On Thursday 13 April I travelled 'backwards to Puglia', the southern-most province in Italy. In fact, I literally travelled backwards on my six hour bus trip from Rome to Taranto - it turned out that my online seat, booked for maximum visibility by me at the front, passenger side of the bus, was bizarrely the single row facing backwards! The bus was packed to the gills with people returning home for Easter, so there was nothing I could do to change the situation.
Taranto is not really a tourist destination: it is home to one of the largest steel plants in Europe, it has the second largest naval base in Italy and its old town is crumbling and totally unrestored. What brought me here was that Taranto is home to a centuries old tradition of Easter rites and processions that continue for several days. My very simplified explanation below is based on my observations, Italian conversations with my B and B host and reading an Italian guide; it is challenging to even partially understand the symbolism and meanings of these ancient rituals, but here goes....
The processions comprise two 'teams' or brotherhoods, associated with different churches in Taranto, who take turns in 14+ hour processions that move through the streets incredibly slowly, accompanied by bands playing doleful music and the periodic ringing of church bells. The blue and yellow brotherhood procession had already started when I arrived at about 2pm on Holy Thursday. My B and B host told me that this Brotherhood starts their procession on the Wednesday. You will see in the photos that the barefoot, hooded penitents walk in pairs - they are said to 'nazzicare' or rock slowly from side to side, moving only inches at a time, hence the very long duration processions. Sometime on Thursday night, the black and white brotherhood start their procession. The two brotherhoods meet, walking from different directions, at which time, they make symbolic gestures.
There are also different statues carried through the streets on shrines, again very slowly. I followed the shrine carrying the Virgin Mary that is associated with a church in the old town of Taranto. My favourite photo is the last one, in black and white, where the crowd is packed into the narrow streets of the old town, following the black statue of the Virgin Mary, with people peering down from balconies. You will see that I have converted several photos to black and white as it really seemed to suit the medieval nature of these processions.
While I certainly did not follow the processions through the night, I was fortunate to see different elements every time I walked out of my B and B over about 42 hours. The conclusion was on Saturday morning, when the black and white brotherhood knock loudly on the doors of one of the churches with a carved wooden rod with iron rings, called a troccola, asking to be let in. They then remove their hoods and apparently cry with joy and relief that the ceremony has been successfully completed for another year!
Interestingly, these processions, including the robes and rituals, have their origins in the Spanish domination of southern Italy many centuries ago. They are not an Italian tradition and do not occur outside Puglia. However, they continue today in parts of Spain. I googled Holy Week processions and it was immediately obvious that the hooded penitents (which many people think unfortunately resemble Klu Klux Klan outfits) are very similar between Puglia and Spain. The processions are not 'performed' for the tourists, but represent the living faith of the community. In earlier years, taking photos would have been strongly discouraged, but this has changed with the advent of smartphones. It has been a fascinating experience to catch a partial glimpse of the devotion and faith that supports the continuation of this centuries old tradition.
Buona Pasqua a tutti! Happy Easter to everyone!