Everyone comes out into the streets for mysterious reasons. They are to partake in an immersion in their masses. Boil it down to basics : they just might witness something. The program has been clear for over 600 years.
I missed the early morning shepherds running their flocks through the streets, but at the stroke of sometime shortly after 1230, we gather for the emergence of the local incarnation of the blesséd Madonna from a church that isn’t actually 600 years old. The horse braying under the generale and the trills of a gentile marching band in overture modus will have been recirculated through many a generation, but otherwise this is that which we do…
It was the city’s Big Day, the feast of Maria della Bruna, a most marvelous occasion of conflicting explanations. I only know what I saw:
People converge upon a church to see if there is anything to see. Not surprisingly there is. After the parade of flowery cavalieri – horsemen and horsegirls decked out to the frilliest, several pudgy men of the ceremonial committee with four horse drawn wagons arrive to collect yet other notables. It did not seem to occur to anyone in my party that also the ceremony in the innards of the church was somehow intrinsic to the experience; on this day we were more than content perched on a strategic balcony that had served several families through several centuries.
Applause; out into the sunlight comes a beaming face under a purple bonnet clutching a life-size rendition of an infant. The pudgy men have had their ranks swollen by among others my friend the mayor. Surrounded by only somewhat less pudgy men in the flowing robes of the clergy, they carry a most beautiful woman swaying above their shoulders. The band waits behind her designated wagon, the one with the satin and the flowers. Red hat carrying her baby gets his own wagon. Off they go. Two ex-colony nuns had wandered by at some point.
In the evening it became richer. The shepherding away of the maiden in question was temporary, she’d be back in the fold by the evening, reunited with her youngster.
According to not necessarily informed sources, Matera is the only Italian city whose patron saint is a matron saint. Indeed a creature to be honored, applause greets the very mention of her name as her effigy is paraded upon the historical route of her minor miracle. However, it is not quite as visceral and as heartfelt as is the glee by which the cognisenti eye the fault-lines and the prize pieces of paper maché figures and architectural detail that comprise this year’s rendition of her designer carro chariot. Employed solely for the return trip, this isn’t the carriages of this morning; rather it is multi-tiered ship that holds her figure high and depicts guiding lights and current themes of the Roman Catholic pantheon. Her wheels shall steal the show.
With much stopping and starting along the parade, the crowd are suitably primed when Maria perched atop her carro finally appear on the fringe of the piazza. Music cues are coordinated. Eight trumpeters sound the fanfare from Aida which peaks appropriately just before the belovéd virgin glides effortlessly into the epicentre of our civic space to stop under a floating panoply of peacock feather patterned lights. Especially constructed four days before the event, at this late hour their illumination transforms the city’s always enticing central public square into pure raw beauty. The sound system breaks into Ave Maria. It is as contagious as it is primitive.
There is a marked contrast of male domination of parade committee and the clergy (the female presence among the officialdom largely limited to a pair of red cross workers) and the object of our admiration. It appears the boys are about to make good. We are here to celebrate a magnificent creature. However, some time in ancient history, things had gotten out of hand…
Ritual Police Brutality
Soon the story will diverge. The action swoops by the Cathedral. After depositing the sacred memory of this glorious virgin, now reunited with her infant in a gesture that must bring solace to single mothers everywhere, there is a decided game shift. The skittish nature of the noble, politically correct but sadly chronically unemployed horses, requires that the forty or so glorious knights in their tin plate chain mail breast plates and ditto helmets must muster off: spears, flags and all. Having thus removed a significant percentage of potentially deadly weaponry, the ritual goes hard core.
Up to date as only design conscious southern Italy can manage, the developments are now televised on three screens including one on the main piazza above the historic cisterns that remind one that this may be the oldest city in Europe. We thus witness the retreat of the cavalry twice; once on screen and then moments later al fresco as they trot through the hordes back along the residual pathway of their first appearance. At the last moment four less quirky, blinkered mules have been ushered into place at the head of the chariot. Their driver strapped in, the carro performs the mandatory three ritual circles in yet another crowded piazza, before aligning itself with the canyon to come. The evening’s raison d’être involves running the gauntlet between those ravenous for loot. A body guard of blue helmeted police squads and the loyal followers of the local football team are tasked with getting the precious wagon past 120 meters prime retail outlets (fenced in for the occasion) and out before the awaiting masses on the piazza beneath the delicate dome of micro lights.
Sizing up their immediate future, a calculation is communicated between the phalanx of defenders of the faith and the man at the reins. The wagon train and its foot soldiers take the plunge. Charging gladiators wield the whips that earlier seemed a useful precaution to protect the crowd from the symptoms of rusty horsemanship, but that now seek other flesh. They would progress but a few meters before the next security hazard raises its presence and clogs the canyon. The waiting marauders are forced backward to whence they came and towards where the impatient masses now watch in simulcast from six cameras. There are to be several attempts before the inevitable last charge into the human stream of negotiated no-man’s land collides with attendant rebellion.
Before our eager eyes, one of the city’s resident bastards breaks through the security cordon and surprises himself by scampering to the top of the wagon. In a moment that will he will retell for the rest of his life, he scatters elements of the most fragile decor into the surge below. The injustice is palpable: 45 meters before the chariot and its much sought after plunder become sanctified fair game, the forces of chaos triumph. However, an understandable civic outrage is not the response of the blood thirsty among us.
The defenses compromised, the camera zooms in on the gun-jumpers eager to embrace a prized piece. As the Christs, doves, and cherubim clenched in the fists of the greedy are broadcast to all, one would anticipate this disgusting lack of fair play would provoke instant disapproval. Not so; in an orgy of reverse schadenfreude the crowd erupt in a surprising roar for the home team. A cloud of testosterone fired by the scent of the prey expresses great vicarious glee at the successful pillage.
Honour among thieves
Once the prize possessions of angels or mock doric columns have been torn off and claimed, the rules of the game allow recapture within a certain circumference. Organised into gangs that hone in on the primo treasures and then pass them down to eager accomplices, the loot is quickly divvied up and carted off. Not everyone gets the biggest piece of a wedding cake. The telly zooms in on the late comers descending upon the chariot remnants as a lowly staircase gets eviscerated by the hungry. In an unconscious touch of fairness, a treasured headless apostle floats by along the intended route as the victorious parade fresh relics across the piazza for our admiration.
Brother Andrea who’s magnificent photos may accompany this article became collateral damage. His first FaceBook chat from his hospital bed came from a man more in ecstasy than pain:
My Bruna was so wonderful and ‘near’. Five costal bones broken and camera broken. Very near to the chariot. I’m in the hospital. Don’t worry, I was where I wanted to be….yes Bruna is wonderful…
It is hard not to read the manifestations of this tradition but as a glorification of bullying that has the church performing backwards somersaults to justify. The explanations get rapidly very hazy indeed. The mock rebellion where a half-criminal caste is allowed to exercise a tendency to vandalism that rivals the Vandals, and that leaves those charged with the defense of fair play bathed in their own indignation, doesn’t immediately seem to promote social cohesion.
Much as the chariot itself, the supporting elements of its legend are crying out to be taken to pieces. It may even be the case that, horror of horrors, this reenactment of ancient history doesn’t accommodate the story it purports to ritualise. Repelling plundering hordes by acting as plundering hordes is an intricate scenario. Not only are the heros the bad guys, but the high point in the pageant comes much too early in the narrative and the day.
The complex psychic make-up of the locals that feed this reenactment with centuries of identity crisis refute this story being mere myth. Something did indeed happen sometime. However, the proffered alignment of the irate citizenry rising up against the plundering invaders making off with the jewel encrusted icon that had of late been generously demonstrating her healing powers, holds at most mere kernels of believability.
Three paper thin stories are meant to support the tale:
The archbishop of Matera in the 1340’s was not an insignificant soul – his next appointment would be as Pope Urban the Somethingth. Popes of his day were not elected on piety alone; typically he’d had administrated significant expansion of ecclesiastic splendor. A fetching brunette receiving visitations within a donkey ride of his palazzo could be just the trick to rally the faithful round the necessary levies for his next construction project.
To underline the benevolence of the current regime, it could be helpful to vilify them that went before – a triumph for the virtuous could be just the thing. Enter the Saracens. Hardly an empty threat, this variant of invading hordes from Carthage certainly had previous; they had long held sway of the historical Greek Island of Sicily. However, if it depicts a barbarian invasion, the forces destroying the wagon seem to identify with the Barbarians and force the holy church to bless their essentially heretical behavior. Even before the decent of the jolly modern day Milani and Romans, the confusing tide of civilisation had delivered the local lands unto Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthage, the Lombardy Goths and the Norman mercenaries in hire of the Spaniards. Something nasty must certainly have set its spore during the transitions.
It is easy to see that the wagon is heading the wrong way. Given that some dramaturgic tweaking may have be desirable to avoid that the lady herself not harbour in the centre of the fray, it is understandable to place her safely back on her pedestal before the free-for-all ensues. Some have the pageant’s ritual of revenge as a brutal exercise of mandatory renewal and reincarnation. At the same time laying to ruins the Maria’s precious carro is hardly unbridled homage. Feeble legends have been composed featuring the city’s favorite villain, the vile Count Tramonte, who so taxed the patience of the citizenry that on the 28th of December 1514, he was removed from office with a dagger.
With one foot in theatre history other scenarios present themselves: playing the bad guy is infinitely more fun, more plausible is that a modest enactment somewhere became the revenge of the bit players – a ritual conflict that turned sour when the rabble insisted on winning. This interpretation is reinforced when more pastoral sources depict the ambush as nothing more severe than a plunder of the summer flowers that once decked Our Lady’s modest sedan chair.
Modern technology does have its blessings. Within minutes the local television coverage offered up instant replay of the initial assault and the dramatic toppling of the cupola. Details that inferior camera angles, or the sheer speed of the dismemberment, left blurry are subject to zooms and freeze frame. As the burro-driver gropes for the reins to bail out from any further advance, the defenders of the faith turn upon the first of the perpetrators who breached the defensive ring as the surge collapsed. Brandishing whips made of an entwined, stretched and then dried ox penises, the primordial exchange of a good thrashing for a good story provides mutual vindication to all.
The subtext is blatant: Materani do social upheaval. Historians may find it unsubstantiated but local legend has them believe theirs was the first Italian rebellion against fascist troops in 1943. There is also considerable pride attached to the rebellion against the afore mentioned vile tax-collector in 1514 and to the bloody local manifestation of the forced unification of Italy in 1861. That all these three events no doubt provoked harsh reprisals with the apparent blessing of the church is barely mentioned. That a successful raid in the face of sanctified violence ends in victory for the victims may reflect the deep story of Maria della Bruna. As such it provides both social therapy and valuable mutual training in something or another. Would it be blasphemy to seek a little clarity?
Clearly it is not beyond the powers of the imagination to apply conjecture as to how and why the evolution of a popular ritual has responded to evolving needs. The next step is however deeply problematic. Dare we tamper with the future? The wagon itself only partially constructed for greater things. On the surface it is to serve two functions: it parades the untouchable splendor of the virtuous local lass and provides competing families of cartapasta artists a showcase to display their skills. That it is destined to be torn asunder and thereby shall end its days as souvenir sized chunks to be carted off to be given pride of place in shop windows and living rooms throughout the city is not convincingly reflected in the design. Could elements at the core of the ritual be adjusted?
Tweaking the expressions of the collective consciousness is at best invasive. Social anthropology shall observe, not fiddle with the DNA of cultural reproduction. Designing tradition may be the world of the unMonastery or the Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda but it invites confrontation… As with the work of Jungian Sandplay Therapy, to maneuver what is essentially the stuff of dreams before the glaring light of conscious choice is to take responsibility for shaping one’s history.
However, it is not beyond the possible that even the deeply conservative elements immersed in the memories of an entire community can be persuaded to bend before converging forces. For this year’s parade the number of horses was reportedly shaved from a glorious 100 to a more modest 60. If this was a health and safety issue promoted by the street sweepers union or by the emergency department at the local hospital could be a subject of research. Perhaps the dreaded animal rights activists had voiced disapproval. In either case 40 equestrian couples had been put out to pasture or sent to the meat market. Whether this reflected a sudden drop in the prestige of maintaining the gear, or whether it reflected a schism and bad blood in the organising committee is not the subject of this inquiry. Since the equipage were not yet embroidered with the logos of culturally savvy multinational corporations; the tradition will no doubt survive.
The composition of the protective phalanx has similarly been adjusted in recent years as foreign mercenaries hired in from the national police force lacked an understanding of the cultural nuance of give and take (read: last year – the year of Andrea’s photos – had 100 cases referred to the emergency department), the task of policing was then transferred to local forces. Report has it that this provoked a comic sight as the local officers suffered a neurological conflict of interest – serving and protecting the honour of the chariot while their every manly fibre twitched at the prospect of plunder.
A more obviously recent adjustment was the addition of 3 public screens that enable many more citizens to viscerally witness the core of the event. These will already be considered an immutable feature of the 625 year old ritual. The prospect of the crowd that crowds the piazza retreating to the comfort of their living rooms seems unlikely as long as the 2nd of July falls in the summer season.
While isolated detail dictated by a tradition in imperceptible transition can easily point one in a false direction, being parachuted in to witness ones first iteration of the Bruna without the encumbrance of processions past allows the luxury of unobstructed perspective. Explanations as to why people feel duty bound to indulge in an act of patriotic vandalism can be many. Though it may be a simple act of acute iconoclasm, it is very tempting to speculate which of the diverse social imperatives will in the future enforce their influence upon this theoretically unrockable ceremony. And while humility is not the natural realm of a speculative inquiry such as this one, to publicly challenge the best available local minds to determine which forces should be encouraged to consciously shape this major defining ritual of regional identity beckons as a tempting human imperative.
As we walk by after the smoke has cleared, the vultures still pick at the less appetising bones and sinew of the chariot carcass…