Il Bacanal, the Carnival of Verona, is one of Italy's oldest street parades. Its origins are thought to date back to the dark days of the middle ages, when Verona was a city ravaged by war, flooding, disease and famine. During these desperate times, with grain prices rising, the cities poor, especially those crowded into the historic St Zeno neighbourhood, faced poverty, famine and starvation.
On 18 June 1531, in the Piazza of San Zeno, the people rose and demanded to be fed. A general revolt was only averted thanks to the intervention of some prominent local citizens, who distributed bread, wine, flour, butter and cheese to the poorest inhabitants of the neighborhood.
Amongst those charitable citizens was one Tommaso Da Vico.
Da Vico was a local doctor. In his will he requested that every year, on the last Friday before Lent, gnocchi and wine be distributed to the poor people of St Zeno.
Nowadays, on gnocchi Friday, Venerdi' gnocolar', a massive parade of over 4000 masked participants and 40 extravagantly decorated floats slowly snakes its way from Corso Porta Nuova to the Piazza of St. Zeno. Traditionally the parade is a celebratory expression of satire, comedy and joy. This was certainly the case last Friday! The parade is led by Papa' de' gnocco, a masked man representing an old king holding, instead of a scepter, a huge fork topped by a giant gnocchi.
In Piazza San Zeno there stands a stone marble slab. This slab is in fact the tomb of King Pepin, son of Charlemagne, who died in 810 and is thought to be buried under this lawn. It was from this stone table that Da Vico is said to have served his gnocchi to the poor of San Zeno. Next to the stone table is a fading monument to Tommaso Da Vico, the man whose generous act of charity is still celebrated and remembered nearly 500 years later.
As children the world over are busy preparing letters to Santa Claus, the children of Verona are a couple of weeks ahead. They have already dispatched their missives to Santa Lucia and are now enjoying the post-celebratory glow of a decidedly unhealthy period of over-indulgence.
For the children of Verona, 13 December arrives with a greater sense of anticipation than even Christmas. For the city itself it is a vibrant period of festivity that sees the old town flooded with families who come to enjoy the traditional seasonal market that takes place in Piazza Brà over 3 days with over 300 market stalls selling, amongst other things, sweets, local produce and gifts. If you're lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the hallowed saint herself.
A virgin martyr, Santa Lucia was one of the earliest Christian saints to achieve wide following and recognition. According to legend, Lucia came from a wealthy Sicilian family (she is the patron saint of her native Syracuse), but (in the tradition of St. Agatha) she spurned marriage and worldly goods and vowed to remain a virgin.
Apparently such chastity didn't go down so well with the local Roman authorities, who sentenced her to a life of forced prostitution in a brothel.
It was at this point that the Almighty stepped in. Lucia became immovable and could not be carried away to the brothel. She was next condemned to death by fire, but proved impervious to the flames.
Finally, her neck was pierced by a sword and she died.
In reality, Lucia may simply have been a victim of the Roman anti-Christian persecution that was known to have taken place during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.
According to the Veronese tradition, on the night of 12 December an empty plate is left on the table for the saint to fill with sweets. The children go to bed early with their eyes tight shut, fearing that the saint will blind them with ash if she catches them awake! During the night, Santa Lucia, accompanied by her donkey Gastaldo, brings sweets and toys for the good children and a piece of coal for the less deserving.
This tradition dates back to the thirteenth century when a virulent eye disease affecting mainly children spread throughout Verona. Praying for an end to the outbreak, parents and family members made a barefooted pilgrimage to a shrine of Santa Lucia near Piazza Brà (no longer in existence) to pray for her divine intervention to bring the epidemic to an end. In the deep midwinter, It was not easy to persuade the children to make the barefooted pilgrimage, so it was promised that Saint Lucia would fill their socks and shoes with gifts and sweets while they made the sacred pilgrimage.
The epidemic passed but the habit of taking children to the shrine of Santa Lucia on 13 December every year continued well into the nineteenth century, initially in the church of Saint Lucia Intra in Porta Palio (destroyed during the Napoleonic period) and then in Piazza Bra in the church of St. Agnes (demolished in 1837 to make way for the current Town Hall).
The influx of so many children and parents in the largest square of Verona drew sellers of sweets and toys. What emerged was the "Fair of Santa Lucia," which the families of Verona enjoy to this day.
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