Monday, October 3, 2005

Ceremonial Festivals and Processions

Katherine Liu
Honors in Rome - Summer 2005

I. Introduction

The significance of Festivals and Processions

Festivals and ceremonial processions are as much a part of the Roman identity today as they have been for thousands of years. In this city little excuse is needed to take to the streets in celebration. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time you may witness any of a wide spectrum of festivities ranging from folk tradition to relic adoration, victory marches to miracle commemoration, joyful celebrations to solemn processions.

The phrase “ceremonial processions and festivals” is vague and warrants a more exact definition. Consider for a moment some festivals or processions that you might observe in modern American culture. Some events suggested during the presentation include the Macy’s Day Parade, Sea-Fair and the Super Bowl. All these events share a few common elements that motivate their yearly renewal. First we note a definition of time and space. Festivals almost always occur at regular intervals, often annually, and during the same time of the year. This practice defines time in two ways. First, it keeps track of the amount of time that has passed since the initial celebration. For example, this year sports fans will watch Super Bowl XL. The “XL” signifies this is the fortieth Bowl since the event’s first installment. Secondly, this practice can alert the community to a near-future occurrence. The Macy’s Day Parade marks Thanksgiving Day, but it’s also a signal that the Christmas shopping season will soon begin.

Space, like time, is also defined in two different ways. Festivals are held at the same location or in similar venues each year. Ceremonial processions physically take the participants through a set route which changes little over time. This leads us to another common element of festivals and processions: the building and perpetuation of a community identity. The ritualistic movement of a ceremonial procession defines the space of the community while at the same time it unites the past to the present as people follow in their predecessors’ footsteps. Also, festivals are a time set aside for renewing tradition and reminding a people of their collective past.

In considering festivals and processions particular to Rome I noticed a few addition elements which work well into themes we have seen in this course. We have discussed attempts by the church to erase a pagan past by adapting a Christian face to a pre-Christian establishment. Many of the temples we have left today survive because they were at one time converted into churches. The Temple of Portanus is one example of this process. In the same way the early Christian church often adopted holidays from the pagan calendar in an effort to stamp out the tradition. The appearance of the festivals may have changed, but other elements such as the intent, location and time of the year often did not. Festivals and processions are also often employed as a means of social control. For the content of this report the entity of control is most often the Catholic Church.

A short history of Christian Processions in Rome

In examining the current festivals and ceremonial processions of Rome it is important to understand a bit of their history. The first recorded Christian procession in Rome was in the 4th century C.E. By this time members were able to associate themselves with the religion publicly without fear of persecution. Later, in the 12th century C.E. the church suppressed all forms of public theater. Private theaters did exist, but were reserved for the wealthy and the nobility. The Church preferred to control such public events for the masses and therefore was the only source of what festivities the people had available to them.

Many early Christian festivals centered on the celebration of miracles. Tales and evidence of these miracles were often manufactured by the church. Miracles provided spectacle, a confirmation of faith and renewal of public interest. Relics associated with a miracle drew in audiences and, more importantly, the audience’s money. Donations came from both the individuals and by churches hoping to draw a larger crowd to their congregation. Such festivities also sought to educate the masses. Processional floats often bore depictions of religious doctrine.

II. Ancient Festivals


The Lupercalia is notable in that it is a pagan festival that lasted long into Christian times while avoiding this process of “Christianization.” It is a fertility festival that occurs annually on February 15th. In the ancient Roman calendar the month of February occurred later in the year making this a springtime celebration. The Lupercalia is such a long running tradition that its origins are unknown. In its first documentation in the 1st century B.C.E. the scholar recording it could not specify the festival’s origins. It is also unknown exactly to which god the festival is dedicated. Ovid suggested Faunus, who presided over woodlands, while Livy instead suggested Innus, a god who seems to be of Livy’s own invention. Current scholars point to Mars, most likely for the festival’s connection to the Palatine Hill and the story of Romulus and Remus.

The name for the festival comes from the Lupercal, the cave on the Palatine Hill where the she-wolf was said to have nursed the divine infant founders of the city. An ancient rite consisting of two colleges of priesthoods would meet at the Lupercal cave. Here they would sacrifice two male goats and a dog. Vestal Virgins would bake sacrificial cakes for the occasion from the first ears of corn of the last year’s harvest. Two youths, one belonging to each of the colleges, would have their foreheads smeared with the bloody knife from the slaughter of the victims. They would then have their heads wiped clean with wool dipped in milk. For a reason lost to the ages this would oblige the youths to laugh and becoming merry. After feasting on the sacrificial meat they would girt themselves with the skins of the slaughtered goats and fashion leather throngs from the hides. These throngs were named “Februs.” The two youths would then run around the base of the Palatine, each leading one of the colleges. Any woman they encountered would be struck with the Februs. Woman would often place themselves in the path of the youths, hoping to receive a blow. A solid strike to the skin was said to ensure fertility.

The festival was officially stamped out in 494 C.E. by Pope Gelasius I and the day was changed to a celebration of the purification of the Virgin Mary. However, the ceremony remained very much alive through underground cult cultures and is still practiced today in many cities across Europe.

Being a spring time festival the Lupercalia functions as a temporal marker, alerting the community to the coming summer. Rome, both in legend and in archeological evidence, is said to have begun with a community on the Palatine Hill. By running around its base the two youths define the physical boundaries of the ancient settlement. We can also see the control the Catholic Church can exert on the people by Pope Gelasius’s attempt to stamp out the festival.

Local Folk Festivals

Festa de' Noantri

Although officially instituted in 1927, its origins are much older. This is a festival particular to a district of Rome called Trastevere (tras – TAY – veh – rayh). To understand the significance of this festival it is important to have some background on this historic quarter of Rome and the people who live there. “Trastevere” in Latin literally means “across the Tiber.” Back in the time of the empire this was the district where the captured victims of war brought to Rome from abroad were placed to live. For a long time it was connected to the main city of Rome by only one bridge named Ponte Sisto. Because of this exclusion from the main community the people of Trastevere have built up a strong sense of identity. Even today if you ask a person who is native to this district where they are from they will respond, ‘I am not Italian. I am not Roman. I am Trasteveren.’

“Noantri” is a Trasteveren dialectal word that derives from “noi”, a strengthened form of the word “we”, and “antri”, meaning “others”. Therefore, Festa de’ Noantri is the “Festival of We-Others” or more appropriately the “Festival of Ourselves”. It is an eight-day long festival that begins and ends with the procession of a cedar carved Madonna figure through and around the district of Trastevere.

The origins of the Madonna are told in a colorful local legend. It is said that in 1535 fishermen working along the banks of the Tiber pulled from the water the statue of the Madonna in their nets. Transfixed by her beauty they took her to the Carmelitan friars of San Crisogono, a church in Trastevere. Later, in 1890, the Madonna was transferred to Santa Agata in Trastevere. By this time she was known as Madonna del Carmine or Beata Vergine del Carmelo (Joyful Virgin of the Carmelitans).

The opening procession occurs every year on the third Saturday in July. It lasts only a few hours, usually in the evening to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. The route takes the Madonna from Santa Agata to her original home at San Crisogono. These churches stand only 50 meters apart and a direct procession would take only minutes. But the point of a procession is never simply to travel from point A to B. A procession physically moves through the space of the community. The opening procession of the Festa de’ Noantri winds in and about the streets of Trastevere, pausing at each of the district’s churches for a blessing before moving on.

The procession is headed by a priest carrying a giant cross and another leading the people in song with a mobile amplification system. The bishop walks with members of the local government near the front of the procession. They are in turn followed by crowds of people, religious brotherhoods and local clubs. People who live along the processional route hang banners or sheets from the window and throw confetti down on the processors below.

The Madonna herself is carried by 16 men on a platform of gilded wood. Carrying the Madonna is a great honor and every year the procession leaves S. Agata a little later than scheduled because of arguments that arise because of this technicality.

The festival in the days that follow is really an occasion to renew Trasteveren traditions and sense of community. There are markets, fairs, folk songs, dances, and crafts. Wreaths of laurel are laid at the monuments of Trilussa and Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, two poets who wrote in the local dialect. Public poetry readings of their works are given during this time.

The festival ends with a second procession. For this celebration the Madonna takes on the name “Madonna Fiumarola.” “Fiume” is Italian for river, alluding to the statue’s origins. The procession moves by boat down the Tiber, starting at Ponte Sant’Angelo (near the Vatican) and ending at Isola Tiberina (the island in the middle of the Tiber). The bishop and the Madonna ride in the first boat. This is followed by crafts filled with groups of various procession participants. People walk along the river banks or wait on bridges, throwing confetti on the procession below. When the procession approaches Ponte Sisto it meets a large crowd. This is where many of the people of Trastevere wait for the Madonna Fiumarola. Long ago it was at this traditional entrance to the district that the procession began. However, sometime in the past a storm washed the boat landing away and the procession’s starting point had to be moved upstream. But true to their nature the people of Trastevere know where their procession is supposed to begin and they still gather here today. At Isola Tiberina the boats pause to bless the patients in the island’s hospitals. The Madonna is then carried to Santa Maria, the main church in Trastevere. It is returned to Santa Agata the following morning in a very short and plain procession.

Although the focus of the Festa de’ Noantri may appear to be on the Virgin Mary, the festival is really more about building and perpetuating community traditions than it is about religion. It is fitting for this “Festival of Ourselves” to begin with a procession in which the people move together through the streets and alleys of their district. This opening procession simultaneously defines time, space and community. The concluding ceremony on the Tiber defines the boundaries of the community; both because the district is boarded on one side by the river and because of the crowds of people who still wait along Ponte Sisto for the Madonna to reach Trastevere. This act is also in part an element of defiance to the Papacy and its control over local religion. There is a boldness in the ceremony that is characteristic of the Trasteveren people. On her return trip the Madonna Fiumarola floats right past the Vatican, a procession of local Catholic subculture right past the ultimate seat of Church authority.

Modern Religious Ceremony

Holy Week Processions

Holy Week celebrations were first recorded by Christian tourists visiting the holy land in the late 4th century. These tourists took what they saw back to their homes in Europe. France and Spain integrated the customs first. The Christian community in Italy did not beginning celebrating the traditions of this week until the 8th century.

In Rome the main and most elaborate celebrations of Holy Week take place in the Vatican. Every day of the Holy Week has its own significance and set of rituals. Palm Sunday marks the week’s beginning. This day is a celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

The ceremonies of Holy Week in the Vatican are meticulous and exact. The following is an excerpt of a few minutes worth of Vatican Palm Sunday rituals:

“Some palms are arranged on the altar. The Pope's chief Sacristan, who is a bishop chosen from the Augustinian order bears one, and kneels on the steps of the throne between the deacon and subdeacon, who bear two larger palms. His Holiness reads the usual prayers over the palms, sprinkles them with holy water, and incenses them three times.
When the palms have been blessed, the Cardinal Dean receives from the governor of Rome and presents to the Pope those three palms. One of these is held during the service by the prince assistant at the throne, the shortest is carried by the Pope in the procession. An embroidered apron is now placed over the Pope's knees, and the cardinals in turn receive a palm from Him, kissing the palm, his right hand and knee. The bishops present kiss the palm which they receive and his right knee.”

The day is also marked by a procession that moves out of Saint Peter’s Basilica and around the piazza.

Holy Thursday marks Jesus’ last Passover supper with his disciples. For Catholics it also marks the institution of the communion and the pledge of everlasting life. The oils for the year are blessed on this day, including those necessary for baptisms, consecrating churches, and ordaining priests. Many of the ceremonies are symbolic of the life of Christ during his last few days on earth. During this day a host is consecrated and covered with a linen cloth, as the dead body of Jesus Christ was wrapped in linen after being taken down from the cross. There is also no kiss of peace performed on this day, in remembrance of the treacherous kiss of Judas. The pope washes the feet of 13 priests, mimicking the way Jesus washed the feet of his disciples during the last supper. All ornaments in the church are stripped and the altar is washed in water and wine by the cardinals, an allusion to the blood and water which flowed from Jesus when he hung on the cross. The stripping of the church also is a sign of mourning, symbolizing how Jesus was stripped before dying on the cross.

Following Holy Thursday is Good Friday. It commemorates the day Jesus died upon the cross and is a time for honoring all those who died for their beliefs. In more recent years the Pope has lead a nighttime procession around the Colosseum on this day. This is the last and most public procession of the Holy Week. It is held in memory of the Christian Martyrs believed to have died in the ancient arena. This is also a day of fasting and no mass is held.

Within the rigidity and structure of the Holy Week ceremonies we find again the same linking themes. One of the week’s main functions is to track the amount of time that has transpired since the death of Jesus Christ. There is also the temporal layout of the festival; it follows hour to hour the accounts of the last week of Jesus’ life. It is a way of connecting Christians to their lord and savior, the reason their church was founded. The multiple processions of the Holy Week build community. They are an occasion for Catholics to make public their faith and to celebrate together their beliefs. The ceremonies of the Holy Week are a good example of the social control the Catholic Church can exert on its members. By remaining strict and consistent on the rituals for this week the Church appears absolute in its authority.

Processional Icons

Santo Bambino

Every winter during the Christmas holidays, Santa Maria in Aracoeli boasts Rome’s most grand Yuletide display. Every one of the church’s 124 steps is lit up with candles. As you ascend you are greeted by bagpipers in traditional mountain Pifferari dress playing holiday carols.

Amid all the holiday celebrations is the church’s main Christmastime attraction: Santo Bambino. Santo Bambino is a small wooden statue of the baby Jesus with a very unusual history. The original statue dates to the end of the 15th century when it was carved in Jerusalem by a Franciscan Friar out of an olive tree from the Garden of Gethsemani. The friar lacked the necessary paints to complete his work, but miraculously in the night an angel came and painted the statue for him. The friar soon traveled to Rome, but a severe storm on the sea forced him to throw the Bambino overboard. The statue arrived by itself at the harbor in the wake of the ship. During one Christmas season a Roman matron stole the Bambino from his nativity crib and hid it in her home. However, she became gravely ill and was obliged to return the statue. It is popular tradition that the statue left her home and returned to Santa Maria on its own. Those who believe themselves aided by the Bambino in some way donate jewelry or precious stones to it in gratitude. In 1798 another Roman matron saved the statue from being burned by the troops of Napolean by paying a huge ransom.

Today the Bambino stands in the small side chapel just to the left of the main altar. During the Christmas mass the veiled Bambino is brought out of his little chapel to a ceremonial baroque throne before the high altar. During the Gloria of the mass the veil is lifted. A short procession takes the Bambino over to a nativity crib in the left side nave, in the Chapel of the Creche. Mothers encourage their children to sit near the crib and to sing and pray to the Santo Bambino. The Bambino remains here until Epiphany (January 6th) when he is taken in a procession to the top of the Aracoeli staircase. Here the priest grants a benediction of the city and its people. It is then exposed for one day for Romans to give the statue an Epiphany kiss. Santo Bambino is they returned to his chapel for another year. The little wooden statue of the baby Jesus on display today is a replica. The original was last stolen in 1994 and has yet to be returned.

Santo Bambino is a prime example of the role processional icons can play in a religious community. When people honor the Bambino they are not worshiping the wood and gold. Instead it is a device around which the people can build a tradition and foster a sense of community. Mothers introduce their children to the idea of the baby Jesus by having them become comfortable with Santo Bambino. Even though it is no longer the original and is doubtfully craved from a Gethsemani tree, the current Bambino still holds with it this idea of a connection to the Holy Land. Santo Bambino acts as the link between the past and the present, Rome and Jerusalem, and Catholics and their savior.

III. Conclusion

Despite their differences, the Lupercalia, Festa de’Noantri, Holy Week at the Vatican and Santo Bambino celebrations at S. Maria in Aracoeli all exhibit many of the same connecting themes. In each we see evidence that festivals and ceremonial processions exist primarily for the people who celebrate them. They are a way of building and perpetuating a community by defining time, space, physical boundaries, by connecting the past and the present and as a device for social control.

IV. Personal Observations

When I first chose this as my topic I don’t think I was prepared for the overwhelming amount of information I would find. I didn’t know where to start. I had piles of papers, journals, websites and books describing everything from funerary processions to the annual blessing of scooters. There are just so many of these festivities that are unique to Rome, it seemed impossible to choose just a few to focus on. Even after I had picked out my events and began researching them back in Seattle the project didn’t seem to click. Without a good description of Trastevere and its people it is really difficult to get a sense of what meaning the Festa de’ Noantri might hold for a Trasteveren. I remember touring the district in the first week of class with Paolo from ItaliaIdea and thinking, “Now I understand”. Seeing the narrow winding streets of Trastevere, crossing Ponte Sisto on foot from the Campo district, hearing people chatter in the local dialect while hanging their laundry up on lines strewn across the street – this is the experience I needed to really get a handle on the festival. It wasn’t until after that tour that I saw that Madonna del Carmine wasn’t so much a religious figure as an object that represented the history and culture of this district of Rome.

Santo Bambino was the same way. Pictures do not convey how odd this figure is. This is how my first experience with the Bambino went. The day began by wandering around the forum, then Piazza Venezia searching desperately for Piazza del Campodoglio where my guidebook said S. Maria in Aracoeli was located. FINALLY we located the piazza, walked it steps and stood triumphantly at its top, taking in our well deserved view and searching the buildings that lined the piazza for the church. Then we noticed it. S. Maria in Aracoeli, with its own separate 124 step stair case starting on the street below. Descending and ascending we end up in the church. We wandered around, letting our eyes adjust to the light, when we saw it: the Bambino. You must realize that at this point we were not yet so desensitized by skeleton monuments or the iconic carvings so common in this city and the sight of the gold bedecked Bambino really gave the both of us the chills. But it was not until I had seen it with my own eyes, found the church and walked its steps that I could really begin to put the entire Bambino culture into context.

The most interesting thing to research by far was the Festa de’Noantri. I love Trastevere, the district, the people and its history. Touring the district knowing that this festival occurs here every summer I got a sense of how important movement through the space is in terms of the culture. I felt like knowing about the festival made me a little bit Trasteveren on the inside.

I have decided that to even have a basic comprehension of this topic one must spend some significant time in Rome, get to know the people and their peculiarities. My subject is all about community and the space it occupies. More than that it is about how the space is utilized by the community in celebration and in perpetuating identity. I had to climb the stairs of Aracoeli, place myself in front of the churches of Trastevere, stand before the Palatine, and see the grandeur of the Vatican before I could grasp the full spirit of the occasions. There is a movement to life in Rome; it doesn’t translate to life in the States very well at all. Rome was my best and most interesting resource for this project.

V. Bibliography

Days of Peace. Rome Art Lover. Not Dated. 5 September 2005.

Easter. Wikipedia. 6 September 2005. 6 September 2005.

Festa de’Noantri – Procession of the Madonna del Carmine. What’s on in Rome. 17 July 2004. 4 September 2005.

Festa de’Noantri – Procession of the Madonna Fiumarola. What’s on in Rome. 24 July 2004. 4 September 2005.

Festa de’Noantri. SkyTeam. 2004. 4 September 2005.

Forgacs, David and Lumley, Robert. Italian Cultural Studies: an introduction. Oxford University Press: New York, 1996.

Fowler, W. Warde. Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. MacMillan and Co. Ltd: New York, 1899.

Holy Week. Rev. Ken Collins’ Web Site. 2005. 5 September 2005.

June Hager. Altar of the Heavens. Undated. 7 September 2005.

Mantague. Roman Baroque Sculpture. Yale University Press: New Haven, 1989.

Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D. Ara Coeli: The Altar of the Heavens for the Santo Bambino. 2005. 7 September 2005.

Passiontide and Holy Week. Women for Faith and Family. 2004. 7 September 2005.

Processions. Wikipedia. 6 September 2005. 6 September 2005.

Rev. Monsignor Baggs. The Ceremonies of the Holy-Week at Rome. February 25, 2005
5 September 2005.

“River Mary” Makes a Splash. What’s New. 29-Jul-2005. 4 September 2005.

S. Bambino of Aracoeli – Rome. Anonymous. Undated. Pamphlet from S. Maria Aracoeli in Rome

Scullard, H. H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1981.

Photo Bibliography (in order displayed in paper)


Beata Vergine del Carmine

The Madonna's Carriage

Brotherhoods in Traditional Garb

No Light Task

Madonna Fiumarola

Processional Route

Pope John Paul II

Palm Sunday

Good Friday Procession at the Colosseum I

Good Friday Procession at the Colosseum II

Santa Maria in Aracoeli

Santo Bambino