being the colour associated with cowardice.

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These costumes are striking. At first, they slap me across the face with their very absurdity, and I am utterly at a loss for words to describe or understand what they represent. Then I begin to separate in my mind the individual pieces that make up the costume, and I start to recognise the many different elements.

The most outstanding thing is how these came to be put together like this. The truth is that no one exactly knows. This is the most intriguing thing about the Giudei and their costumes. The celebration is a source of wonder for those who study anthropology and ethnology.

On the streets, there are Giudei of all shapes and sizes, junior Giudei, fat and slim Giudei. There are no women Giudei in this celebration, and I don’t know why they are excluded; perhaps this goes back to the fact that they depict the hierarchy of the Jewish community in Jesus’ time, in which only men were the patriarchs.

Some of the Giudei are waving at the TV camera, while others casually gather along the street, waiting for the procession to begin. One of them, his mask resting slightly above the bridge of his nose, is smoking a cigarette and talking to an unmasked friend.

They all have absurd helmets on their heads, made up of standard caps with distinct ornaments on top. One helmet has a flowerpot on it, complete with flowers, and others have horsehair tails, hooks, and feather dusters on them. Some are bejewelled with half moons and stars.

The Giudei wait for the procession to pass so they can celebrate with cruel joy the perceived defeat of Jesus in the history of the early Catholic Church. These colourfully dressed Giudei disturb the solemn, religious march with their loud trumpet playing; curiously, they never speak, their improvised music becomes their voice. The cortège is typical of the many others seen throughout Sicily on Good Friday, when the crucified Christ is taken around the town on a funeral celebration to commemorate his death.

The masked men line up on either side of the road, and some climb on the top of a wide wall. They are waiting to begin their celebration. I watch them clearing out their instruments of saliva, in anticipation of the arrival of the mourners, who can be heard from around the corner, droning out the rosary prayers and singing out the refrains of a traditional procession hymn, in a disciplined drill.

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The procession appears from around the corner; A large crucifix is mounted on a giant float and is carried by the modest pilgrims, who continue their sombre chants. The Christ’s head is bowed down; hands nailed to the cross.

Each of the Giudei launch into their trumpeting with a distorted joy; first in a warbled drone and then with a frantic, deranged glee. Different groups form small clusters to disrupt the mournful procession with their music; a loud braying begins and echoes along the corridors created by these extraordinary dramatis personae.

Soon the solemnity of the procession is overpowered by the Giudei’s racket, and they overtake not only the march but also the whole town, filling San Fratello with their loud trumpet playing and acrobatic stunts. Despite the distractions caused by the disguised men, the worshippers in the procession continue to recite their Good Friday prayers, as they run the gauntlet.

After the pilgrims of Christ have passed by, some of the Giudei join the tail end of the funeral march, continuing their wild celebration. Hundreds of masked men crowd the streets amongst spectators and participants, to create a discord of noise and colour.

Groups of hooded men form semi-circles every few meters along the street, ecstatically trumpeting a victory theme, echoed and drowned out by other groups of trumpeters nearby. Moments of silence don’t last long, as other groups start up further down the street, their impromptu music reverberating through the hollow streets of San Fratello, and deeper still into the timeless Nebrodi Mountains.

Some of the more exuberant men perform acrobatics by hanging from lamp poles, others climbing high to hold themselves horizontally and swinging around to attract the most attention possible.

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Looking at the backs of the Giudei’s red coats more closely, I notice that many of the intricately embroidered designs on them have religious references. For example, in one model there is Saint Francis, in his brown Franciscan robe, helping Jesus off the cross after the crucifixion; the two religious figures are mixed together to create a unique spiritual collage, as the Saint lived many centuries after the time of Christ.

Other random designs include swans swimming on icy lakes, princesses with Barbie doll features, wearing tiaras, and peasant couples holding hands as they’re about to start dancing; also, Christ on the cross, images of the crucified Christ, Snow White, an American eagle, the Virgin Mary, and various other religious icons, rich with details. I even saw a Donald Duck on one junior Giudeo.

The designs range from the deeply religious, to the secular, a strange juxtaposition of incompatible elements. These embroidered beaded or sequined costumes are hand made and are a tradition in themselves. Often, the suits are handed down from father to son.

The Good Friday Diavolata at San Fratello is a mixture of both pagan and Catholic elements, even though some commentators suggest that the celebration has more in common with pagan festivals celebrating spring than with any Catholic ceremony. Indeed, the festival has a grotesque carnival atmosphere to it, and the participants’ focus is more on enjoyment and mischief-making rather than anything else.