Una Vita diVino: Le Maschere di Tricarico

Tricarico, Basilicata – The mother of Italian folk festivals is the Raduno delle Maschere Antropologiche held once a year in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. The parade (or raduno) represents and annual meeting point for many of the regional folk costumes or masks (le maschere) that appear throughout the peninsula, from the far north to the deep south of Italy. The festival is relatively unknown and the beautiful town of Tricarico is far removed from mainstream tourism destinations.

There is a growing movement in Italy to revive the rural rites, folkloric pageantry, peasant heritage and superstitious mythology that plays such a prominent role in the local culture, music and social fabric of Italy. As the largest Greek settlement outside the ancient world, Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) was an important theological intersection for Pagan and Christian beliefs and the two are often impossible to distinguish. Many names rooted in anthropology have been attributed to this revival, but I prefer the term ecospiritualità, or eco-spirituality because it underlines the tight connection that these Pagan-Christian celebrations had on farming and herding-based populations.

I had long hoped to see the Raduno delle Maschere Antropologiche in person and the opportunity finally came when I returned to Basilicata to taste Aglianco-based red wines on the blackened slopes of the extinct Vulture volcano. You can see my published report “Basilicata: V is for Vulture” here.

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The main theme presented by the parade and its actors is that of the mandria in transumanza, or the Italian migration of sheep and cows from the highlands to the lowlands. In fact, many of the costumes are depictions of herd animals and their human shepherds. A second theme explored in depth is that of fecundity. The raduno is usually staged before Easter or the beginning of the spring growing season when fertility is the main agricultural concern.

As a prelude to the parade, I joined a rowdy culinary intermezzo at the local trattoria that was generously fueled by accordion music, raunchy song lyrics and local red wine served most unceremoniously in a plastic petrol canister. After a lunch of that musical and alcoholic caliber, we were now well poised to join in the unfolding postprandial events. I had my video camera and press pass ready to go.  

The parade opens with the local costume of Tricarico (minute 2.07). The all-male actors are dressed in two distinct costumes. The white costume with colorful ribbons represents a cow (la mucca) and the black costume with the lace hood represents a bull (il toro). Anthropologists believe that the costumes are linked back to Ancient Greece. This segment celebrates the cycle of life. Indeed, the herd of bulls attempts to mount the cows in a face-paced cacophony of cowbells (campanacci) and general drunken mayhem. The louder the cowbells the better: They ward off the evil eye. As you will hear, clanking cowbells play a leading role in this parade and they underline the idea of migratory herding.

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Following the chronological order presented by the parade, we are immediately transported to northern Italy. Valle d’Aoste in the mountainous north of Italy celebrates a unique carnival that revolves around the colorful le Landzettes figures. The Coumba Freidè celebration takes place in the town of Allein (minute 3.01). The Landzettes are dressed in red costumes that vaguely recall the military uniform worn by Napoleon Bonaparte. These allegorical costumes reference Napoleon’s Italian campaign that started in May 1800. French military troops came past this area as they crossed the Colle del Gran San Bernardo pass. The bright colors, shining sequins and mirrors are believed to chase away the evil spirits that come with the cold of the winter. Some actors carry ponytail whips for chasing away bad weather. In fact, the carnival’s name Coumba Freidè is local dialect for “freezing wind.” The Landzettes are known to play little pranks on the audience. Those actions are meant to symbolize the injustices inflicted onto the local population by Napoleon’s troops.

Another very strange and complicated rite comes from the town of Satriano di Lucania (Basilicata). Actors in black cotton rags are meant to symbolize La Quaresima, or Lent. These actors give birth (minute 3.16) to an orphan child that was conceived sometime during the celebration of Carnival. The small infant represents a Carnival that is now finished. A new growing season or life cycle will commence.

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This celebration began in the Middle Ages when Basilicata was at one of its poorest moments. The U’rumit, or “tree men” (minute 3.35) are layered in forest branches and leaves. The costume is said to evoke the concept of emigration. Throughout much of the region’s history, poverty and extreme conditions forced many Lucani to flee to faraway lands. The U’rumit symbolize the most marginalized members of the population who remain faithful to their homeland. Their proverbial “tree roots” are firmly linked to Basilicata. Back in the town of Satriano di Lucania, the U’rumit celebrate their own silent parade in which they “knock” gently on neighbors’ houses by letting their branches rustle over the doors. The neighbors emerge to give the tree men a glass of wine or a few coins to help them during their moment of hardship.

One of the most provocative segments of the parade is the tongue-in-cheek funeral procession that is celebrated in Cirigliano in the province of Matera, Basilicata (minute 4.34). This sequence symbolizes the changing seasons. An actor depicting the concept of Carnival (the period before Lent) is paraded through town in his coffin. Behind him is his grieving widow Quaremma (or Lent). This rural tradition is linked to the rite of fertility because Christ was resurrected on Easter and the spring season is soon to start. The people in his entourage offer the dead man music and wine. The hot pepper and the spicy sausage are relatively obvious in their metaphorical meaning. Both are a symbol of male prowess, and the hot chili has the added function of warding off the evil eye inherent to health issues like infertility.

Perhaps the most international of these mythological masks presented at the parade are i Krampus (minute 4.55). Anyone with a Germanic or Middle European background may recall the mythology of these half man-half goat monsters. The Krampus shows up at Christmas and is the opposite of the good-natured Saint Nicholas. He appears to punish children who have misbehaved throughout the year. His cult is celebrated in Austro-Bavarian Alpine areas and extends to the lower reaches of the Italian Alps.

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The island of Sardinia participates in the Raduno delle Maschere Antropologiche with more rural folk masks that are linked to the animal word. The conflict between man and his subconscious beast is played out by the Boes e Merdules (minute 5.39). From the Ottana area of Sardinia, the segment is acted out by the Boes (the ox) and the Merdules (his human captor). The ox wears a beautiful and graceful mask made from aromatic wood with long horns and painted symbols. It represents good luck and prosperity. But the animal is viciously followed by the Merdules who wears an ugly mask with distorted and painfully contorted human features carved into dark wood. The ugly shepherd tries to domesticate the helpless animal. He uses a whip and a stick (su mazzuccu) to do so. The actors depict the ongoing human conflict between instinct and intellect.

Another fascinating group of masks comes from the town of Aliano in Basilicata. The actors dress in long johns with rudimentary but grotesque papier-mâché masks (minute 6.20) that are characterized by protruding animal horns. These horns are said to exorcise evil spirits prior to Lent. They march to the sound of a unique instrument called the cupa-cupa that I also viewed at the Tricarico museum of folk art earlier that morning. A stick pushes air out of a dried cow’s bladder emitting a flat base beat.

The neighboring region of Calabria is home to a special troop of musicians who play zampogna bagpipes (minute 7.01) made from dried sheep carcasses. This is one of the most curious indigenous musical instruments used in Italy and its music is usually associated with folkloric Christmas hymns.

Actors from the region of Molise once again explore the conflict between animal and man. The Deer Man (Uomo Cervo or Gl’Cierv in local dialect) represents the inner animal that remains a constant source of trouble and tension for the human soul. He symbolizes our violent, irrational and wild side (minute 7.53).

The evening concluded with one of my favorite Italian folk singers Antonio Guastamacchia, who was born in Tricarico, and his Concerto dei Tarantolati. The music genre is called pizzica and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves ethnic folk music.


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