Italian traditions: Fires, Angels and Archangels at the bottom of Vesuvio
- WTI Magazine #103 May 19, 2018
In spring, between May 7th and May 10th, artistic illuminations, angels, archangels, games and spectacular fireworks are at the center of an intense ritual that the community of Ottaviano (Naples) dedicates to the patron saint, Michael, the archangel who led the angelic hosts in the fight against the rebel angels commanded by Lucifer, annihilating them: quis ut deus! (who is like God!) Michael intimated before punishing Lucifer, who had dared to challenge God with pride.
This is why in the West Saint Michael is traditionally depicted winged, young and beautiful, according to a shared collective imagination; but also armed with shield, helmet and sword, in the act of crushing Satan, now dominated by the flames of hell. Therefore, the Archangel Michael is commonly referred to as the defender of the soul from evil forces, and as mediator between the world of the living and that of the dead, with his recurring presence in caves and because of the cults often dedicated to him.
In Ottaviano the church dedicated to St. Michael stands on top of a hill, a sacred area already in Roman times, as archaeological finds seem to attest, saved and preserved still today in the Church, destroyed several times by the most recent eruptions of Vesuvius (that of 1906, in particular). In Byzantine times the local cult of the Archangel Michael seems to be a reality, as a plaque with a Greek inscription suggests, a sort of votive offering of thanks to the Saint kept in the church.
May 8th is the day of the great community celebration with the procession of the Michele 'o piccirillo (the little one), that is the wooden statue of Austrian manufacture bought from an antiquarian by the Prince of Ottajano Luigi de' Medici when he was sent to the Congress of Vienna, representing the King of Naples, in 1815. The statue is smaller than its larger double eighteenth-century, Michele 'o ruosso (the big one) placed on the main altar of the parish church. With showy and colorful feathers on the helmet. Michele 'o piccirillo goes in procession through the streets of the city center, according to recurring procedures in a patronal feast. There are numerous brothers (representatives of four ancient brotherhoods), several banners with plumes, ecclesiastical and civil authorities. People is mostly coming from nearby towns, but sometimes also from locations in Puglia, and a crowd of devout reunited in the four squares of the historic center from which the respective districts take their name, where most of the offers given to finance the event are also collected. These districts are: Annunziata, Piediterra, Mercato and San Giovanni.
But for the people from Ottaviano, the feast of St. Michael is also and above all the flight of the angels, an ancient consolidated form of popular theater that in Ottaviano is repeated four times, that is in the four squares of the corresponding neighborhoods. Two children aged between seven and ten years, for several generations strictly members of the same family, the Duraccios, have the privilege of meeting the Archangel Michael suspended from a metal cable with a pulley (the carrule) that allows them to cross the center of each square, on the crowd that waits silently. They wear a long tunic in different colors, pink and light blue, a heart shaped shield, a helmet with a plume and a blonde and curly wig. Holding their arms underneath, the children cross the square with a bird's eye, until they stop, perpendicularly, in front of the archangel.
Now is the time to sing the hymn dedicated to Saint Michael, to evoke his venture, express the community pride of having him as protector, implore his special protection or thank him for the wonders done during the year. Flying is also a powerful opportunity to acquire or strengthen social prestige: it is up to the two angels to advertise in the square the offers left as gifts by fellow citizens and emigrants.
The flight of angels here has an ancient ritual tradition. It was already practiced in the sixties of the nineteenth century, when, with a regular act registered on May 4, 1864, the city prohibited its conduct for reasons of public safety, but allowed the race of horses as afternoon entertainment and the recitation of a sacred drama in three acts (The King of Flames, or St. Michael Archangel), to be represented on the occasion of May 8th. The sacred performance on stage was held together with the flight until the fifties of the twentieth century, on separate days, and was entrusted to a theater company specializing in sacred performances from the municipality of Torre Annunziata. The flight, with the strokes sung by the angels, then full of dialect expressions and anacolutes, has survived over time to various attempts by ecclesiastical and civil authorities to eliminate or reduce the size of the execution from four to one: for emigrants and residents, the flight hast to sty exactly as it is. Flying is a votive action that strengthens the relationship with the sacred through children who, in the staging, cover a contemporary double dimension, human and divine.
The child takes on the symbolic role of power mediator, as he is still tied to a threshold dimension, alien to the needs and stimuli of adults: the risk he and his family run during the staging and the spectators participating in the event are part of a devotional behavior necessary for the sacrifice to be significant and for the sacredness of the gesture and the offer to be highlighted. But flight simulation is not just a sacred moment. It is also a celebration of childhood, of the community that is reflected in children and with them is regenerated, hoping for its positive future; the ritual machine of flight is still a powerful showcase to preserve prestige, to carve out or to reaffirm a role in the Christian community and society. It is no coincidence that sacred representations such as the flight of the angel alone, or in association with a staging of the struggle between the angel and the devil, are also widespread in other places of Campania between Monday in Albis and the first Sunday of October: when the production cycle of the earth, like that of human life, was born, and then prepare to die but is cyclically proposed again and again.
The legend of diffusion of the local cult for St Michael the Archangel and a living rituality until the first decades of the twentieth century reveal aspects linked to the theme of cyclical fertility of the soil. But they also reveal needs, historical dangers of survival for the community and relations with the area of micaelitic cult of wide historical influence, such as the Gargano. It is said that a terrible drought seriously threatened the economy of the local community, based on the production of grapes and wheat, when, unexpectedly, wagons full of wheat came from the tables of Apulias in the village. It was purchased by a young blond man who had sold his ring to get the wheat to send to Ottaviano. When they arrived in the village, those who had transported the wheat recognized in the local statue of St. Michael the young man who had ordered it. The same statue, that of Michele 'o ruosso, used to cross the countryside on September 29th to bless the land. On that occasion, the farmers offered the Saint bunches of Concord and Catalan grapes to transform it into wine: the proceeds of the sale of wine would support part of the expenses for the feast of May 8th.
The feast of St. Michael is also the feast of an intense sound landscape, characterized especially by the "remnant of the sacred bronzes", the repeated applause, the band concerts and light music but, even more, by the deafening and prolonged burst of fireworks that precede the start of the procession, follow each flight in the squares and, again, entertain the spectators during the night show at the end of the festival. It is kind of a counter-positiveness to be exhibited against a real danger to be exorcised, because several times suffered by a community at the bottom of Mount Vesuvius, always ready to awaken.
by Domenica Borriello for "Il Folklore d'Italia"