Art & Culture

The traditional procession where the portrait of the Saint is uplifted

The celebration in honor of the patron saint.

By Vito Pinto, cover photo by Lello d’Anna

Some old traditions are still very present in the South of Italy, even if modernity is striking with force in our daily lives. One of those traditional events is that the Catholic Church celebrates one month before the patron saint (of a city, a village, a community), and it’s a reminder for everyone that the holiday is approaching. On this occasion, the priest, accompanied by the altar boys and the community, leads a procession where a fabric with the Saint’s image on it is shown for everybody. During this walk, people pray to the Saint until they reach the parochial territory where the effigy is raised and stays for a month for the congregation. This celebration goes almost unnoticed in big cities around Italy, but that meets strong participation in the smaller communities, where everyone knows each other and where the bond with the saint patron is profound.

John the Baptist

Following tradition, Vietri Sul Mare raised the portrait of John the Baptist, the patron saint of the coastal city, on 24 May. This year the mayor Giovanni De Simone, a young man respectful of the local heritage, commissioned the artist Franco Raimondi to create a new piece that showed the Saint on both sides of the cloth and even a new painting. In these pieces, the Forerunner is showed focused on announcing “Ecce Agnus Dei.” A “living” canvas where the Saint seems intent to protect his city and admonishing enemies.

Ice cream, the sweet main event

A double celebration went down this year: the festivity itself and a new portrait of the Saint. In the past, this event would also be accompanied by another peculiar aspect: the appearance of ice cream. Unlike the present days indeed, historically, ice cream would only be produced in the summertime because it was the only period when people would consume it thanks to the weather. To eat it during the winter is a modern days’ indulgence since our culture is exceptionally consumerist. It was a custom for the bar “Centrale” owned by Pietro Cretella to start selling his famous “spumone” right on 24 May. The prominent place in the city center prepared this type of ice cream in metal molds adding sponge cake soaked in liquor and sour cherry to create a unique product. Then, the various flavors of ice cream would be scooped out and cut into slices for everyone to enjoy. Each “spumone” was then accompanied by other flavors to create the perfect taste experience: the cassata Sicilian spumone, the chocolate or coffee or nuts spumone, to name a few.  Different flavors were offered so that everyone could choose according to their preferences; the only one who didn’t accept any unique mixing was the Lemon (made with the Amalfi Coast Sfusato) spumone who was only served with strawberry ice cream.

A detail of Vietri sul Mare

Summertime

So, the combination of the spumone of Zi’ Pietro and the celebration of John the Baptist would always sign the beginning of the summer season. Another local tradition was that the altar for the festivity had to be adorned by the Notari family, owner of the wool mill of the same name, which the floods destroyed in 1954. The Notari used to bring in an enormous quantity of pink and blue hydrangeas to cover the 18th-century high altar of the church, on which a painting of the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and Saint Irene was placed. The caption “Antonio De Rosa pinxit 1736” was obvious nonetheless.

The traditional dinner

The air that surrounded the city the night before the event was full of the typical spicy and juicy scent of vinegar, the main ingredient for the cooking of the spleen. On every family table, indeed, would appear a rich feast to celebrate 24 June. First would include stuffed spleen (‘mbuttunata), ziti or schiaffoni (types of local pasta) with ragù sauce, followed by steak roasted over charcoal with a side salad (mainly lettuce). In the end, the spumone of Zi’ Pietro couldn’t be present.

Saint John’s kids

The band parade awakened people on the day of the celebration. Memories of my youth include the names of the well-known bands from the center and south of Italy who, year after year, were called upon to cheer the day’s festivities and accompany the procession of the patron saint. Until the “Saint John’s kids” came along: a group of fifty young kids from Vietri Sul Mare who learned how to play an instrument thanks to the encouragement of Father Luigi Magliano. Thanks to the collaboration of Antonio Avallone, a music teacher who founded the Music School at the Community Centre, a dream became a reality. Many still remember the effort of Father Luigi to buy musical instruments for those young students, but the reward was significant.  Among them, indeed, a considerable number went to attend the conservatoire and obtained a degree, entering the music teaching world. The first performance of the “Saint John kids” was the day of the patron saint of Vietri Sul Mare. It was a very emotional day for the families of the kids involved and the whole community, who could finally count on a band whose members were all locals. Their only requirement towards the city was to play for free during the parochial festivities.

The beauty of simplicity

That festive day on 24 June in the early 1960s is permanently engraved in the minds of the people of Vietri, who proudly watched those youngsters play the accompanying marches during the procession. The concert they held to close the event was full of people, who enjoyed their time right before the sky was filled with beautiful fireworks. Maybe somebody could say it’s a simple story but, once upon a time, that simplicity was the most authentic thing ever. During those days, everyone knew everybody, sometimes even too much, and being neighbors meant to be considered part of the family; that was the way of living in these villages. The small, simple things filled the hearts of people to the fullest.

(Translation by Michela Pandolfi)

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