“He who sings prays, and he who sings loudly prays twice”, they say in Villa Petto, a small village nestled in the hills of the Valle del Mavone. On Good Friday, led by the dark and solemn Requiem of the marching band, a singular procession of women goes through the alleys and squares of the old town, the state road, the most remote places of the village. It is the procession of the Dead Christ, with its characters and stage sets. The women sing in turn, in a tense voice, the painful drama of the Passion and death of Jesus; with firm and proud postures, they transmit and publicly embody, in front of the whole community, that unique and lacerating pain of the women who accompanied Christ on his earthly journey.
At Villa Petto, the young women of the village perform the characters of the Passion of Christ, singing in turns and in solo voice the processional melodies, locally called aria. They intone words that describe the sufferings of the torture and narrate the suffering of waiting, the certainty of death, the penitence and the request for forgiveness. They embody the Swords and the Wounds, the Wailing women and the Giunte, and then Mary Magdalene, Veronica and Mary, the Madonna, singing a melody full of dismay and pain, the most coveted role, to which all the girls involved in the procession aspire.
In the part of Calvary, the song becomes polyphonic and harmonious, pulled along by an alto with a solo entry and the support of two parallel contralto in intervals of fourths, which give particular density to the final segment of the sung procession. In Jesuit style, modelled on the sixteenth-century penitential processions, then transformed into funeral processions accompanying the body of Christ and elaborated by Baroque piety, these kinds of processions are centred on the scripted and embodied meditation of the passion and death of Jesus.
At Villa Petto the dramatic theatricality and the vehement expression of pain, apparently instinctive and unrestrained, are also modelled through the construction and control of the voice, gestures and postures: the procession was a means to define the relationship between the femininity associated with natural knowledge and the social structure, between the construction of family roles and learning the manifestation of emotions through sound and songs. In the weeks leading up to Good Friday, during Lent, the small local church hosts the rehearsals of the procession.
It is an all-female activity, in which only women participate, while in the past men opened the procession with a powerful chorus, named the Sacred Spices, which is still remembered for the weight it added to the sound and for the drama it gave to the ritual. On the basis of the tonal characteristics and the quality of the interpretation required for each figure of the holy performance the voices are tested, and the roles are defined, in an evolutionary path that from the Giunte leads to the role of the Virgin. It is a rite of passage that accompanies the girls and young women, to the affirmation of Christian feminine values and to the fullness of expression in adulthood.
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Villa Petto (TE), 6 April 2007.
Video footage by Stefano Saverioni,
Don Nicola Jobbi Study Center Archive/Bambun.
Transmission and protection
The rehearsals of the songs begin in the Lenten period and involve women from five to sixty years old; while the knowledge of the leading roles is handed down in families from generation to generation (from Veronica to Veronica, from Madonna to Madonna, and so on), the main form of learning of the repertoires and singing techniques is through collective repetitions guided by the most experienced women.
The ritual code prescribes that only unmarried girls participate in the procession: this rule has helped to promote the transmission of knowledge related to the processional song of the Passion, even if in recent years the rule has been occasionally discontinued due to the increasing difficulty in finding people able to perform the most complex and important roles.
The procession presents elements of fragmentation and impoverishment, such as the disappearance of the male roles, which contributed to making the ritual more enchanting; there is also a loss of the meanings connected to the religious structure of the ceremony, and a simplification of the singing styles and techniques in correspondence with a significant breakdown of the social fabric that has occurred in the last few decades.
Furthermore, an invasive motorway viaduct splits the town into two parts producing significant noise pollution during the procession which seems paradoxical for a community which is dedicated to the culture of singing and the encouragement of listening. However, thanks to the constant interest and passion of local enthusiasts, such as Elena Cruciani, singing continues to be transmitted and practiced as the absolute protagonist of the ritual scene.
In recent years, extensive documentations of repertoires and techniques have been initiated by anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and documentarists, both in the domestic and processional sphere, with the intention of supporting intergenerational continuity and intensification of learning, recovering parts that are no longer performed or acquiring more in-depth knowledge of the most refined executive modalities, usually the prerogative of older women. To this end, short documentaries have also been made and research is ongoing, both in the field and in the archives, in the community of Villa Petto and the neighbouring towns where a similar ritual form is found. Moreover, public occasions and presentations in the village and beyond have focused attention on the phenomenon, thus stimulating the local community.