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Each year there are hundreds of village festivals scattered across the Italian countryside-celebrations of everything from a single strain of wheat to a local olive to ancient tribal battles. Most are named for one saint or another, but the roots are far older than the arrival of the Christian god. Writer Frank Browning has been visiting and reporting on the spirit of these festival, or feste , as they are known in Italian, most recently in a fishing village called Camogli, just south of Genoa.

Fish Feste

By Frank Browning, 7/2/2001

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Midnight. Soft waves lap against polished black beach stones. Mildly inebriated sports fans celebrate the latest Genovese soccer victory. Young townspeople pound three-inch nails into card-board-covered wooden frames that will be attached to a huge tower being erected at the water's edge.

Local: "A big, a big, a very big fire, tomorrow night, for the fest of the town, San Fortunato."
San Fortunato. Patron saint of the sailors. This town, built on a succession of curving cliffs above the bay, has been a center of sailing and ship-building for centuries, certainly since the Renaissance, and likely even in Roman times. Tomorrow night will bring the penitential procession honoring Fortunato. Sunday will bring a gargantuan fish-fry.

But tonight, Friday night, there is still a lot of work to be done on the two great beach structures that will contain the fires.

Local: "There is another structure the other side of the beach. It is submarine...there."
A submarine and a tower. The tower is a sort of stage-set observatory with a mock telescope to watch the heavens. At the other end of the beach rests a wood and cardboard mock-up of a submarine. Dan Hostetler, an American businessman working in Milan, has been coming to the Comogli festival since he first moved to Italy seven years ago.
Dan: "Over on this side you have the observatory. This year it's an observatory. Last year it was a telephone. These are themes that the two dominant neighborhoods choose in their contest against each other. This year they chosen this observatory. You can see it's got a telescope. It's a good three stories high. It goes up to the third window in the church. And this is filled with wood, representing things that people want to forget about from the year before. That section of the beach represents the Porto neighborhood. This side is Pinetto, and they're represented by this submarine that comes from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."
By midnight Saturday, both the tower and the submarine will be set ablaze, ignited into bonfires so big, so hot their flames will leap 40 feet into the air. Davide was supervising some of the carpentry.
Davide: "It was a way to burn away all the guilt, with fire. We burn all the evil things of the last year, burning the wood, all the rubble that remain in the houses for all the year. So, you're free of guilt? Well, yeah, tomorrow..."
To burn away the guilt...of family feuds and business betrayals, of mothers not thanked enough and fathers forgotten, of sons and brothers lost in battle, of love unacknowledged, of apologies not spoken. Here on this one night all can be purged in the collective fires of a town's rubble, drawn from the closets and store rooms of each household. Chairs, doors, pictures, toys, anything that could or would burn will be carted dutifully to the beach and tossed into one or the other of these two symbolic structures, one poised toward the heavens, the other to the depths of the sea.

It's breakfast the next day, and Camogli is buzzing. Volunteer carpenters are pounding and painting at the beach, pipe cutters and metal workers at the harbor docks are finishing off a great steel platform where the Sunday fish fry will take place in a brand new, gas-fired kettle twelve feet wide and a yard deep. Street venders are setting up along the beach promenade. But it is nightfall that everyone is waiting for, when the procesione, the sacred procession of San Fortunato begins.

Street venders have set booths along the scant promenade between the town and the beach, and customers line up 20 deep at the bakeries to buy Camogli's famous focaccia, the thin yeast bread covered with tangy goat cheese, grilled eggplant, squash blossoms or plain olive oil. A few tread a half mile up craggy mountain steps to the Church of San Rocco, which holds its own festa in the summer blessing the local dogs for their fidelity. Others pass by the Sanctuary of the Forest that houses hundreds of ex voto paintings, offered by the survivors of ships lost at sea.

By nightfall, around 9 o'clock the procesione, the sacred procession in honor of San Fortunato, begins. Penitential processions form the heart of nearly all Italian feast days. They are at once Catholic and pagan, constructed on the remnants of Roman, or even pre-Roman, rituals of propitiation to the gods, much as medieval churches were often constructed from the walls and columns of Roman temples. In Camogli, the procession honors San Fortunato, in hope that he will induce good fortune from both the land and the sea. The music from the town band drifts in from the narrow canyon like streets. Behind the band a stout middle age man appears, his feet stepping to the rhythm of the music. A fifteen-foot cross with a ceramic Christ sways above him, and Dan points out that the bottom of the cross is balanced in a leather pouch harnessed to the man's back.

Dan: "This is a type of self flagellation. Right now they're changing, these are outstanding members of the community. They're changing the weight, and they can only carry it so long, and afterwards they give out and they change it to the next potential bearer that is right behind him, and they're doing it right now right in front of us."
Each bearer can only move a few yards with the cross because of its weight-upwards of 800 pounds.
Dan: "Perfectly balanced. It's got to be perfectly balanced. This giant crucifix of Jesus here. If it's not perfectly balanced and they don't maintain that balance, it'll crash to the ground, which will be the ultimate embarrassment in this person's life."
Guilt. Penitence. Exuberance. All fold together as darkness falls, the hubbub subsides and a coordinated music and fireworks show begins. The entire village of 7,000 people and another 5,000 visitors pack the Via Garibaldi overlooking the beach as sky and sea shimmer with a fireworks show that even the French visitors later admitted was grander, subtler, more awesome than anything they had seen in Paris on Bastille Day. For over an hour, 12,000 people stand nearly silent, transfixed by the music and the spectacle, lost in a trance, until at last the entire five-story campanile of Santa Maria Assunta glows scarlet, as though consumed by flames. A fireball shoots down a fuse line from the top of Medieval basilica to the first of the two beach structures, the observatory, setting it aflame.
Local: "Now watch. It'll travel from that observatory, down the fire wire into our Nautilus and ignite our bon fire here."
And then, as the purifying flames begin to consume the two structures, and release the year's accumulated guilt, a final fire wire ignites and rises toward the campanile, signaling the final fireworks shower over the bay, illuminating the full structure of the church.

Flames from the two bonfires are soon reaching 30, 40, 50 feet into the air. Near us, by the Nautilus submarine, the forest service steadily sprays the air to keep any floating sparks from igniting the fronds of two ancient pines whose limbs stretch out over the street. Below, on the beach, what looks to be a huge book beside the submarine starts to burn. With Dan Hostetler translating, Gianni Verdina, Camogli's police chief, who worked on the construction team, spoke about why they built the book and the submarine.

Gianni: "Last year we had the horrible incident of the Russian submarine that remained submerged and all the soldiers died below, and so we've chosen the nautilus to represent this event, and it's written over here beside the boat."
What is written on the surface top of the book are the last words found on the body of one of the drowned Russian sailors.

The next day it is all fun and food and festivity. Fisherman have contributed two tons of mixed seafood - all free - and the kettle of olive oil is bubbling away, a dozen metal baskets of fish floating across the surface.

Even though a heavy mist has settled over the hills, the spirit of the town is ebullient. The Camogli festival has become a kind of addiction for Dan Hostetler and his family. Indeed the whole world of Italian town festivals - from the orange war of Ivrea in the north, to the tuna matanza on the west of Sicily - has profoundly affected this mid-western family's understanding of what it means to live in a community, what it means to inhabit the past, what it means to have a passion for place.

Dan: "We've just found ourselves being pulled into hese festivals more than anything. It's woven into the fabric of life here, into daily conversations, into their encounters with each other. It defines the interactions they ha ve between each other, where they live, their interactions with neighborhoods they consider friendly or unfriendly, clean or dishonest. These are the communities we find tht exist below the surface everywhere, and we've just gotten totally sucked into it."
So sucked in that on top of his day job as a management consultant, he has created an annotated web site describing hundreds of festivals throughout Italy, broken down by region and month. Sometimes he muses about turning his passion for these festivals into his living. Which may be a mark of just how Italian this middle-aged midwesterner from Ohio has become.

It would be easy to suppose that Camogli and its people are quaint, old fashioned sorts from the remote Italian outback, anachronistic mystics caught up in the superstitions of medieval Catholicism. They are not. Camogli maintains its own snappy website.

A fair number of its residents commute thirty minutes into Genoa to work, and the four-star Hotel Cernobio de Dogi is elegant by any standards. People here recognize the tourist appeal of their festivals, and they even rent out their enormous fish-frying kettle, complete with its computerized temperature controls, to other towns.

And yet the procession and the spellbinding fireworks and the bonfires that follow them are not created for the tourists and the American visitors. There is, as in so many Italian festivals, a primal urge, a profound spirit of place, what the Romans called genius loci, that washes into the town on the lapping waves, that tumbles down the fog-shrouded mountain cliffs, that ignites in the symbolic beach fires, and creates, beneath the smoke and the fog, a quiet air of the collective sublime.

In Camogli, I'm Frank Browning for The Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources:

Dan's Italian festival site can be found at: www.hostetler.net/italy.htm.

Camogli's official site can be found at: http://www.camogli.it/.

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