Every year, in the early afternoon of Ascension Day, the Sonninesi leave the town and head towards the borders of their territory beginning a long trek that ends at the first light of dawn the following day, after having crossed at night, by torchlight, the entire municipal perimeter.
They are led by four caporoli (corporals), while many men, armed with rifles loaded with blanks, accompany the ritual with the din of their weapons. The highlight of the event is an impressive torchlight procession on the Ausoni Mountains.
Preparation for the celebration takes place much earlier, with the creation by hand, one by one, of the torches in “zaura” (virgin) wax as well as with the marking of the mountain paths. All stages of the preparation are explained in a precise and entertaining way at the Terre di Confine Museum in Sonnino.
Everything starts on Saturday afternoon, with the blessing of the torches, celebrated by the priest during vespers, in the Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Grazie. The procession, which starts from Piazza San Pietro, proceeds as one group until the “La Cona” district where the trekkers are divided into two groups.
The torches of the “via di Sopra” follow the boundaries of the municipal territory via Monte San Biagio, Amaseno, up to Roccasecca, where they wait for the sun to set completely.
The goal is for the torches in front of Sonnino to “stand out”, being seen well by those gathered in the main square of the town where, mingled with the general excitement, the festive bells ring to greet the torch bearers (torciaroli) on the mountain: there everyone can observe the long strip of fire that advances along the ridge of “Le Serre” and witness the demanding descent towards Priverno.
The other torch bearers that cross the “via di Sotto”, follow the boundary with Monte San Biagio, up to Monte Romano; to find the descent towards the Frasso where there are the inhabitants of the ‘plain’ on the border with Terracina.
In more recent times, these moments are accompanied by great fireworks displays.
The reunification of the two groups takes place at S. Maria-La Sassa, thus sanctioning the closure of the perimeter ‘circle’ that defines the territory of the Ausono Municipality.
The procession then moves to return to Sonnino in a boisterous manner, marked by a more participating in the recitation of the litanies of the Lauraria – throughout the walk along the path – which emphasize the already heightened excitement of the torchbearers, already exhausted and affected by fatigue, songs and the acrid smell of gunpowder.
In the town centre, those who have slept are woken up by the ’bursting’ of torchbearers through the Porta di Tocco, one of the five that enclosed the ancient village, because the shots of the riflemen reverberate in the narrow alleys.
Curiosity: the Torches of the Caporali
The torches of the caporali, which are never lit during the journey, are cut into small pieces and distributed to the population at the time of the reunion of the two sections of torciaroli. These “amulets” are kept at home during the year and lit as a sign of good luck in the event of a storm or to prevent a calamity.
In times gone by, the “torch braids” linked traditions between the sacred and the profane: the girls at that time braided for the belief that they would grow stronger and more beautiful, the women were hurrying to close the tanks fearing the water pollution during the day of the Ascension, the sorceresses taught their daughters the magic formulas to remove the “evil eye”.
How the Festival of Torches was born
There are various traditions that intersect in this identity rite that for centuries has been performed by the Sonninesi, but the origin of which has no certain date.
Starting from the Rogationes, which were processions in many parts of Europe in the V-VI centuries by Christianity: that revolved around the fields or along the parish boundaries, which were used to invoke with supplications (the same minor litany recited even today by torciaroli) the blessing on work and on the products of the earth.
The agrarian and propitiatory character of the Rogationes, in turn, has led many authors to identify its origin in the archaic agrarian cults of the ancient Romans, also carried out in May.
During the first half of the twelfth century the lands of the provinces of Marittima and Campagna, lands on the southern border of the Papal States, experienced periods of great political uncertainty.
With the papal government often incapable of asserting its authority, the communities lived by territorial disputes that also resulted in armed conflict.This insecurity would have been felt particularly by the Sonninese community.
The need for the community of a ‘Recognitio Finium’, a reconnaissance of the borders, to mark the territory with neighboring towns is also linked to the propitiatory character. Hence the obsessive use of weapons and the peculiarity of the fact that much of the ritual takes place at night: everyone must follow the path, especially the inhabitants of neighbouring towns, must know that the Sonninesi are drawing in the night the map of their land – in life size.
Over the centuries, the Christian tradition has been enriched with pagan elements, linking the character of expiation to the rites of the Ascension: it added to the pilgrimage the meaning of penance, to affirm the separation from evil and sin.
Today all these traditions have merged in the spirit of Sonnino to celebrate ownership of their territory, in a festival that is deeply felt by the inhabitants. This festival sees, from year to year, an increase the presence of tourists and enthusiasts who join the Sonninesi in this long but beautiful mountain hike that crosses unspoilt lands with breathtaking views. An experience not to be missed for trekking enthusiasts!
Meanwhile, for those who want to wait for the “flashlighting” in the centre of the town, they will find a calendar of musical, cultural and gastronomic events being celebrated at the same time as the ritual.