We The Italians | Italian traditions: The feast of Our Lady of Carmine in Naples

Italian traditions: The feast of Our Lady of Carmine in Naples

Italian traditions: The feast of Our Lady of Carmine in Naples

  • WTI Magazine #105 Jul 21, 2018
  • 1150

The mythical etiology of the feast of Our Lady of Carmine is linked to the founding legends related to Our Lady of Carmine. According to tradition, on July 16th, 1251 the Virgin appeared to Simone Stock and gave him a scapular, saying: “Prendi, o figlio dilettissimo, questo Scapolare del tuo Ordine, segno distintivo della mia Confraternita. Ecco un segno di salute, di salvezza nei pericoli, di alleanza e di pace con voi in sempiterno. Chi morrà vestito di questo abito, non soffrirà il fuoco eterno” (Take, O most beloved son, this Scapular of your Order, a distinctive sign of my Brotherhood. Here is a sign of health, of salvation in danger, of covenant and peace with you forever. Whoever will die wearing this dress, will not suffer the eternal fire). This detail justifies the bond between the Virgin and the Order and legitimizes the work of mediation, protection and guidance of Our Lady who becomes the one who frees her confreres from suffering and from the "eternal fire".

Almost a century later, legend has it that Our Lady of Carmine appeared to Pope John XXII, inviting him to pray for the brethren and in exchange she would give the Carmineite Order the release from Purgatory of the religious, who would remain there until no later than the Saturday following their death. On March 3rd, 1322, or according to others in 1317, in Avignon, the Pope published the seal that spoke of this concession, from which the name "Sabatine privilege" derives. In 1910 Pope Pius X approved the replacement of the scapular with a medal that on the one hand has the Sacred Heart and on the other the image of the Virgin of Carmine.

The scapular is a garment made up of two rectangles of woolen fabric - the symbol of Jesus, the Lamb of God -, united by two strips that are laid on the shoulders: the two rectangles of fabric are dropped along the person, on the back and on the chest. Just as the servants in the early Middle Ages wore a tunic with the colors of the master on the short tunic, and the knights had on their armor the insignia of the lady for whom they fought, so the members of the Carmineite Order wear the scapular that indicates both the relationship of belonging to the Virgin Mary and her willingness to protect and assist devotees. The scapular, therefore, becomes not only a connotative symbol of the Order, but also an element that contributes to the construction of the identity of those who wear it.

But for the cult to spread, it must be supported by miracles and beliefs, which place the “Mamma Schiavona” (Slave Mother) in the magical and wonderful world and attribute her thaumaturgical powers. The image of the Madonna Bruna, according to the tradition painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, is actually an image of the Italian school of the thirteenth century, which became an object of worship by the people when the painting, sent to Rome, was returned to the city of Naples, because the Virgin performed too many miracles and obscured the glory of St. Peter. It is said that the fame of Mamma d’‘o Carmene was so great that it was the object of devotion of the faithful coming from all over southern Italy.

On June 24th, 1500, Frederick of Aragon gathered the sick, crippled and blind in the church of the Carmine and watched the healings from the stage. In June 1708 a miracle attributed to the Madonna del Carmine is documented in Casoria: it is the misadventure happened to the farmer Domenico Curcio, crashed into a well about 15 meters deep, who asked for help to the Madonna and found himself inexplicably on the surface. He was completely soggy, but the water had not wet the "dweller", the small scapular fabric with the image of the Madonna, which devotees carried around their necks. The event was widely propagated among the preachers of the time, even outside Naples. The cult of the Madonna del Carmine is also connected to the game of the lot. The "Slave Mom" gave the numbers through a Carmineite monk and the hopeful Neapolitans played them, because “la Mamma nera ‘nce ha fatto sempre piglià” (the Black Mom always gave our good numbers to bet on).

The first certain news of the festival dates back to the mid-seventeenth century. In the "Chronicle of the Real Convent of Carmine Maggiore in Naples", Father Pier Tommaso Moscarella in 1647, the period of Masaniello's revolution, tells us that it was customary to build a castle in Piazza Mercato that was besieged and burned and that Masaniello gathered four hundred young people who actively participated in the festival. In 1700, on the occasion of the bicentenary of the pilgrimage to Rome of the icon of the Madonna Bruna, people wanted to celebrate the event in a special way. “Per tre sere fu illuminato con copiosi lumi il Campanile: avanti la Chiesa erettivi due orchestri con organetti fuvvi musica per tutte le tre sere” ("For three evenings the bell tower was illuminated with copious lights: in front of the erecting church two orchestras with organ played music for every one of the three evenings"). For the first time, the bell tower is highlighted.

In 1875, on the occasion of the coronation of the icon by the Vatican, Clement Dominic wrote: "On the evenings of days 11, 15, 16 and 17 there were gas lights; on the evening of 18 fireworks, to enjoy which a multitude of people crowded with hundreds of boats on all the part of the sea that looks towards the Carmine". There is therefore talk of both gas lighting and fireworks. In the second half of the twentieth century the lights extended up to Porta Capuana and the festival took place in several evenings, with the music festival and the fire of the bell tower.

Today the festival is still a remarkable moment of aggregation. From July 13th to 16th there are various religious celebrations. Neapolitans and tourists flock to Piazza Mercato on the evening of the vigil, when the Madonna, covered in jewels, is implored with faith by devotees. It can be seen, however, that the festival has its moment of greatest fullness with the fire of the bell tower of the Church of Carmine Maggiore in Piazza Mercato, at 10PM of July 15th. The lights of the square go out, leaving the faithful in the dark. Pinwheels of lights anticipate “o sorice”, the fire rocket launched at the height of the bells in the direction of the bell tower from the next terrace. Immediately a suggestive rain of fires and colors explodes and the bell tower lights up. The simulation of the fire with the fireworks has its end only when the picture of the Madonna del Carmine is raised. It all lasts about 20 minutes, causes great emotion among those present and ends with great applause. 

The feast of Our Lady of Carmine is a very important event for Neapolitans. Each festival is relevant for its community, because it is connected with the construction of its identity, which sometimes you can see in details seemingly irrelevant, such as, for example, in the different way of cooking mussels, or to taste the taralli with a glass of beer. The festivals are precisely made of an infinity of small things, in which you can recognize the knowledge, the imagination, the life forms, the creativity of a community, and are therefore a synthesis of local culture, and, as such, constitute the moment in which the community shows off its identity and, in doing so, strengthens it.

In other words, the festival is the moment when Neapolitan society comes together, to promote the recognition of local identities and its own group; to offer on the market original and locally connoted consumer goods; to revitalize local features, allowing members of the community to enjoy moments of different lives and symbolic, affective, aesthetic, ceremonial, sensory experiences that relate to a tradition that is complementary to modernity.

In a social system that tends to become hyper-complex, with this celebration you can create a moment in which the community is able to oppose the outside as a whole, taking root with renewed intensity in the territory and local memory. The feast of Our Lady of Carmine is therefore part of a complex framework, within which community time is marked; a framework characterized by interaction and hybridization with the elements and external processes of modern and global. On the one hand, it accredits the identity of communities, and on the other it provides an answer to the question of roots and community relations, a response that takes shape through religious rites, convivial moments and the promotion of local products.