A very long time ago Martha and I found ourselves in the earthen bowl that makes up the cave house (sassi) section of the town of Matera. It was the second of July. It was stiflingly hot. Little did we know until we reached a main square that a festa was in store for us; then the streets decorated with the typical bank of festival lights came into view. Then sundown arrived without the usual relief from the heat and weary vendors struggled to set up their wares along the main street.
We had no clue what was going to happen. There was a certain gravity to the situation provided by the swarms of the various types of law enforcement officers you find in Italy.
Yet nothing, exactly, seemed to be going on. Costumed men on horses—the Knights of Santa Maria della Bruna—paraded through town, stopping to chat with locals while television cameras panned for interesting angles. Dignitaries sat proudly in ancient Cadillacs. People gathered, but mostly in front of the local gelato shop where the fight to keep the doors closed was lost and the line snaking out into the parade route shuffled defiantly toward their goal, which by this time had become a wilted cone dripping with melted ice cream. The electricity, not able to keep up with the demand the freezers were putting on it, lent a festive air to the proceedings by flickering the naked bulb lights on and off, the off times increasing as the night grew darker but not cooler.
Then this single, odd float—or rather, as we were to find out later, the The Triumphal Chariot began to be paraded around the square. It was intricately produced, we were told, out of paper maché under the tutelage of a local artisan, an old coot. The chariot took a year to paste together. It made the whole route through town. The people watched it intently; the television cameras rolled. But still, there seemed to be nothing much actually going on.
And it was so long ago, that the crappy little film camera I had in my sweaty shirt pocket could barely cut through the gloom:
Then the float appeared for another lap. This time it was surrounded not only by a few knights, but by Basilicata’s entire allotment of carabinieri. The crowd pressed closer. Excitement filled the sticky air as best it could.
We had just about given up on this unlikely devotion to the brown Madonna and her chariot and had started to shuffle back to our hotel when suddenly a crowd of young ruffians in street clothes jumped the float’s vigilant guards and a scuffle ensued. Punches were flying and people had even abandoned their quest for gelato to watch it.
Eventually, the toughest of the ruffians made it through the wall of guards and started to pull pieces off the float. Fellini’s Vitelloni had turned the tables!
And the crowd….cheered! Yes, as the guards abandoned all hope, young and old flailed away at the float, grabbing souvenir pieces of it until it was reduced to a few flopping wings of chicken wire with tissues stuck to them.
Shaking our heads we befuddled Americans headed back to the Albergo Italia where the staff was watching the odd goings on on the television. They were unbelievably happy at this odd turn of events. The television announcer was also happy; in his joy he began to summarize the events that had happened before us. The youth, representing new ideas and rebirth, had torn apart the old, established, authoritarian order. It wasn’t a bad thing, it was the path to better things. And this sign of rebirth meant that fertility would come to the fields, and the hard life being scratched out of Basilicata’s soil would be a little less tedious with the harvest to come.
Satisfied that we had finally seen what we’d come to see, we wearily mounted the stairs to our room. After waiting for the advertised fireworks until midnight, we finally hit the sack.
But as the unrelenting church bells struck 2 am, a noise had us bolting upright in our beds like the spat-crack of an assault rifle. We ran to the window.
In the midst of what sounded like bombs bursting in air, the ravine across from us burst with fire and light. Suddenly there was an explosion in the sky and the cave houses, the sassi below us shimmered with ever changing light. The fireworks had hit with a vengeance and the dry grasses, having lost the struggle to live in the intense Basilicata heat, had become the victim. Fire rimed the sassi zone. By morning, it would burn itself out.
It was a fitting conclusion to the Festa della Madonna Bruna and the most amazing fireworks spectacle I’ve seen.
And the festa has meaning for everyone. If you pay attention.
The Festa della Madonna Bruna happens in Matera, Italy on the second of July.
If you’re in Matera at other times, you may wish to visit the Museo Immersiveo della Bruna where there is a cart to see and explanations of what is going on culturally during the festival. Information and Tickets
Today we have better photography machines and so here is a video of last year’s festival.