The Puglia Diaries

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

La Festa della Madonna

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My last week in Molfetta coincided with the Festa della Madonna, the annual festival to celebrate the Virgin Mary. I’ve already written about how the Molfettesi go all out for their saints at Easter time but the 8th of September is the biggest day of the year.

The Madonna dei Martiri is apparently the protector of fishermen and therefore everything is done to give her the party she deserves. The festivities go on for three days, huge light structures are mounted and market stalls selling every imaginable product extend along the port. A Ferris wheel and other fairground rides are set up near the sea and flocks of people flood into the city. Celebratory cannon fire also sounds from approximately 9 in the morning, tough for you if you want a lie in.

From the 7th to the 15th of September, a statue of the Virgin Mary travelled around the town a fair bit. Unless I’m mistaken, on the 7th she was taken from the Madonna dei Martiri Basilica over to another church on the other side of the port. Then on the 8th, some mariners go and knock on the door to collect her. The church members inside do not open the door straight away, supposedly reluctant to let her go, but then they finally relinquish her to be carried away to the sea.

There, she is loaded onto a wooden board laid across three fishing boats that must sail together to carry her around the harbour on the sea. There are flags, more cannon fire and crowds. I didn’t go to see this part of the festival: instead, we chose to go out in the evening, around 8pm, to witness her being disembarked and taken to the Cathedral. We wove between pushchairs and crowds, stalls selling t shirts and cleaning products, nougat and coconut pieces. Above our heads, the illuminations glittered in different patterns and colours. A bit of gossip for you: the people of Molfetta were very unimpressed with the lights this year, especially the switching-on ceremony that was accompanied by a Pitbull track. Perfectly tasteful for a religious festival…

We moved down towards the port and lined up along a path where the procession would be passing, carrying the Madonna. Soon enough, we saw people approaching. All the different religious confraternities of Molfetta wandered past in different coloured robes, swinging candles and golden decorations. Every now and then there would be a halt and the Ave Maria prayer would be bawled out through a megaphone to the chanting devout crowd. By the end of it, even I knew it by heart. Then the procession went ahead, only impeded by people blundering across its path or accidentally joining the parade in an ignorant attempt to get somewhere else. There were a fair few disgruntled priests that evening, as well as my personal favourite, a little boy in religious dress walking along playing on a Gameboy.

Then the Virgin Mary arrived. She was mounted on a golden structure surrounded by glittering jewels, money and even silver fish to represent her maritime protection. She extended her hand in a benevolent gesture and had an altogether happier demeanor than her Easter time counterpart. A team of men hoisted her along and then the Bishop of the city came along dressed in purple and gave everyone his blessing. Then the town politicians and the mayor came along followed by flags and a brass band.

We went for a walk along the sea, dodging small children and imitation shoes. We arrived at the disembarking point, where we found an apartment block strung with flags of the world and the connected boats that carried the Madonna on her travels. Apparently these fishermen pay around ten thousand euros each to have the honour of bearing the statue and have to steer very carefully to bring her home. Imagine if they dropped her.

At midnight that evening, there was a firework display to round off the celebrations. Watching from the sixth floor of an apartment block, we saw every red, green and blue without having to crane our necks.

I left Molfetta early on Saturday morning so I missed the final journey of the Madonna. That evening, she was taken back to her home in the Basilica until next year, accompanied by another firework show at nighttime.

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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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