The light that should never be blown out: recounting the Festival of the Oil Lanterns in Somma Vesuviana

By Pietro Turino

Last weekend we were in Somma Vesuviana, a little town near Naples in Italy, to admire a distinctive and unique tradition, the festival of the oil lanterns (festa delle lucerne in Italian). This festival takes place at the beginning of August every four years and usually lasts three nights. Thousands of tourists and people from neighboring cities flooded into the Neapolitan town for the occasion to appreciate the picturesque atmosphere and enjoy a night suspended in time. Clearly, we couldn’t miss that chance!

As soon as we entered the Casamale — the old historic center of the town, surrounded by the Aragonese walls dating back to the 15th century- the feeble light of hundreds of lanterns drew our attention and wonder. The historic alleys were bedecked with tiny lanterns placed on triangular, square, circular or hexagonal wooden frames which were installed at the same distance from one another. The result of this geometric operation was a suggestive effect creating the optical illusion of an endless pathway. Moreover, ferns, chestnut branches, and pumpkins adorned the streets, accompanying us along the trip.

Photo: Valentina Polise

There are several interpretations for these geometric shapes: the circle could represent perfection, it has no starting and finishing points; the triangle may symbolize the Holy Trinity, the fire, etc.; the square stands for the Earth, the four seasons, etc.. On the whole, these symbols stem from Southern Italy’s cultural background.

Just in front of these gates were human-like puppets (usually a man and a woman) doing food-related activities such as having dinner (with local products) or baking. They represent everyday scenes of rural life and the puppets symbolize the souls of the dead and ancient votive offerings. In fact, during this period, the agricultural cycle ends and the harvest has to be shared with the powers of the soil and with the dead buried in it. The ambiguous sense of death was reproduced also by silent household objects (pans, pots, and crockery) and by the untouched food.

Photo: Valentina Polise
Photo: Valentina Polise

There was also a table with human participants. They were all men and some of them were disguised as women!

The evening of the 5th August is dedicated also to the Christian worship of the Madonna of the Snow. The tradition narrates that during the 4th century, on the morning of that day, the mother of Jesus pointed out to a patrician and his wife the right place where she desired a temple in her honor through a miracle: a soft snowfall covered that place during that summer night. We participated in this celebration during which a statue of the Madonna was brought back and forth around the city center, with hundreds of visitors waiting for her and greeting her with fireworks.

The trembling light of the lanterns made our trip into this historical location a memorable experience. In spite of the difficulty of coping with the hot temperatures of those nights, strolling across the evocative alleys of the town gave us a sense of magical ambiguity. Just as the festival is open to multiple anthropological interpretations, our feelings were various, from a profound sense of respect for those who’re gone to the fascination for the peasant culture.

Overall, the most characteristic aspect of this festival is that it groups people together. All the inhabitants of the old historic center work and strive together to ensure the continuation of this tradition. It doesn’t matter if it slightly changes across time, what really matters is what it embodies. It is a clue of their history and an evidence of their identity. This is the reason why the light of the lanterns should never be blown out.

Video: Alessio Colella

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