Italian traditions: The ingenious madness of the Ovodda Carnival
- WTI Magazine #111 Jan 19, 2019
In recent years we are seeing in Italy a continuous intensification of "ethnic tourism", folk festivals and historical re-enactments, religious rituals, patronal festivals, ethno-gastronomic events and carnivals have taken on great interest in the public, so as to spread the phenomenon of direct observation of travelers outside the manifestations of local folklore. Ethnic tourism is above all "participatory"; the spectator wishes to be an active agent of the event, through various forms of direct and indirect involvement, to which the policies of reception by local administrations, pro loco and tourist agencies lend themselves.
In Sardinia, too, this dimension has been promoted for years because it is an effective engine of economy. New masks have arisen or expressions and carnival characters have been recovered, abandoned or cited in distant historical sources, or sometimes people reinvent events that immediately assume an identity of the specific places. The widespread gatherings of carnival masks stage these traits of belonging to the community. The Sardinia Region itself finances such phenomena because they become a real attraction for foreigners. Therefore to the historical carnivals remained active in the island, Mamoiada, Ottana, Orotelli, Fonni, Bosa and Ovodda, today many others have been added.
The Carnival of the grotesque
Anyone who goes on Ash Wednesday to Ovodda, a small town in the Ollolai Barbagia in Sardinia, is immersed in a world "other", has the feeling of having experienced a kind of time machine that transports him into a medieval or Renaissance carnival dimension. While in other parts of the island with Shrove Tuesday the time of the feast and of the revelry runs out, in Ovodda the day of the collective madness arrives on the Wednesday. The stranger is first and foremost obliged to let his face be dyed black with the soot of thick cork bark. A week earlier, some willing people dedicated themselves to the construction of the gigantic puppet of Don Conte Forru, the central character of the carnival, destined for mockery and final death.
In Ovodda, during the three canonical days of the Carnival (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday), the festivities take place in a calm liveliness expressed by limited masking of groups of young people who move between bars, streets and homes of friends and relatives. There are public offerings of Zeppole and especially with evening dance parties very attended, in which the traditional local dances are intertwined with the "civil dances" (usually ballroom dancing) and live music from a squeeze-box. All the Ovodda citizens, however, wait with trepidation for the Wednesday. Since the morning, groups of masks move through the streets of the village. Some of them are placed at the various entrances of the village to welcome strangers and perform with them a ritual of inclusion in the event through painting of the face and offering wine, gestures of reception of the guest and ratification of unwritten rules that also transform visitors into active agents of the great revelry that will be celebrated.
The number of participants in the party rapidly grows since the early afternoon. The whole town is filled with people dressed up in various ways: most of the Ovodda citizens are on the street. In recent years the presence of outsiders has also grown, both islanders from neighboring countries and the most distant Sardinian cities and “people from the continent” (that is how Sardinia people call the Italians who don’t live on the Island) attracted by the uniqueness of the carnival.
The most relevant features of the phenomenon consist in the presence, in the search for amazement, in the affirmation of the improvisational extrovertism and in the construction of a - even if temporary – “land of plenty” and of a utopian society of the beautiful living.
Being there is the first need felt by the locals: many emigrated from Ovodda return as soon as they can to enjoy this day of institutionalized unruliness according to tradition. Participation in the day makes each participant a co-star of the event; everyone can freely choose through the bizarre way of transforming, their own temporary "other" identity. In the streets you can feel the pleasure of showing off and observing the appearance of others built for the occasion. A constant that is well rooted in the Ovodda carnival is the ancient concept of masking: a simple and spontaneous use of poor clothes and recycling. The important element is to unleash the imagination using daily and often discarded "ingredients": blankets, curtains, old military uniforms, worn out clothes and rags, overalls worn by work; objects of domestic and work furniture are transformed into ridiculous and paradoxical clothes. There is no shortage of gender changes: women dressed as men and men hairstyled in very unpleasant and often vulgar female figures.
The allusion and often the explicitness of the erotic character are also present: breasts, asses and genital organs appear without any shame, but rather become handholds for improvised jokes. The town of the madmen is also characterized by surprising actions: many carry with them objects among the most disparate and absurd. There are those who drag with ropes along the streets old sofas, toilets, television sets, wheelbarrows, parts of car bodies, old furniture; many carry wine canisters, agricultural pumps, improvised trestles with drips or hanging sausages, modified coat hangers, etc..
Marveling is in the logic of the gathering of the Ovodda “intintos”. Humans are always associated with animals: donkeys, goats, sheep, goats, rams, pigs, birds, chickens and rodents in cages are companions to the masks: they are brought on a leash or transported on improvised carts or wheelbarrows, also decorated, painted, ridiculously dressed as involuntary protagonists of irreverent rice. The fantasy of the poor people, the liberating atmosphere and the symbolism of transgression are visibly captured in the streets of the town. The world upside down takes place here for a day through creative imagination and escape from reality, the absurd replaces the established order and to bring this new state of things are black-faced larvae that seem to come from the world of the dead to sanction the victory of a free life. All seasoned with another collective inclination: sociable joy. There is a positive climate of brotherhood and sharing of existential pleasure: everyone relates to others, no matter how much they know each other, the important thing is, instead, to be there and be part of the community of the mad.
There are greetings, exchanges of compliments, collective photos, dancing together and especially the fraternization with wine. Wine assumes the important role of sacred chrism that binds the intintos and that gives everyone the euphoric intoxication of a society of equals, of collective well-being, of a carpe diem of utopian, temporary and shared existential happiness. In Ovodda, the sharing of the pleasures of the senses and the psyche (drinking, eating, music, dancing, entertainment, irregularity made reality) becomes for one day the primary function of existence.
And what about the evil of living? It is placed and personified in Don Conte, this puppet carried on a cart up and down the main street and is continuously offended, mocked and sarcastically apostrophed with cries, false threats and blows of sticks and various objects.
Almost always it is represented, besides being horrible in its gigantic appearance, also equipped with a huge phallus and often one of its arms is mobile and is operated impudently by a device behind it. Until on sunset, in the central square, an informal process is staged in which the character, symbol of despotic power, is accused of all individual and collective evils in the clamor of cries and continuous invective. Then, condemned to death, he is set on fire and so on fire he is rushed along the course in his extreme part at the bottom where he is made to fall from a bridge into the stream below. The sacrifice of evil is thus accomplished in the general euphoria and in the representation of a collective act of justice.