From house to house, between rural districts and scattered houses, the teams of collectors of alms bring their devotional songs at dusk. They enter the homes, greet those who welcome them and narrate the stories of Saint Anthony the Abbot, the mighty protector of the stables and domestic animals, venerated by the farmers. Each meeting is warmed by the fire, while wine and biscuits help the wanderers to continue their rounds until late at night.
The ritual use of the collection of alms sung in honor of Saint Anthony the Abbot draws on some elements of his biography written by St Athanasius. Anthony was born in 251 at Koma, in Egypt, and died on 17th January 356 in Quolzoum, at the age of 105. He lived as a hermit in isolated places, eating only food that was given to him; his fight against the noisy demons took place with the help of song and prayer. He was also considered a powerful thaumaturge, able to heal people from serious diseases and to release them from demonic possession.
The order of the Antonines was officially founded in the West in 1297, but the activity of religious orders and congregations inspired by the holy Egyptian had already been deep-rooted for a long time: his followers were specialized in curing ergotism and helping the poor and worked in foundations and hospitals.
They lived on the collection of alms and breeding of pigs – which were fed by the entire community – for the maintenance of the buildings and the therapies based on pork fat. Sick people and pigs were announced by bells, just like the musicians that go round collecting alms with a bell fixed to the top of a stick. Today the begging team recreates the image of the group of hermits following the holy saint, or that of the Antonines collecting alms to be destined to the poor and the sick. Songs and music are the tools that give power to the ritual: according to local beliefs they purify places from negative influences, as for Saint Anthony the Abbot they were the instruments used to defeat the devil.
In Befaro di Castelli, at the foot of Monte Camicia, the ritual collection of alms is especially popular in the village, in the rural districts and in the houses scattered around the countryside . The door-to-door collections are carried out on the day before the saint’s day and on the day itself, 17th January, to celebrate not only the saint but also the relationships with family members, neighbours and friends, all the ties and social alliances that form the fabric of the community.
The ethnomusicologist researcher Marco Magistrali has found evidence of a wide and deep-rooted practice of this ritual throughout the area of the Alta Val Fino. When they do the rounds of the houses the Befaro group performs The Good Evening, a history song composed of twenty-four quatrains that narrates the life of Saint Anthony the Abbot, from his birth to the hermitage, from the struggles against the Devil to his death.
The song was assembled and in part composed by a local old sacristan, Pietro Orsetti, who also sang in homes for many years. The instrumental ensemble of the Befaro team generally consists of the ddu bottë (organetto), the guitar, the cymbals, the ’rancascë (bass drum) and the tamurrë (drum), and it has bound together for decades, in particular, the Ciotti and Francia families, the first specialized in soloist song and in the ddu bottë, the second in the use and construction of large percussion instruments that accompany the singing ritual in homes.
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The collection of alms and the leave-taking
The team of Befaro during the sung collection of alms at a peasant home; at the end, the performance of the farewell verses when leaving the house. (Clip from video 35.46 to 37.28)
Befaro (TE), 16 January 1996.
Filming by Marco Magistrali,
Archive Marco Magistrali and Altofino Association.
Cultural transmission and preservation
The teams of musicians are made up of men and each of them is led by one of the oldest members, considered the link with the past even though he is no longer able to take part in the ritual; he is the point of permanent reference for the choices of the texts and melodies. Some teams know several different songs for the occasion, but the more united the group is, the more it identifies itself with a particular song.
The history of the texts and melodies is marked by continuous elaborations: in the course of the twentieth century several songs for the collection of alms were introduced or reshaped. The Good Evening is one of these, a testimony of the great flexibility and adaptability of the oral tradition, in which texts were sometimes written then later conveyed through oral transmission.
The collection of alms is still practiced in Befaro, especially by the Ciotti family, even if in the past up to four teams were active in the itineraries throughout the districts. The repertoires are also alive thanks to the work of promotion and consolidation that has been established over the last twenty years by the Altofino Association and by the related summer event “Valfino al Canto”, which many groups who carry out door-to-door collection during the feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot also take part in.
The intensive research by Marco Magistrali, conducted in particular in the second half of the 1990s but constantly updated in the following years, has contributed to the revival of the phenomenon and has also made it possible to document and save from oblivion repertoires connected to the devotion to Saint Anthony the Abbot which later fell into disuse, such as the prayers from which many of the same stories sung in the collection of alms derive.