The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy

Easter in Molfetta: Passion, Processions and Pizzarelli

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At school today, students and teachers alike heaved a collective sigh as normal duties resumed. The five-day holiday flew by like the traditional Easter dove (colomba): it’s back to school for two days, before a long weekend commemorating the Italian liberation. Needless to say, there was a restless atmosphere this morning as the teenagers are all very much looking forward to sleeping all morning again.

I’m very glad I stayed to see Molfetta’s Easter festivities, even if a spell of horrible weather interfered with my plans somewhat. After having been promised great things, I finally got to see some of these processions everyone was talking about and ate plenty of traditional dishes and desserts, as per usual. It seems that for the Apulians, traditions and holidays have to involve food in one way or the other. That’s just fab, but it does nothing for your figure. I was told yesterday that my face is definitely more paffuto, which is a cute little term to mean plump or chubby. Great. In response, I whacked out my new muscles. Yeah I’m no longer a weakling:

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The first experience I had of the religious rites of Easter was the procession of the Madonna Addolorata, on the Friday before Easter. The statue of the suffering Virgin Mary was to leave the church called the Purgatorio, at 4 in the afternoon, to be carried around the city for eight hours and then come back round by the port and ‘retire’ into the church again. The idea is that the Virgin is looking for Christ, knowing that something bad is going to happen, and then coming home without having found Him. I headed to the final stretch in front of the Purgatorio, just in time to see the statue make her slow approach. The statue is carried by select memebers of the Confraternita della Morte (the Confraternity of Death, which in English sounds like a terrible horror film). Following the statue of the Virgin was a black cloth, carried by more black hooded figures. They wandered in a deathly swarm, some carrying candles and some encouraging little children who were also taking part in the procession. This macabre group was followed by the band, who were playing very moving funeral marches, with brass instruments and drums. We couldn’t help being involved in the experience: even if not to the same extent as some of the molfettese gathered there in tears, I certainly felt compassion growing with every note they played. Here’s a link to one of the funeral marches composed by Amedeo Vella. Be prepared, it’s called ‘a Tear on the Grave of my Mother’ and so might kill your mood just a bit.

What impressed me was the atmosphere in the crowd gathered there. There was a kind of subdued buzz as the Madonna approached but when she was in the vicinity, a veil of sombreness fell over the street. This continued until the Virgin had climbed the steps and was safely inside the Purgatorio. Then, in true Italian style, the crowds fanned out to the various gelaterie in the vicinity to get their late night ice cream fix. The children of the procession were given juice cartons and the band stopped playing. The next processions would arrive the weekend afterwards, when we would see the statue of Jesus Christ on Friday, and then of the Madonna carrying Christ in her arms on Saturday.

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On Thursday, I made plans with my friends to go and see the sepolcri. On the day before Good Friday, all the churches in Molfetta set up candles and flowers around statues and crosses to represent the tomb of Christ. Each one is different and it’s traditional to go and visit an odd number of them (not an even number) with family and friends. As the evening approached, the clouds darkened and by the time I arrived at the Liceo Classico, it was already raining. I had to wait a little while: being infernally punctual, so unlike the majority of Italians, I always arrive ahead of everyone else. I huddled in a doorway for a while breathing in the smell of foccaccia, before I saw my friends arriving. We exchanged news and they explained the customs of the Easter weekend, including the Confraternita of Santo Stefano, who would lead the next day’s procession. It has some kind of crazy initiation process ie. you have to be related to at least 10 people who have been in the group for 10 years, be relatively high up in society and maybe even sell a kidney, who knows. In any case, it’s something taken very seriously in Molfetta, as I saw from the sepolcri.

We visited a church on Corso Umberto with a very simple layout, lilies and gold cloth, before making our way towards the central cluster of churches. We had to queue up outside Santo Stefano, because that’s where the statues would be coming from that night. After almost being murdered by a lady’s wild umbrella, we stepped inside and saw several statues of Christ, made by the sculptor .. along with incense, candles and flowers, this was a pretty elaborate sepolcro. Then we went inside the Purgatorio, where the statue of the Madonna was sitting, dressed in velvet cloth. Apparently there is a whole series of rites to prepare the Virgin for her outing, only known by a small group of married women. And she has real hair.

At this point, it was around 10pm and absolutely freezing. I was actually shocked by the sea wind that buffeted us around ,and the on-off icy rain. The weather last week was enough to make me get my thick jumpers and duffel coat out again, when I had been wearing sunglasses and reading outside just the week before. The streets of the centro storico were like wind tunnels and I got caught in the rain on the way to the gym, turning up to do exercise like a drowned mouse with a broken umbrella. My friends reassured me that it wouldn’t last and that soon I would think back to the cold longingly, as temperatures climb to unbearable levels of heat.

We tried to warm up by eating a Molfetta must-have of the Easter period, a pizzarello. Some people don’t see the point in a pizzarello and I can sort of see why: it is basically a tuna sandwich, maybe with capers and tomatoes, inside a kind of huge crunchy roll. I would agree that you can make the same thing at home, but what I find special is the tradition of it: everyone eats the same thing on Venerdì Santo, all the bakeries sell the bread, you can buy them in the street of dubious quality and every paninoteca offers its festive wares with signs in the window.

We sheltered by taking a look at the Duomo’s sepolcro, a very simple layout of white and gold. It was a nice chance to take a look at the inside of the church too: usually I avoid visiting churches in case I accidentally interrupt a service or a wedding or something. I could not deal with that level of awkwardness. When we regrouped outside the Duomo, we made a plan to get away from the sea edge because a chill wind was whipping round our ears. Someone asked where my red hat was and I had to explain the tragic fact that I cannot find it anywhere. We went to hide in a café, where I had a hot chocolate and tried to reassure the others about their level of English. This means…that we visited 4 churches, which is an even number. I can’t believe I’m still alive.

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RIP red hat, wherever you are.

The statues were due to come out of the church at 3am. But it was just. Too. Cold. Instead of self-imposed torture of kicking around in the wind for another 3 hours, we decided to reconvene the next morning to see the end of the procession. Unfortunately, the weather was against us once again and our plans were cancelled as the Madonna was taken back into the church early. The rest of my Easter weekend was to involve food, food and more food. Stay tuned to find out what specialities Puglia had to offer for Pasqua.

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Author: Elly Cooke

Recent graduate of English Literature and Italian from the University of Leeds. Book lover and part-time Italian speaker.

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