Friday morning, 6am. Silence. Quiet. That’s not because everybody is asleep: there are many people around already, and more will assemble in the next hour. Everybody is waiting.
Hopefully it will not rain; the weather is always a question mark in this season.
The silence is broken every few minutes by the dramatic, striking trumpet sound followed by the three heavy, slow drum beats. At first in the distance; then closer and closer, announcing the passage of the wooded statue of Christ in its way to the Church of S. Michele, where the procession will start.
What year is it? Hard to tell if you close your eyes. If you can’t see the smartphones, people’s clothes, streetlights, it could be any time between 17th and 21st century. It will stay that way until late morning when the procession ends.
The procession starts with a well defined ritual, with a predefined order of elements, that are called one by one when it’s their time to get going. The same soundtrack that accompanied the Christ statue to the church of S. Michele will play during all the procession: the trumpet, the drumbeats, silence. This time there are also people’s voices, low and respectful, most likely commenting one of the “Misteri” or speaking about the friends or acquaintences they recognize in the procession. This goes on for two or three hours as the procession makes its way through half of the island.
It is the name of the hand-carried floats representing scenes from Gospel and from Old Testament. There are many of them, some very small carried by 4 or 6 boys as young as 7 or 8, others are carried by 20 men or so. Those who carry them are those who built them during the year. They are made by hand, using wood, papier-mache, other simple materials. They are built over several months and kept hidden until the procession, then they are destroyed.
This is very typical of this procession, and also very fascinating to me. It is not about carrying around some old statue or relic, or about building a masterpiece. It is about building a piece of religious art in a team, in a unspoken competition with other teams (there is no award). It is not about the “object”, it is about the experience of building it. And this involves, directly or indirectly, the whole island.
Only recently a collection of a few “Misteri” has been put on display all year round for visitors. A sort of compromise with the need of tourism in an island that has never been a champion for that
The procession passes by
The first thing is to decide where to see the procession along the path. If you want to sleep more you can see it further down in the path, but I prefer a point close to where it starts. People, specially the youngest, are not tired yet, and moreover there is a breathtaking backdrop: the sea below, the Corricella port, Ischia in the background.
After the men playing the trumpet and the drum, the “Misteri” start to flow slowly: usually the smaller ones are first, but that’s not a rule. Every now and then the flow stops and the “Misteri” are put on the floor: maybe one of the bigger floats is having troubles in a tight turn. Then it starts again.
Other than the “Misteri”, the procession includes the important statue of “Dead Christ”, a wooden statue from XVIII century, and the “Addolorata” from XIX century, the men dragging iron chains, the “little angels” (less than 2 years old with a typical black dress embroidered with golden thread in the arms of a parent).
The procession is of course accompanied by the main civil and religious authorities of the island, and by the band.
It is incredible how loud can your voice be when there are no cars or other city noises. When you speak with a low tone people in the range of 5 meters or more will hear you. And so you overhear comments from people around. When one of the “Misteri” passes by usually people comment about its aspect and quality, but often the conversation quickly switches to people. Why is that?
Procida has about 10,000 residents, so it is a relatively small community. Most of the families know each other, so when you see someone you know it is a good chance to share “updates” about their family with your group of friends. Of course you have to be part of the community to understand the comments: infact people and families are often mentioned by their nickname (almost every family has one, a sort of parallel naming system), or you’ll miss the subject of the conversation. Privacy in a small community is an often unwanted luxury.
Still a true rite
The procession is not the only acitivity in the Holy Week rites, but it is definitely the main one, involving the whole island. What I like about this experience is that it is still a true one. It is not there for the tourists: actually I am sure that some of the locals see the few tourists around as a sort of intruders. While this attitude has slowed the growth of the tourism business in Procida, on the other side it has kept things “true”. Not much has changed since my first processions as a child in the ’60s. It is one of the best time machines I know of.
I have posted some more pictures in a dedicated gallery here. The soundtrack is missing, but they will give an idea of the Misteri and the environment.
You can find the sound of the trumpet on YouTube, for instance here