The south of Italy has a reputation of being more religious than the north, more superstitious, and in a strange sense, more pagan. Being in Puglia for Easter gave us a first-hand glimpse of some of the holiday's rituals.
The Thursday before Easter we were in Lecce, and we noticed that the streets were filling up with people, signori, children, giovani. We met our friend M for dinner, and she explained that since the days before Easter are a time of grande luto, great grief in Catholicism, all the churches of the paese set up special altars and Easter sepulchres. At these altars are plants that have been grown indoors without the light of the sun, and so their leaves are a thin ghostly white, and they are placed beneath the altar.
ai tempi, long ago when distances were greater. We go inside one church because we're all curious, and it's very dark, lit only by candles. A Jesus made from carta pesta, paper machè, lies in a glass case surrounded by the glittering white candles. The altars are somber, though when I see the white plants I'm reminded of rice noodles. People move in and out continuously, stopping briefly to look at the displays. Even the teenagers in leather jackets and bleached hair cross themselves and kiss their knuckles, and the sight is a little strange, as glimpsing them on the street you don't imagine the depths of their religious feeling.
Still, outside it's all festa, people are meeting and socializing, drinking eating and laughing. The cobblestone alleys are packed and it's difficult to move quickly. I say to F that it seems more like a party than a religious ceremony and he says casually that it's riti senza religione, ritual without religion.
(Then when M's friend joins us at the bar, the first thing he says is "Tutti gli altri vanno in giro stasera a vedere le sepulchre, ed io invece mi sono messo a contare gli amici suicidi. Sono tre." Everyone else is going around tonight to see the sepulchres, but I instead got to counting my friends who've committed suicide. There are three.)
processione di venerdì santo, the procession of Good Friday, which is rather famous. There are two processions, one beginning at 7 pm and ending at 2 am, and then another beginning at 3 am and ending at 9 am. Many members of the procession wear red and white robes that can't help but remind an American of the KKK and which I found profoundly creepy. Two bands played a somber march, many of the robed men were barefoot and carried symbols of penitence. Behind them walked selected members of the community, not robed but definitely well-coiffed. (F remarked that this explained why we saw so many people in the barbershop that day.) The people who had chatted and shrieked and laughed as they awaited the beginning of the procession were silent, whispering now and then about the details of the costumes and statues. Then, as the procession entered the winding streets of the old city center, it became a chase to see how and where you could catch a glimpse of Jesus and red robes in the dimming light.
Later at Easter lunch with M's cousins, we heard that to be a member of a procession like this you had to pay extraordinary amounts of money. M's cousin knew a group of men who had paid 85,000 euros to carry the Madonna.
The whole affair made me think of Ivan's words about religion:
“In the night,” he said, “pilgrims arrived from all over the world. They filled the piazza in front of the church, they ate, they drank, and they played music. In the morning, the saint emerged from the church for the procession. People kissed the saint, lifted their babies to touch against the saint, pushed money against the saint... And during the procession there was this relationship between the people and the saint. It’s clear that the church tolerated this spectacle, but there was little religious about it. It was idolatry, it was barbarism. What struck me was the need for physicality, to have a physical relationship with the saint...Faith is metaphysical. God is there, and you are here, and it’s hard. Here you have the possibility of physical contact."
It all left me feeling a little empty and strange but grateful for having seen it, this other spirit of the south and Italy.