Celebrating lavoro ben fatto

Lavoro ben fatto is an expression meaning “work done well”. It was first explained to me as craftsmanship for its own sake, as putting time and effort into little details which only someone looking very closely can appreciate. For example, the way the seams of a garment have been sewn. It might not make a difference in how the garment looks on the rack, but that extra time and consideration matters to whoever sewed the garment (and, hopefully, to whoever wears it).

When I think of lavoro ben fatto, I often think of San Giuseppe (St. Joseph) as the patron saint of workers. One of his feasts is May 1–International Workers’ Day! San Giuseppe is prayed to in times of unemployment, and the celebration of his feasts in Italy explicitly emphasizes the necessity of charity and public welfare.

But it is important that we also recognize women’s labor, which is so often devalued. In fact, as women enter traditionally male-dominated fields, the average wages in those fields drop. Women’s labor is important, whether we are performing that labor in a traditionally male-dominated field, in a traditionally female-dominated field, or within the home.

In Salemi, Sicily, the labor of both men and women–of San Giuseppe and Maria Santissima–is celebrated as part of the feast of San Giuseppe on March 19. Men spend days setting up elaborate altars surrounded by greenery. Women spend days baking special breads shaped into sacred symbols. These symbols include the emblems of traditionally male and female labor: the breads baked to represent San Giuseppe are covered in carpenter’s tools, while the breads baked for Maria Santissima have the tools of weaving and sewing on them. These breads are so intricately detailed that they are famous throughout the region.

salemi
An altar for the feast of San Giuseppe in Salemi, Sicily. On the bottom left is a bread representing the madonna, in the bottom center is a bread representing Jesus, and on the bottom right is a bread representing St. Joseph.

I’ve been reflecting on lavoro ben fatto a lot recently, having just started a new job which is challenging me to pay particular attention to small details. So it was deeply inspiring to find Vincenzo Moretti’s Il Manifesto del Lavoro Ben Fatto, a manifesto about work done well and the rights of the people who do it. While reading through the manifesto (there’s even an English translation!), I’ve been thinking of the people of Salemi who work tirelessly for days every year out of pure devotion.

This intersection of devotion, justice, and excellence is truly inspiring to me. It’s something that I will always hope to manifest in my own lavoro, whether I’m taking on a new project at work, typing up a blog post, or just giving everything I’ve got in a barre class. And I hope you’ll join me in putting your whole heart into your lavoro next year, whatever kind of work you do.

Best wishes for 2017,
M.V.

Neapolitan presepe at the Italian-American Museum (NYC)

The presepe or presepio is a Neapolitan tradition similar to the modern nativity scenes popular in Europe and the Americas. Unlike the nativity scenes we are used to, however, they tend to incorporate a much larger cast of characters, most of whom were not present in the biblical narratives of the nativity. These can include both Christian and pagan mythological characters, as well as symbolic scenes from peasant life. 

This antique presepe is found in the Italian-American Museum on Mulberry Street in New York City.

Traditional Foodways: Dolci dei morti

Food is a central part of celebrating festa dei morti or All Souls’ Day in Southern Italy and Sicily. Granted, it’s a central part of most feste italiane, but something about the way sharing a meal brings a family together illuminates the true meaning of this holiday, which focuses on familial ties that bind us even in death.

Many of the traditional foods associated with this day are desserts, called dolci dei morti (“sweets of the dead”). These dolci predate the importation of American Halloween traditions, including trick-or-treating, but the commonality of sugary fun is definitely intriguing!

I can only speculate on why sweetness is so important to Italian and Sicilian celebrations of the dead: it could be because children play a prominent role in this feast, being seen as gifts from (or perhaps emanations of) the ancestors. Or maybe it’s so that the dead will be sweet to us, doing graces on our behalf! In any case, savor the sweetness of the day. Flavor, like scent and music, reveals something about the nature of spirits.

fave_dei_morti
Ossi dei morti (“bones of the dead”), AKA fave dei morti (“beans of the dead”). The connection between beans and the dead goes back to Antiquity, and may be older than that.

Ossi dei morti (Sicily)
Shown above, these cookies are made with the first almonds harvested in September. Their shape and color is meant to mimic a pile of bones.
Get the recipe here.

Pane dei morti (Lombardia)
More of a cookie than a bread in my opinion, but I’m not a chef. These also contain almonds, with amaretto cookies, chocolate, and figs for additional flavor.
Get the recipe here.

Pupi di zucchero (Sicily)
These figures are shaped out of marzipan to resemble humans in a tradition remarkably similar to the calaveras or sugar skulls used to celebrate Día de los Muertos in Mexico. The pupi di zucchero are both decorative and delicious, commonly given as gifts to children, and seem to represent the dead themselves. But unlike in Mexican folk art, the dead in Southern Italy and Sicily are depicted as they were in life, not as skeletons.

Litany to the Dead from Naples, Italy

In a previous post, we examined several accounts of the cult of the Holy Souls in Purgatory at Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples. Fontanelle Cemetery is an ossuary occupied Anime Pezzentelle, that is, “lost” souls, or souls without living descendents to perform official indulgences on their behalf. Many of them lost their lives during the great plagues of the 17th century, a time during which the city struggled to keep up with the task of burying large numbers of recently deceased citizens.

The Anime Pezzentelle are said to suffer from the heat and pains of Purgatory, where their only solace are the prayers and refreshment provided by the living. Refreshment or refrische can take many forms: cool water, sacramentals such as rosary beads or saint cards, and oil lamps or candles are all common forms of refreshment. The goal of these devotional practices is to establish a bond through which soul can establish contact through dreams. Once this intimate relationship is in place, the soul may reveal more details about who they were in life, divine the future (including lottery numbers), or be petitioned to perform miracles.

cimitero_delle_fontanelle_010
Skulls in Fontanelle Cemetery which have received devotions or refreshment. My gratitude to Wikipedia user
Mentnafunangann for contributing this image.

The prayer below, originally in Neapolitan and translated into English, may be said by groups or individuals who wish to gain the favor of Anime Pezzentelle, specifically the souls of plague victims. It is traditionally said while in the ossuary, although we might speculate that all cemeteries belongs to the same kingdom. The opening prayer is repeated for the names of all the deceased being invoked. (Anime Pezzentelle are usually said to reveal their names in dream early in the relationship, and often some details about who they were in life such as their gender and occupation.) The closing prayer is said before departing from the ossuary or cemetery.

There are a few traditional elements worth noting. For one, we see mentions of the beatings and nails of the Crucifixion which were also present in the Sicilian rosary for the dead we saw previously. Furthermore, in addition to invocations to Jesus and the Holy Trinity, we also see a powerful image of the female divine in this prayer: an entreaty to “come in the name of Jesus Christ, Saint Anne, and Maria”; a request vindicated “by the tears of the Sorrowful Mother”; and the line “pray to your divine redeemer (the Madonna)”, where the word “redeemer” is unmistakbly feminine in the original text. It is worth noting that in Naples, work with the lost souls is predominantly, perhaps exclusively, considered to be “women’s work”. The gendering is reinforced in the language of the work, which speaks of “adopting” skulls, as well as the objects commonly used in these devotions, which include handmade embroidery and rosary beads. The practitioner quite literally becomes the mother of a lost soul.

Napulitano

(opening prayer)

Guida: Guè, pè l’anema ‘e (name of deceased).
Coro: Requia materna.
(repeat as needed)

(prayer for the plague victims)
Io ve chiammo aneme tutte,
Aneme appestate cchiù de tutte;
Mò che nnante a Dio state
A me mischinu scunzulatu
E nun ve ne scurdate.
Pregate alla nostra divina clemenza,
Arapitece ‘e porte de la santa divina clemenza pruverenza:
Pregate alla vostra divina Redentora,
Ce favorite il nostro ‘ntenzione;
Mille e tanta vote
Reque, refrische, repuose, sullievo e pace
A chest’ aneme appestate mie rilette;
Venite a casa mia ca v’aspetto;
E paura nun me ne metto.
Venite co lu nomme ‘e Giesù Cristo, Sant’Anna e Maria;
‘E case noste cuntente e cunzulate sia.
Pe lu nomme de la Santissima Ternità
Tutt’e ppene, tutte ‘e turmiente
Tutt’e guaie nc’adda acquietà.
Pe li voste battitore
Fance grazia vosto Signore;
Pe tre chiove trapassate
Refrische e sullievo a chell’aneme sante appestate.

Gesù mio misericordia;
Gesù mio misericordia;
P’e lacreme ‘e Mamm’ Addulurata
Refrische all’aneme de l’appestate.

(closing prayer)

Requia materna, erona romine, sparpetua lucia ‘nterna schiatte in pace. Amen.

English

(opening prayer)

Guide: Hail to the soul of (name of deceased).
Chorus: Eternal peace.
(repeat as needed)

(prayer for the plague victims)

I call you, all souls,
Plague victims above all other souls,
I pray that near to God you be.
Do not forget me,
I, a disconsolate wretch.
Pray to our divine mercy,
Open the doors of holy, divine, merciful providence:
Pray to your divine redeemer (the Madonna),
That she favor our intentions;
Thousands of times
Calm, refreshment, rest, solace, and peace
To these plague victims’ souls, my beloveds;
Come to my home where I await you;
Because I have no fear.
Come in the name of Jesus Christ, Saint Anne, and Maria;
And let our homes be content and consoling.
By the name of the Divine Trinity
All troubles must be calmed.
By your beatings
Do us grace, oh Lord.
By the three nails,
Refreshment and solace to the holy souls of plague victims.

My Jesus, mercy;
My Jesus, mercy;
By the tears of the Sorrowful Mother,
Refreshment to the souls of the plague victims.  

(closing prayer)

Eternal peace give them O Lord, shine eternal light, may they rest in peace. Amen.

 

(Source: Luciano Sola – “Il Camposanto delle Fontanelle. Storia e costumi di Napoli”)

A Rosary for the Dead on All Souls’ Day (Nov 2)

This rosary is typically prayed every day during the octave of the festa dei morti (feast of the dead), known more officially in Italian as the Commemorazione di Tutti i Fideli Defunti (Commemoration of All Deceased Faithful), and among English-speaking countries as All Souls’ Day. In many Catholic countries, All Souls’ Day (November 2) is a time for remembering the dead. It can be celebrated by praying, visiting and cleaning up loved ones’ graves, making offerings of food or flowers, or paying for masses to be said in honor of the departed.

mangiare-sulle-tombe-san-demetrio-corone-in-calabria
A man eats at a tomb in San Demeterio Corone, Calabria on All Souls’ Day. Via Benedicaria.

The octave lasts from November 2 to November 10. If you wish to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory as is done in Sicilian folk tradition, you can use the words below. Sicilian rosaries can be prayed on standard rosary beads, reciting one posta for each of the large beads, and one grani for each of the small beads. (More official prayers for the dead can be found in the Raccolta, the pre-Vatican II guide to indulgences. A free PDF is available online here.)  I have included an English translation, but the Sicilian is pronounced very similar to Italian if you feel comfortable with that language.

This rosary from Sicilian oral tradition was originally transcribed and published by Sara Favarò in A Cruna: Antologia di Rosari Siciliani. I have chosen to translate “arrifriscati” (lit. “refresh yourselves”) as “be cooled”. “Refreshment” in Southern Italian and Sicilian magico-religious thought is relief from the heat and suffering of Purgatory. Souls grateful for refreshment are disposed to work miracles on behalf of those who pray for them. The concept is similar to the idea of cooling heated spirits in spiritism and African Diasporic Traditions.

Siciliano

(Posta)

Per li setti battitura
chi patì nostru Signuri
pi li chiova arribuccati
Armuzzi Santi, arrifriscati.
Armi Santi, Armi Santi
iò sugnu sula vui siti tanti
pi la nostra orazioni
livatimilla ‘sta cunfusioni.
Quannu vui ‘n celu acchianati
pi nui piccatura priati
arma ‘n celu e corpu ‘n terra
recam eterna.

(Grani)

Armi Santi e santi veri
Armuzzi Santi miserere
e Maria pi so buntati
Armuzzi Santi arrifriscati.

English

(Posta)

By the seven beatings
that our Lord suffered,
by the twisted nails,
Holy Souls: be cooled.
Holy Souls, Holy Souls,
I am one, you are many.
By our prayer,
take away from me this confusion.
When you ascend to heaven,
pray for us sinners.
Soul in heaven and body in earth,
eternal peace.

(Grani)  

Holy Souls and true saints,
merciful Holy Souls,
and Maria by her goodness,
Holy Souls: be cooled.

Interrogating ‘Stregheria’

‘Stregheria’ is a term used almost exclusively by American anglophones talking about a witchcraft tradition which allegedly emerges from Italy. Often, it is accompanied by Murrayesque claims of an unbroken pagan priesthood. Much of the work presented as ‘Stregheria’ appears strongly influenced by (perhaps even originating in) the writings of Raven Grimassi, which must be read with a very critical eye. Grimassi is a controversial figure, to say the least. He himself states:

My first attempts at providing information on the Italian Craft began around 1979 with the self publication of books and a magazine.  Working from material I had copied in my late teens and early twenties, I created an “outer-court” system through which I could convey the basic concepts of initiate teachings. Looking back on these early projects they were crude and amateurish. But for the time period they seemed to fit in with what most people were producing. …Thinking back on those days now I realize that I was a “true believer” in the things I had been taught and had learned. I think this was no more evident than in my writings on Aradia, which I presented in a self published work titled The Book of the Holy Strega.

I am not interested in critiquing Grimassi’s work or policing the self-identification of other practitioners. However, there are several facts which I think should be brought to bear when evaluating the claims of people who purport to practice, teach, or provide magical services under the banner of ‘Stregheria’.

‘Stregheria’ is not a common word in Italy. The Italian word for ‘witchcraft’ is ‘stregoneria’, and it has profoundly negative connotations. This is often the case among cultures who remain rooted in the magical world: they still have a need to describe the work of malevolent, spiritually powerful individuals, and no desire to reclaim that concept for political reasons. This is not to say that the word is entirely fabricated; it appears in a handful of texts from the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, it’s a word that most native Italian speakers will never have heard. It puts more distance between the anglophone American practitioner and and the people who live in the region where their tradition allegedly originates.

The matter becomes more complicated when we consider the vast linguistic and cultural diversity of the modern Italian nation. Italy as a unified country has only existed since 1861. The concept of a pan-Italian ethnic identity is even newer. Formerly–and even today, to a certain extent–each region within Italy had its own dialect and cultural identity. As most of the Italian immigrants to United States came from the Mezzogiorno region of Southern Italy and Sicily, we would expect them to have their own regionally-specific socio-magical functions and unique words for them in their own dialects.

Some modern Italian-speaking practitioners use the term ‘benedicaria’, a neologism which emphasizes the role of blessing and Catholic sacramentals in the work. Practitioners of benedicaria may not identify with the social role of the witch. The line between ‘stregoneria’ and ‘benedicaria’ remains blurry at best. My experience with practitioners who use the term benedicaria is that they tend to pay closer attention to historical folk practices, which is laudable. However, the term is not itself historically attested, and we may hypothesize that whatever thing it represents was never meant to have a name.

So why bother with this line of inquiry? Does it really matter what word is used? If the people purporting to practice ‘Stregheria’ changed their branding to so it said ‘stregoneria’, or ‘benedicaria’, or even ‘Italian folk magic’, would that resolve the issue?

Not necessarily. The larger problem here is not what word is used, but how. It’s about forging a deep, authentic relationship with the people and the land that these words come from. And for Italian-Americans in particular, it’s about strengthening our relationship with our ancestors while respecting their other descendents. When anglophones (and American anglophones in particular) use the word ‘Stregheria’, they are engaging in a kind of exotification and cultural appropriation. Swapping one word for another will not necessarily eliminate those deeper issues.

Returning for a second to Grimassi, much of his work draws on reconstructions of ancient Etrustcan religion. The Etruscans inhabited the regions now known as Tuscany, western Umbria, and northern Lazio. By contrast, approximately 84% of Italian-American immigrants during the height of the diaspora came from Southern Italy and Sicily. Most Italian-American family traditions and folk religion will not be illuminated by study of Etruscan paganism. A practitioner with roots in Naples is better served by studying the cult of San Gennaro, the cult of the Holy Souls in Purgatory at Fontenelle Cemetery, or the cult of Mama Schiavona at Montevergine–cults which, unlike the Etruscans, survive until this day and can be experienced as living traditions rather than reconstructions.

But it is just these living traditions that some seek to negate by practicing Stregheria. Certainly, there are many legitimate reasons to be uncomfortable with Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Yet some of the most pagan-seeming Italian cults originate late into the Christian era–for example, the Madonna delle Galline, an emanation of the Madonna covered in chickens who originates in the 17th century. (No, really.) Likewise, the necromantic cults of the Holy Souls in Purgatory and the Headless Souls do not, as one might think, originate in pagan hero cults. Peter Brown in his classic work The Cult of the Saints demonstrates that even the cult of the saints as collective, rather than personal, dead was only possible with the innovation of Christianity. Nascent Christianity broke many of the pagan and Jewish taboos on ancestor worship, including contact with the remains of the dead. Removing these traditions from their Christian framework is not only historically inaccurate, but, as scholar Sabina Magliocco writes, it “does violence to the way practitioners [of living traditions] perceive themselves.”

Of course, this is not to say that Italian-Americans must simply emulate their Mediterranean cousins. Doing so is equally problematic, and ignores the fact that many rich cultural traditions, including entire dialects, are better preserved in the Americas than in the old country. The most fruitful approach is considering a real, rather than immagined history: a history which includes both Christianity and the trauma of immigration. That is how we wake up our saints.

Further reading

Benedicaria – The Blessing Way of Southern Italian Folk Medicine, Part 1 by Gail Faith Edwards

Benedicaria – The Blessing Way of Southern Italian Folk Medicine, Part 2 by Gail Faith Edwards

Benedicaria: “Magia” Popolare e delle Campagne

Magic: A Theory from the South by Ernesto de Martino

Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy by Sabina Magliocco

Il Regno: Ethno-cultural journal for people of Southern Italian descent

Stregoneria: A Roman Furnace by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold in Serpent Songs