Carnival starts on January 17th in Basilicata, a beautiful region in Southern Italy with a strong agrarian economy, where satire takes over and where it exorcises reality, mocking it in many ways. But the most striking carnival tradition of all is that of Tricarico.
Tricarico, a town near Matera, to be European capital of Culture for 2019, is one of the most important medieval centers of southern Italy and its name possibly derives from the Greek 'city of the three peaks' or from the Latin 'chariot drawn by three horses'. During the period of January-February, the town comes alive with a very special celebration.
It all starts at dawn on January 17th, the day dedicated to St. Antonio Abate protector of all animals, the sleep of quiet Tricarico is broken by loud battery of bells, agitated by "cows” and" bulls ", the Mash-k-r ( masks of Tricarico in the local dialect). I set out with other believers (followed by their richly decorated pets) and we marched in procession guided by a "farmer" or a "shepherd" until we reach the church dedicated to St Antonio Abate for the Mass and the blessing.
Here ends the religious ritual and the truly pagan celebration begins, with masks being paraded across all the neighborhoods of Tricarico, in a sort of modern seasonal stock movement (transhumance).
The origins of the Carnival of Tricarico
The origins of the Carnival of Tricarico are controversial, we know that it is related to the seasonal migration of flocks and shepherds to find fresh pastures (in the mountains in summer and on the plains in winter) which was once practice in some areas of our South.
From the official website of the Masks of Tricarico (www.lemaschereditricarico.it) we read that "The Carnival has been configured as an amalgamation of Greek culture with that of the Italic Lucani and Samnites", people settled in this area from the sixth century BC.
According to historian Lucana Carmela Biscaglia and the anthropologist Enzo Spera, the event dates back to the period just after the year one thousand and everything derives from the desire to hope for a productive year for farmers. The ‘farmer’ of Tricarico have transformed those well-wishing rituals for seasonal cycles into an agro-pastoral carnival that, through the continuity of conditions of economic life based on farming, has come down to us as a strong footprint of magno-greek past.
People dress up and mimic animals in the procession of St Antonio. The structure and the clothing of the mask are not left to chance or imagination, but is regulated by a true and correct procedure that protects the traditions strongly linked to the territory:
The bull must necessarily be dressed in black, including boots, and must have a scarf at the waist and neck of black or red, as well as a smaller scarf for the elbows and knees. A wide-brimmed hat with veil covers the face with long ribbons that touch the ground, almost all black.
The cow must have whiteor skin colour clothes, blacks boots, a scarf around the neck and one at the waist, plus 4 small scarves for elbows and knees in various colors. A wide-brimmed hat is covered by another coloured scarf and a white veil that completely covers the face and entire body and is richly decorated with long multicolored ribbons that go down to the ankles. Both masks are equipped with cowbells.
Movement of the ‘animals’ also follows an ancient tradition where each step takes place under the watchful eye of "farmer" (shepherd). The masks are arranged in two rows and mimic the pace of migrating animals until the "bulls" improvise surprising sorties and, escaping the control of the "boss", stage coupling with the "cows". The parade ends with a moment of begging, when the herd go home to battery of cowbells or to serenades played on a "cubba cubba" (an ancient drum) with the opening and offering of wine, cheese and salami.
In the deafening noise of the cowbells, the transhumance proceeds, before the eyes of those who watch this slow going rich coloured, happy, reception, that especially portrays territorial identity. The ritual is strongly linked to the rural society of Tricarico but which, in this particular procession, becomes a joyful moment of outburst and breaking of traditions of that same society.
The carnival of Tricarico is inserted in FECC - the Federation of European Carnival Cities and is part of the Network of Southern Italian carnivals. One of the most famous Italian writers, Carlo Levi, has described it in his book "Christ Stopped at Eboli".
"[...] I went on purpose in Tricarico, with Rocco Scotellaro. The countryside awoke, with the night still deep, with an archaic noise, of beating of instruments of wood, like cracked bells: a primitive noise entering into the bowels like an infinitely remote call; and everyone went up on the mountain, men and animals, to the chapel high on top .... Here the animals, who went three times around the sacred place, came in, and they were blessed in the mass, with a total coincidence of the archaic and magical ritual assimilating with the Catholic [...] »