The Giudei of San Fratello: part 2

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During the Giudei’s procession, I am introduced to a local academic and former mayor of San Fratello, Professor Salvatore Mangione. He offers me a drink at a small bar, together with other acquaintances. This gives me a chance to get off the crowded street and out of the confusion. I stand at the bar for a while, sipping a glass of peach nectar and listening to Mangione’s explanation of the Giudei.
The Professor is a proud Sicilian and talks with great ease in what seems like a finely rehearsed paragraphs of a prepared speech. I wonder for how many Diavolata’s he has been delivering his lecture to visitors. He leans with his elbow on the bar top, his golden orange Crodino bitters aperitif in his hand, and with an unaffected air of authority, he gives his performance in an impromptu tone.

He notes how the Giudei are characters in a sacred drama which has a strong cathartic element to it. They are like members of a secret confraternity who are entrusted to their roles in an age-old mystery play. Like the religious celebration, even their costumes are sacred, to be worn only during the Holy Week celebration.
The origins of the event aren’t clear. Professor Mangione suggests that the festival might refer to a social rebellion in San Fratello’s history which has long since been forgotten. The primary indication of this comes from the fact that at one time only the peasants were allowed to dress as Giudei, and the upper class allowed three days of practical joking to pass without retribution.
The Festa has a history of violence, and the Giudei’s drunken revelry creates a significant disturbance in the town. Numerous police reports have been filed against the masked revellers through the years, and there have been multiple attempts to ban the event. But despite efforts to halt the celebration, the Giudei continue to punctually re-appear after every prohibition, in even greater numbers than previously. And so the performance has continued to this day uninterrupted, even during the two World Wars.

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As the Professor finishes his little lecture, a young child at the back of the bar lifts the hood of his little Giudeo costume, and puckering his lips, he trumpets loudly on his father’s bugle horn. Taking this as a signal to end his presentation, Professor Mangione smiles, sips the rest of his drink, and confidently states that the Diavolata is a tradition that will never end, as long as the children have such enthusiasm.

Walking out of the bar, I see that the side streets, the sidewalks and the street corners are overflowing with men in masquerade. They are playing an endless stream of tunes, which intermingle with what seems to be one long sustained raspberry, creating an aural overload.
For a second I hear what I think is an emphatic triumphant march, but before I can listen to it properly, I grab onto a distorted waltz, and then I’m distracted by a strange polka; another group is distorting a selection of traditional songs, such as Torna a Sorrento and O Sole Mio.
It is such a strange, playful musical collage, the way the trumpeters pick up bits and pieces of popular tunes and distort them, creating as much colour and disarray as the celebration itself. In amongst the noise and exuberance, I get caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, before being suddenly struck by the realisation that nothing of this makes sense. I think it’s not meant to have a particular meaning; it’s pagan, ritualistic and hedonistic all at the same time.

 

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The Giudei begin their celebration around eleven o’clock on Good Friday morning and continue their rampage around San Fratello, playing their eclectic music, blocking traffic, and creating general confusion. As the feast continues, the men begin to mix their playing with alcohol and become ever rowdier, and then start to play practical jokes. Around midday, the Giudei start to peter out at the end of the main street, to turn around and mingle at bars and side streets, or chat with friends and family in the main square, where most of the confusion is focused.
The birth of this grotesque Good Friday carnival, which corrupts the original religious celebration, can be found in the local history. San Fratello’s origins can be traced back to the time of the ancient Greek domination of Sicily when the town known as Apollonia was founded in three hundred and twelve A.D. Later, with the conquest of Sicily by the Norman Count Roger I, the town became the site of a Lombard colony.

It was Count Roger’s second wife, Queen Adelaide of Monteferrato, who ruled over the hamlet in the twelfth century, creating a unique settlement for immigrants from Northern Italy, who kept strong ties to the French language and culture and to the Catholic faith.
In the colony, a unique dialect based on French evolved, which is still spoken today. The dialect of San Fratello is entirely different from the traditional Sicilian dialect of North-Western Sicily. This language is a testament to the migration to Sicily, of colonists with origins in the north of Italy, such as Piedmont, Lombardy, and Emilia Romagna, during the Norman domination. The dialect itself is a mix between the idiomatic local dialect of the Monferrino and the dialect of Normandy. It is a strange hybrid that sounds elegantly French, yet is tainted heavily with the harsh, local rugged dialect of Sicily.
From the Norman occupation of Sicily (1061-1194 ) up until the Sicilian Vespers uprising against the French in 1282, there was a gradual influx into Sicily of colonists from Northern Italy. In general, the towns where these Norman people settled are found in the provinces of Messina and Enna. Some of the Sicilian cities strongly are influenced by French culture, particularly in the local dialect, apart from San Fratello, include Novara di Sicilia, Fondachelli Fantina, Sperlinga, Nicosia, Aidone and Piazza Armerina.
A testament to the early Norman colony in and around the town of San Fratello is the small temple located on Monte Vecchio, which is dedicated to three early Catholic martyrs, Saints Alfio, Filadelfio, and Cirino. It is from these three Brother Saints, or Santi Fratelli that the town gets its name.

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Before the Norman domination, Sicily was under Arab rule for some two hundred and thirty-three years. Contrary to popular belief, Arab Sicily was an educated and tolerant society, especially concerning other religions. Even though Islam was the dominant religion, there were strong communities of Jewish and Catholic faith allowed to exist side by side with the dominant ruler’s religious system of belief.
The Norman conquest of Sicily was based on, among other things, an intense desire to bring Catholicism to the island and remove other religions. It is with this historical context that the Giudei celebration at San Fratello takes on a sinister quality.
The Giudei (or Jews) of the Easter celebration of San Fratello can be seen to represent a grotesque parody of the ethnic minorities of the Arabs and Jews in Sicily during the Norman period. The Norman colonists of the town created a celebration to exorcise Sicily of non-Catholic minorities.
As the tradition of the Diavolata evolved into part of San Fratello’s culture, the original significance and purpose of it was slowly forgotten, and this celebration became viewed as a reflection of the nature of the local inhabitants. With the spread of Catholicism in Sicily, the irreverent mockery of the Giudei festival resulted in the widespread belief that the San Fratellani were ‘tutti Turchi,’ that is, they were “all Turks,” the term ‘Turk’ in Sicilian referring to enemies of the Christian faith.

So from its original function, the festivities at San Fratello have to a certain extent backfired, inadvertently linking the town to a non-Christian system of belief and creating one of the most undeniably unique festivals in the world.

 

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.

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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.

10 Spectacular Easter Celebrations in Sicily

Santa Pasqua in Sicily is filled with ancient rites and traditions which are as colourful and variegated as the island itself.

The week leading up to Easter is brimming with religious celebrations, food preparations, processions and parades. Each festival is part of an elaborate pageant mixing religion and paganism in the festivities which mark the end of Winter and the rebirth of Spring.

A visit to any small town has its own versions of the Sicilian religious traditions. The week beginning with intricately woven palm fronds which are blessed for Palm Sunday, reaching a dramatic climax with passionate performances and ends with the consumption of delicate marzipan sculptured lambs or picureddi, bread or biscuits decorated with dyed eggs, many traditional dishes and endless desserts in the usual abundance of Sicily’s table.

If you are planning a trip to Sicilia specifically to experience the festivities, here is a list of the ten most spectacular celebrations of the island.

Pasqua in Sicilia

I Diavulazzi di Pasqua: Adrano, Catania

Easter at Adrano in the province of Catania is focused around the Diavolata which is a performance of an ancient religious play.

Written in 1728 by a local religious brother it is performed on the evening of Easter Sunday.

The Diavolata acts out the eternal battle between good and evil. The central part of the drama focuses on the struggle between several devils and St Michael the Archangel, who not only manages to defeat the evil doers but also gets them to praise God.

On the evening before Easter, there is the flight of the Angel, where a terrified looking adolescent girl is strapped in and hoisted along a tightrope across the local square to meet the statue of the freshly resurrected Christ and recites a piece of text welcoming and praising him.

 

Gli Incappucciati: Enna

Nineteenth-century German Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said to have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.

But to understand Sicily you need to go to the geographical centre because the island’s true identity is to be found there.

The province of Enna is known as the belly button of Sicily and is the home to Sicily’s most ancient traditions.

The sinister hooded Incappuciati are the central characters of Enna’s Easter celebrations which dates back to the Spanish period from the 15th and 17th centuries.

The male, only members of the fifteen various local confraternities, participate in a well-organised series of processions, prayers and worship in the local Cathedral.

 

TOP 10 Easter Sicily

Pashkët: Piana degli Albanesi, Palermo

At Piana degli Albanesi and nearby towns in the region of Palermo Easter takes on elements of the Greek Orthodox faith.

The celebrations are based on the ancient Byzantine church, in fact, many of the rites performed use the Greek and Albanian languages.

The towns of Contessa Entellina, San Cristina Gela, Mezzojuso and Palazzo Adriano also share this particular ethnic characteristic to their Easter festivities.
These towns traditions reflect their history as an ancient colony of people from Albania, refugees from the Balkans who fled religious persecution during the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th century.

In 1482, after several attacks from the Ottomans, the Christian Albanians were forced to the Adriatic coast where they hired ships from the Republic of Venice, escaped by sailing and managed to reach Sicily.

These refugees were eventually granted land in the mountains above the city of Palermo where they were able to maintain their Greek Orthodox religion and traditions without being persecuted.
The religious rites for Easter at Piano degli Albanesi end with the Pontificale, a grand parade of women in elegant traditional dress which weaves its way through the main streets of the town, stopping at the Cathedral.

White doves are released at the end of the parade in amongst the songs of the local dialect and the distribution of red coloured eggs, symbolic of new life and of the bloodshed during the crucifixion.

 Il ballo dei diavoli: Prizzi, Palermo

At Prizzi in the province of Palermo, several devils and death itself disturb the celebrations on Easter day with their macabre dance, until they are eventually defeated by other angelic characters.
The devils are dressed in one piece red jumpsuits, with a large round flat faced masks complete with a long fabric tongue, covered in goatskin and with a chain in their hands. While death is dressed in yellow with a crossbow in hand. A fascinating mixture of dance, paganisim and religion which is so common in a Sicilian Easter celebration.

I Giudei: San Fratello, Messina

The apex of the grotesque characters in Sicily’s Santa Pasqua are the Giudei of San Fratello. The flocks of hooded brightly dressed men take over the village and disturb the solemn funeral procession on the morning of Good Friday and other marches during the week.

These characters come out of Sicily’s history, with all of their colour, practical jokes and loud trumpeting. The costumes are handed down from father to son and are in a bright red pseudo military style, complete with elaborate helmets, shiny yellow striped lapels and intricate beading work, which make them like living breathing works of folk art echoing the vibrant designs of the traditional carretto Siciliano.

The Medieval Norman colony of San Fratello is the home to these strangely dressed men who gather out of the ether and tie together many strands of history. The deafening confusion they create seems frightening, but this uproar is life-affirming chaos.

This celebration has gone on uninterrupted for generations, it went on during both world wars. Thanks to these Giudei the Sanfratellani have been called ‘non-catholic’ and ‘devils’ yet these characters are a central part of San Fratello’s identity.

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 I misteri: Trapani

Trapani’s Misteri procession re-enacts scenes from the passion of Christ, with a parade of detailed massive wooden statues depicting different scenes from this eternal story.

The celebration at Trapani is probably the most well known of the Misteri based festivities, which occur throughout the island, simply because of the dimension of the statues and the incredible artistry of the figures which are extremely emotive.

The Misteri, depict the passion of Christ and the symbolic elements also associated with the story. Side by side with the artworks are objects like spears, hammers and a crown of thorns in an extended religious metaphor, like an elaborate Mystery play from the Middle Ages.

The festivities in Trapani begin on the Tuesday after Palm Sunday with the procession of the Madonna of the Pieta’ known locally as the Massari. An artwork which dates back to the sixteenth century which is displayed within an ornate golden frame. The canvas depicts Maria Addolorata who is looking to her left on a dark background with many holy relics.

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Gli archi di Pasqua: San Biagio Palatani, Agrigento

Apart from the religious and pagan elements to Easter, there is also an immense dedication to decoration and artistry.

At San Biagio Platani the city’s streets are taken over by elaborately constructed archways, domes, bells and religious artworks.

In the months before Easter, the two major historical confraternities of San Biagio work to create a massive piece of public folk art.

Using only natural materials to decorate the streets with arches, all with religious and natural symbolism like bamboo, weeping willow, asparagus, laurel leaves, rosemary, cereals, dates and bread.

The series of decorated archways become increasingly elaborate as they reach the central part of the town, which becomes the focal point of the Easter Sunday procession as the Madonna and the resurrected Christ meet at precisely at the centre of the decorations.

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 Lu Signuri delle Fasci: Pietraperzia, Enna

One of the most elaborate and complex processions on the island is that of Pietraperzia near the centre of the island where the Signuri di li fasci creates an intricate piece of liturgical performance.

On Good Friday, a traditional crucifix is fixed to a big log, and a complex series of linen strips are wrapped around its base.

The white strands are held by devout followers as the procession makes it’s way delicately through the streets, accompanied by prayers in the local dialect. The fabric strands are reminiscent of medieval Maypoles, but the performance is unique to Sicily.

Usually, those who hold onto the forty-meter long fabric strips are either asking for a miracle or giving thanks to God for a divine intervention which has already occurred or are maintaining a family tradition.

The cavalcade is accompanied by the local confraternity in their hooded monk costumes, who carry the statue of the Madonna dell’Addolorata.

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 La Settimana Santa: Caltanissetta

Easter week at Caltanissetta is genuinely amazing, Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday is a week filled with elaborate performances, baroque processions, reenactments of the last supper, the stations of the cross and traditional rites which reflect Sicily’s ancient and at times aristocratic past.

Palm Sunday sees the Processione of Gesù Nazareno, where a statue of Christ is placed within an elaborate boat shaped flower decorated float and carried around the city in a recreation of Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Nazareth. Easter Monday there is a performance of the Last Supper.

While on Wednesday the procession of the Maestranza sees a parade of local military, noble families and artisan guilds of the city in a blend of civil and religious elements.
On the dark funeral day of Good Friday while the city is in mourning and the Cristo Nero (or darkened Christ- because of its colour) becomes the focus of a profoundly religious procession.

 

La corsa di San Leone: Sinagra, Messina

I cannot possibly make up a list of suggestive Easter celebrations without mentioning my own little Sicilian village which combines the love of the local patron saint San Leone with the joy of Easter.

San Leone is taken on an elaborate procession from his country church, of the same name, to the main parish church of San Michele Arcangelo in the heart of the town. As the large wooden statue is mounted on a massive wooden float carried by the Confraternity of San Leone.

When the Saint arrives at the bridge at the beginning of the town, the statue runs over the bridge accompanied by suggestive fireworks. The running of the Saint recalls one of his miracles.

While San Leone was the Bishop of Catania, he confronted a magician who claimed to be more powerful than God.

The Saint challenged him to a literal baptism of fire, which saw the magician burnt to death while Saint Leo remained unscathed by the flames of a bomb fire.

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Se preferisce in Italiano clicca qui:

10 delle piu’ spettacolari celebrazioni di Pasqua in Sicilia

Leonforte at the beating heart of Sicily

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Goethe once said to have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything. But in order to understand Sicily you need to go to its geographical centre because the key to the island’s identity is there. The province of Enna is known as the belly button of Sicily and is the home of the island’s most ancient traditions.

Leonforte at the beating heart of Sicily (1)

The town of Leonforte casually rests upon the Erei mountains of central Sicily, only about thirteen miles from the main provincial capital of Enna. Today it is a beautiful municipality surrounded by a scenic countryside. It’s an idealistic tranquil place like many other communities all around the island where everyday life rambles on without much fuss or bother and the locals tend to forget about the outside world, happily going through the rituals of daily life in Sicily.

The provinces of Enna and Caltanissetta have always been a source of great strategical importance in the island’s history and have been the backdrop to many battles and skirmishes throughout history. Together with its immense agricultural wealth and fertility, the heart of the island has always been more savage or untamed, its landscape isolates it from the coast, yet it has always been inhabited from prehistoric times.

Before the founding of modern Leonforte the area was home to the ancient city of Tabas or Tavaca which became an important base during the Muslim conquest of the island from 827 to 902 A.D. The Arab invaders from North Africa saw the island as an earthly paradise. The central province of Enna became a Muslim stronghold for generations together with many other major Sicilian cities such as Palermo and Syracuse.

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Sicily was essentially an Arab Emirate from 831 to 1091 A.D after an extended struggle with the late Roman Byzantine Empire lasting nearly four hundred years. In an extraordinary piece of Sicilian history, for two hundred years the island became a multicultural society which blended together both Arab and Byzantine elements of life.

The new Arab rulers initiated land reforms increasing productivity and encouraging the growth of small estates, by introducing elaborate irrigation systems which tapped into the island’s abundant underground water supply, bringing water to areas which once suffered from drought. The introduction of crops like oranges, lemons, pistachio and sugarcane by North African Muslims also improved Sicily’s agriculture and added new elements to Sicilian cuisine. 

The local population conquered by the Muslims were Romanized Catholic Sicilians in Western Sicily and Greek-speaking Christians in the eastern half of the island. Christianity and Judaism were tolerated under Muslim rule but were subject to some restrictions as to where they could practice their rites and were obliged to pay religious based taxes.

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The gradual breakdown of Muslim rule in Sicily began in the 11th and 12th centuries as a series of Norman Kings began to push the Arabs out of Sicily. The Norman period, however, continued to be multi-ethnic in nature. Normans, Jews, Muslim Arabs, Byzantine Greeks, Lombards and native Sicilians lived in relative harmony. 

Arabic was the official language of government and administration for at least a century into Norman rule and traces remain in contemporary Sicilian and Maltese. Under the guidance of the royal court of Frederick the second of Sicily Italy’s first school of poetics was born, anticipating the Tuscan Renaissance. Muslims also maintained their domination of industry, retailing and production, while Muslim artisans with expert knowledge in government and administration were highly sought after.

After many centuries under the influence of Middle Eastern and North African culture and religion, Sicily began another epic transformation under a succession of staunchly Catholic French Norman Kings who all struggled with endless battles throughout the island to push out other foreign dominations. At Leonforte one ancient folktale recounts how the local river was tainted blood red during brutal wars between the Saracens and Normans to control the heartlands of Sicily.

In the succession of thirteen different invaders of Sicily’s history the Normans were surpassed by the German Hohenstaufen’s, then the French house of Anjou and eventually the Aragonese House of Barcelona who gradually transformed Sicily’s culture over the course of two centuries. The Roman Catholic Church gradually became a part of the culture and forced Sicilian Muslims to be expelled from the island.

Branciforte

The town of Leonforte was later founded by the Branciforti, a legendary Sicilian noble family, whose founding father, Obizzo gained his knightly title and name after heroically holding up the flag of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in the battle to expel the German Lombards from Italy.

The first member of this Sicilian aristocratic family is credited as literally holding up the royal flag despite losing both of his hands in a grotesque mutilation. This heroic action earned himself and his family the name of Branciforte, in honour of his strong arms who helped to hold up the cause of  Charles the Great’s campaign to unite Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Leonforte together with Scordia in Catania province and Niscemi at Caltanissetta were all founded around the same time in the 1600’s as part of a project to colonise central Sicily with a conscious focus on town development, infrastructure and agriculture.

Building upon what had been left behind from past foreign inhabitants the Branciforte positioned Leonforte on the same strategic position on the internal Altesina mountains as the Arabs had used to divide the island into its three historical valleys which are still used to define the geography of the island today. From the Val Demone in the east at Catania, to the Val di Mazzara of Ragusa and Syracuse in the south and the Val di Noto in the west from Trapani to Palermo.

Prince Nicolò Placido Branciforti literally built the town from the ground up, his family gradually constructing a castle, a parish church, convent, gardens and several water fountains. Leonforte developed under the flag of the Braciforte with its regal crowned lion, holding onto the royal French Lily adorned flag, complete with two severed front paws in the foreground as a testament to the family’s heroic founder.

The town’s name reflects its connection to the Sicilian nobility and its iconic coat of arms. Leonforte flourished and developed under the rule of the Braciforte and today it is well known for its agriculture from its mouth-watering peaches, fava beans, olive oil, citrus, terracotta products and cheeses.

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Of all of the historical treasures of Leonforte, the one which the locals are most proud of is their baroque Granfonte water fountain, which is at the centre of their civic and cultural history. Built on the ruins of an earlier Arab fountain known as the Fonte di Tavi, it is connected to a complex irrigation system of pipes, mills and smaller fountains which go down into the valley and was once used for the irrigation of the surrounding countryside and a now lost botanical garden.

The fountain built in 1652 was designed by prominent Palermo architect and painter Marino Smiriglio, whose works are dotted around the island and include Palermo’s central Quattro Canti at the intersection which connects the four main neighbourhoods of the Sicilian capital.

The Granfonte or 24 Cannola as it is known locally is a grandiose succession of twenty-two archways and twenty-four bronze spouts which gush out water into a series of sandstone basins once used as a public wash house, fountain and marketplace in a main square of the town. The archways are elaborate frames filled with ornamentation and inscriptions, spiral shaped stones and two lion carvings on either side which quote the coat of arms of the ever-present Braciforte.

A little over 74 feet long and 8 deep the Granfonte is imposing and faces out to the original entrance of the old town at the Palermo gates, which lead to the original trade route towards the Sicilian capital. This theatrical backdrop of water quotes influences from the historical papal gardens of Tivoli outside of Rome to the Flemish fountains of Amsterdam and is literally at the heart of the city’s civic and religious history.

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Public fountains in Sicily were used up until the early 1900’s and were an important focal point of everyday lives. Daily trips to gather water, wash clothes and take animals to drink were occasions for socialising, gossiping, visiting the markets and as a meeting place in general. Today the Granfonte at Leonforte no longer hosts the markets but it has become the stage for a much more elaborate religious performance during Holy Week at Easter.

Good Friday at the Granfonte water fountain of Leonforte becomes the focal point of a suggestive funeral procession which commemorates the death of Jesus Christ.  An elaborate march weaves its way through all the streets of the town on the afternoon of Venerdì Santo. The crucifix stops in front of each church it meets arriving at the Chiesa della Madonna near the Granfonte where the ancient life-sized wooden statue of Christ is taken down off the cross and placed in a decorative glass coffin, in a performance played out by the local priest.

Accompanied by a large bonfire lit in the piazza, the fountains waters are silenced as a sign of mourning and respect for the solemn funeral rite. At dawn the cortege is accompanied by a brass marching band playing a funeral march as Christ’s coffin is carried on the shoulders of the hooded and tunic wearing members of the brothers of the Confraternity of the Santissimo Sacramento, followed by the statue of the Madonna Addolorata as a symbol of the grieving mother of Christ.

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The parade makes its way up through the ancient stairways of Leonforte ascending up to the highest point of the town at the Church of Santa Croce, symbolic of the hill where the martyrdom of Christ took place. The band stops playing and in the silence, the mourners begin to recite a poetic lament in the form of an ancient folk song which mixes elements of prayer with the local dialect.

The Lamento is hypnotic, exotic, evocative of a middle eastern call to prayer and is an integral part of the ritual of the Passion at Leonforte. Once performed by the elders of the community today it is the young who uphold this tradition of song handed down from father to son, in a prayer recited in the local dialect which seeks to console the Virgin Mary in her hour of loss.

With the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, the people of Leonforte gather in the square of the convent of Capuchin friars to celebrate. All of the statues who participated in the many processions during holy week, are a part of the meeting of Christ with the Madonna. The Granfonte’s waters are reopened restoring their healing qualities and the baptismal promise of new life.

Per la versione in Italiano clicca qui: Leonforte il cuore della Sicilia

An early Easter in Sicily

Easter 2016

 

By far the most spectacular time of year to visit Sicily has to be in the springtime, as it is filled with sunshine, freshness and the pageantry of Easter adds a distinctive colour and theatricality to the island.

Easter in Italy certainly isn’t all chocolate eggs and bunnies (even though they have them here too, filled with surprise gifts inside, children often ignore the chocolate to get to the present inside, but that’s another story).

The magic of Easter in Sicily for me comes out of the traditions which are adhered to with great love, passion and dedication by all Sicilian’s. Easter is an even bigger celebration than Christmas here as it represents the promise of a new beginning, the end of winter is ushered in by a crisp and golden spring. And it is all happening much earlier than usual this year.

 

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Easter in Sicily

Celebrations in Sicily for ‘Pasqua’ are filled with ancient rites and traditions which are as colourful and variegated as the island itself.

Holy week all over the isle is filled with religious celebrations, processions, parades led by confraternities of artisans in their particular costumes, re-enactments of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ and the resurrection which are all a part of an elaborate pageant characterising the death of Winter and joy of rebirth which the promise of Spring brings with it each year.

Celebrations like Trapani’s procession of the Misteri re-enacts scenes from the passion of Christ, with a procession of heavy wooden statues depicting different scenes from this eternal story. This manifestation together with similar celebrations in the provinces of Caltanissetta and Enna are at Sicily’s geographical and traditional heart, together with many other public performances of Via Crucis in most towns around the island.

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Pagan celebrations

As usual with most things in Sicily, Easter is not simply a religious celebration it is also tinged with pagan elements, such as the Diavolata at Adrano (Catania) and the Judei of San Fratello (Messina) which date back many hundreds of years with their own distinct characters who exorcise themselves in manifestations of battles against the devil and evil. All terribly melodramatic and evocative of the medieval tradition of the Passion play which was used to draw people towards the church.

Adrano’s Diavolata in the province of Catania is the performance of an ancient religious play, written in 1728 by a local religious brother, it acts out the eternal battle between good and evil. The focus is the struggle with several different devils and St Michael the Archangel who not only manages to defeat them after the resurrection but also gets them to praise the Madonna and God.

On the evening before Easter, there is the flight of the Angel at Adrano, where a terrified looking girl is strapped in and hoisted along a tightrope across the local square to meet the statue of the freshly resurrected Christ to recite a piece of text welcoming and praising him. Terrorised children are only a part of the spectacle of Easter in Sicily which seemingly verges on the absurd at times.

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The Judei

At the apex of the grotesque Baroque characters of Sicily’s Santa Pasqua are the Judei of the hilltop town of San Fratello, deep in the province of Messina. These flocks of hooded brightly dressed men take over the village and disturb the solemn funeral procession on the morning of Good Friday.

The ancient town of San Fratello became a French (Norman) colony in the early middle ages and it is the home to these strangely dressed men who gather out of the ether and tie together many strands of history in all of their colour, practical jokes and loud trumpet playing. In fact even the local dialect has more in common with French than Italian.

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The costumes are handed down from father to son. The bright red is a pseudo military style, complete with elaborate helmets, bright yellow stripes, lapels and intricate beading work, they are living breathing works of folk art, echoing the vibrant designs of the carretto Siciliano.

 

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The most intriguing part of the Judei’s costume is the hood with black eyes, yellow triangle-shaped noses and long black tongue, with silver studs punched into the fabric in the design of a cross, hanging down from under their fabric moustaches like the dastardly villains who tie innocent women to railway tracks in early black and white movies.

Their costumes are a collage from history, their music as loud and confusing as their apparel, the Judei escort a wooden statue of the crucified Christ, as the procession passes they begin to bray out with their trumpets and form circles around the main sidewalks of the town playing fragments from popular folk songs, opera and other segments of noise in a unique assault on the senses.

A deafening confusion seems frightening, but this pandemonium is the most life affirming chaos I’ve ever seen. This celebration has gone on uninterrupted for generations, it went on during both world wars. The Sanfratellani have been called ‘non catholic’ and ‘devils,’ yet these unique characters make them love their own unique celebrations.

Above all the children are in amongst the bedlam, they dream about wearing the costume together with their fathers.

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Buono come’ il pane : As good as bread

It is very Sicilian to say someone is as good as bread.There is nothing better or pure and simple as freshly baked bread. Lui e’ buono come pane means he is as ‘good as gold’ as Australians say.

 

Sicilians are less materialistic in their turn of phrase, history has made them humble and appreciate the gift of bread to an empty stomach.

 

For Easter Sicilians use their good bread to pay tribute to the promise of new life spring brings and the hope that Jesus’s religious sacrifice gives to Roman Catholics.

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The ‘cuddurunni’ bread decorated with eggs (some coloured red from boiling them with the root of a native plant) is the traditional Easter gift.

Before the chocolate kinder surprise filled eggs there were the Cuddurunni a symbolic gift that gave others the intrinsic goodness of bread with the springtime delicacies of oven baked eggs. Most chickens in the historically agricultural society of Sicily probably didn’t lay eggs in the harsh winters and so they literally had to wait for spring even for their eggs!

 

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So here’s having a good Easter filled with simplicity and being buono come pane.

 

Unwilling Expat 

 

P.S: The photo’s are of my very clever sister in law Antonella’s baking prowess.