My days in Bomarzo in 2009 did not show the town at its most industrious…or, on the contrary, perhaps it did. The end of April and the beginning of May mark holiday season in this medieval hill town of fewer than 1800 inhabitants. The third weekend of the month and the weekdays that lead up to it mark the festival of the local saint, Saint Anselm of Bomarzo, the 25th also being the national holiday of the Liberation. The following weekend embraces May Day, the international celebration of the working man and woman, which needs no explanation. A young person asked me why we don’t celebrate this holiday in the United States, conjuring up old photos of the police and the National Guard in my mind.
Both holidays (I’m not sure about the Liberation…chewing gum?) have their own traditional foods. I understand that the Biscotto di S. Anselmo is made only at that time of the year. These rings of a dryish, slightly sweet brioche dough are attractively scented with anise, although local accounts I have read mention of a great many other spices and liqueurs that go into its preparation. At first I found the Biscotto unrewarding, but by the second day, I sliced it happily enough as a quick breakfast before heading out into the campagna or into Rome on the train, feeling mildly guilty that this mundane use of the Biscotto might be disrespectful to local tradition and the sainted bishop. The bread is meant to be enjoyed in a circle of family and good friends. I can’t help confessing that that I found the communist treat more appealing, not to mention its benefits for the human organism. At this point in the spring fave are still young and fragrant, and they are best eaten raw, picked directly from their pods, and that is the tradition on May Day. Basta che si combina con pezzettini di pecorino romano: in good comradely fashion one eats the fava beans raw with the sharp, salty regional sheep’s milk cheese. That’s all there is to it. There are of course many variants. You can parboil the fava pods for a minute, no more, before extracting the beans, or you can take them out and boil them—which I do not recommend when they are young. You can eat them as a salad with extra virgin olive oil and lemon and flakes of pecorino. There is no orthodoxy in fave e pecorino, especially if you decide to celebrate the holiday in a top restaurant.
The real festival, however, at Bomarzo, is a feast of words—and I should note that words are available in limitless quantity all year round—but they reach a peak on holidays. You don’t hear people singing in the streets in Italy anymore, just this endless chiacchierata. Our apartment was on the Piazza della Repubblica, the name of which conjures up the vast nineteenth century spaces in Rome, Florence, Parma, etc. In contrast, Bomarzo’s medieval Piazza della Repubblica is quite small, a suitably proportioned theater for local male gossip. As we look out our door, the principal bar, actually a circolo, open to members only, stands to the left, and its owner, Alberto, is the man to ask about the town and what’s going on, although you will probably learn more in the waiting room of the local dentist. I only understood the true nature of the urban space when my son and I returned from a nocturnal stroll, long after the piazzisti had dispersed and the bar closed, and I realized that our voices were amplified. There was a symphonic resonance to our voices, even in the intertwined English and Italian sentences we were speaking a quatrocchi
To the north of the house there is another piazza, closed in by houses on three sides, otherwise open to Bomarzo’s magnificent prospect of the Tiber Valley. From there more sober discourse flows, during the hour before it’s considered appropriate to proceed to Alberto’s bar. Some remain, however, and the hum of conversation is never restricted to one point of the compass. To the south, kindly Augusta holds forth on her steps, and it is from this direction that female voices entered the fugue, placing a keystone on a perfect Ivesian cacophony. Now the words themselves in this composition are not chosen with any particular care, often they are casually enunciated, mumbled alla Romana, and the logic behind the propositi is respectfully vague. One constant leitmotif returns again and again: “Io non so…MA…!” What more incontrovertible marriage of bald assertion and a disclaimer of authority could there be, what more forceful innuendo? “Ma insomma…”
The interchange has its own Verdian color and fervor, but it never reaches a dramatic climax. Forgotten kinships are not discovered; the daughter is never cursed; the hero is never exiled; the oppressed are never freed. First, Alberto decides to close the bar and go home to his family, and the conversation in the piazza ceases. Augusta’s cohort, however, are not limited by the flow of wine and grappa, often continue on past midnight. While this chiacchierata is accepted as a quotidian nutriment of the soul, it is fully set loose by the holiday. Of course most of the ladies are retired or grandmothers, but their performance gains in Schwung und Glanz on days when no one works.
While in these doctrinally enfeebled times May Day is no more than an excuse for a free-form weekend off with the family, Saint Anselm is honored with an elaborately planned celebration which combines many facets of human leisure and religious observance, not to mention a Special Event, which attracts visitors from all around and clogs the roads with vehicles well out into the sorrounding fields. Since 1978, a year before the first modern Venice Carnevale, the Bomarzesi have held a Palio, a medievally costumed horse race, in honor of the saint. While this has nothing of the pedigree of the Siena Palio, everyone dives into it with some measure of devotion, enthusiasm, and entrepreneurship. Locals can’t get away without buying a Biscotto, and visitors feel the same compulsion to bring one home, or perhaps some other treasure of local craft. But this is nothing like the flashy commerce that has developed in Venice. Bomarzo has no restaurants in its centro storico and few shops. Out-of-town visitors have a choice of a few establishments in the modern section of Bomarzo or in the outlying territory, some of which are excellent. Otherwise there are only the two or three porchetta vans at the Palio, whose offerings are plentiful but mediocre, a pale reflection of what roast pig can be. The shops that open specially for the festival, exclusively to promote and sell the Santo Biscotto, seem to have been serving as garages the rest of the year. There is in fact no particular craft that is uniquely associated with Bomarzo, except those practised over 2500 years ago by the Etruscans, and of course you can’t buy those in shops so easily. If you want to buy Etruscan arts and crafts, you’ll have to find out a friend of a tombarolo, and I couldn’t possibly aid in such a transaction in the Review, even if I did know such people, which I do not.
Unlike the Carnevale, the Sagra del Biscotto, the Corteo Storico (a parade in renaissance costumes), and the Palio mark the celebration of a saint’s day, and that Holy Mass is celebrated in the Church of S. Anselmo not only on each of the three days of the festival, but on the two preceding days as well. You will not find this S. Anselmo in the Catholic Encyclopedia or in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints. The Bomarzese S. Anselmo is a shadowy figure, said to have been born some time in the VI Century AD, probably in the neighboring town which is now known as Mugnano, into a wealthy and pious family. When his parents died, Anselmo renounced his property and dedicated himself to a life of penitence and prayer. The people of Bomarzo, at a loss as to whom they should elect as their next bishop, gathered in church and prayed to the Lord for guidance. They heard a voice that told then to elect Anselmo, although he was not ordained. His most famous miracle is the resurrection of a boy from the dead by making the sign of the cross over him. This is the scene depicted on the gonfalone carried at the head of the procession held in his honor, although it may seem ambiguous to viewers who are not familiar with the story. Another of his miracles concerns Totila, the king of the Ostrogoths. When Anselmo learned that Totila and his army were approaching to capture Bomarzo and sack it, he confronted the barbarian in the field and told him to retreat. In response to Totila’s high-handedness, Anselmo invoked the Lord, and “an unclean spirit entered the soldiers, tearing them apart mentally and physically unto death.” Anselmo died peacefully on April 24, year unknown, and his body was placed in the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, then dedicated to the Mother of God.
Like many central elements in Christian traditions, the Biscotto, with its yonic form, compared by Italians to a ciambella, a large, loosely formed doughnut, has its origins in pagan antiquity, when cakes made in the form of male and female genitalia were an essential part of religion, especially in spring. The process of preparing the Biscotto, as described in the 2010 program of the festival, makes it seem like a fertility ritual in itself, although tradition says that the origins of what is now more of a sweet was in a spiced bread S. Anselmo himself distributed to the poor of Bomarzo. Following ancient peasant traditions, natural yeast is sought out, kept, and allowed to grow, until the time is right for the preparation of the dough. The correct portions are distributed in special boxes, on which a propitiatory sign of the Cross has been impressed. After this the women prepare the a sort of custard, which locals call the “zozza,” (=”nasty stuff) consisting of a mixture of liqueurs, eggs, sugar, oil, wine, anise, lemon peel, and salt. They combine this with the yeast, and add flour until they reach just the right consistency. At this point the dough is divided into portions weighing about a kilo each, and these are formed into “ciambelle.” Now they are ready for the second rising. As the text says, “In homes, the Biscotto becomes the guest of honor. People sleep on couches and easy chairs, allowing it the warmth of the marriage bed. This is where the phase of the anxious waiting of the women begins, the consultations, the vigils, waiting for the Biscotto “to turn out right,” that is, be ready for cooking. And when the moment arrives, people run to the oven with wooden pallets, on which the precious dough has been arranged. Here begins a noisy coming and going from door to door, through the streets of the area…people take turns running to wach others’ assistance…because the Biscotto means this as well, a social bond, a pretext for togetherness, for holding a Festa.”
The entire Festa proceeds in this way. On the first day the horses are selected, and the selected horses are assigned to each of the five rioni (wards) of Bomarzo by lottery. This took place right under our noses in the Piazza della Repubblica. In the evening there is a procession in historical costume to the Duomo, where a solemn benediction of the Biscotto and the Palio takes place. On Saturday morning the local band, La Banda Polymartium “G. Federici”, marches through the streets with its out-of-tune music and then accompanies a procession with the relics of S. Anselmo to the Duomo, where the Solemn Mass of S. Anselmo is celebrated. Later in the afternoon the Banda accompanies the Majorettes of Bomarzo in the Piazza della Repubblica. In the evening there is a rock concert and at midnight, fireworks. On the third day the Palio is cerimonially opened, and the horses are blessed in front of the Duomo, where Solemn Mass is celebrated. Later in the afternoon, the Sagra del Biscotto and the corteo storico (historical parade) take place, followed by the Palio itself. This in turn is followed by the lottery of S. Anselmo and a Te Deum of thanksgiving held by the winning rione. We felt some loyalty to the Rione Dentro, which came last. The winning rione were a vulgar and arrogant lot from the new part of town, who behaved abominably at their victory celebrations at the local pizzeria, Il Quadrifoglio.
I have seen this myself, or only a brief segment of it, which I misinterpreted entirely. Early one morning we were awakened by a terrific row emerging from one of the houses across the street. There was shouting and banging of metal on metal. Not succeeding in falling back to sleep, I slowly arose and peered out of the window. I saw a van parked by our neighbors’ door, waiting. Suddenly men emerged from the house carrying a litter, over which a sheet had been thrown, concealing a form that seemed human. There were various people standing around, and the van looked official, as if it had been sent by the police or the coroner. There seemed no reason for me to call any of the authorities. The litter was carefully placed in the back of the van, with more care, perhaps, than one might devote to a corpse; the rear doors remained open, ready to receive another victim. The people waited. A few minutes later the men brought down a second litter, also shrouded, but this time a corner of the sheet was blown upwards by the motion, revealing the unmistakeable pale curve of a Biscotto on its way to the ovens.
If I ever see the ritual again, I’ll understand, but then it reminded me of a story my father used to tell me about his childhood on the South Side of Chicago. The Millers lived next to a Greek family, who slaughtered their Paschal lambs in the back yard. There was a disturbance, the sound of scuffling, deathly cries, and even blood spattered over the fence. It was only an early moment in the Easter celebrations. But that was long before my time. I did experience Easter in Athens once, back in the Papadopoulos era. On Maundy Thursday, if I remember correctly, the streets were full of men carrying on their shoulders lamb carcasses wrapped in newspapers. To fulfil the demand, lambs had been taken off the market until this day. It was disquieting to see these crowds of men, all burdened with the same newspaper-wrapped cylinders. Over a decade later I was living in Isola Farnese, just over forty miles southwest of Bomarzo, where the grandmothers of the town were entrusted with the care of the Easter lambs. These were much smaller creatures, true baby lambs, which the women carried in their arms, feeding them with nippled bottles, as if they were human infants. I never observed this on my recent visits to Bomarzo…but Easter is after all relevant to our subject. S. Anselmo’s Day this year conflicted with Easter, and the celebrations have been postponed, stretched out over a week, which means that you can still go to Bomarzo and obtain a Biscotto, if they haven’t been sold out. The Palio was to have taken place on Monday, but it was cancelled because of bad weather. There is a rock concert tonight (Friday, April 29), the band concerts and procession of the relics tomorrow, and the lottery and a musical meditation on Easter Sunday evening, May 1, in the Duomo. Presumably the daylight hours will be given over to post-Marxist picnics.