A Pagan Pupazza

by Rudston Steward

wingding 500 x 30 px


he Abruzzesi are mountain folk. The town of Fontecchio, about an hour’s drive from L’Aquila, sits in the valley of the Aterno River, with Monte Sirente to the south and the Gran Sasso massif to the north. Even in July and August, the peak of summer, evenings are cool.

I happen to be in town for Fontecchio’s summer “sagra” festival; a poster announces tonight’s Cena in piazza, dinner in the square. Summer sagre are regular features of rural Italian life, every two-bit hamlet in the land finds a pretext for organizing one—there are festivals for potatoes and porchetta and pears and prosciutto and peaches and polenta and plenty more to boot. The best-named festival, in my opinion, is the Sagra della Miseria—the Festival of Misery (celebrating the simple dishes of “poor” peasant culture from Colle Val d’Elsa in Tuscany.)

The standard sagra formula is tried and tested, and works like a charm: the town’s gastronomic specialties are ladled into plastic plates, to be consumed around communal tables seated on wooden benches; everyone gets sozzled on the local plonk, and then dances around to a loud live band playing (sometimes rather dreadful) Italian oompah-music from the 1960’s (ballo liscio, Italian ballroom dancing, is a perennial crowd pleaser.)

It’s a blast.

Tonight the formula has an added, peculiarly Abruzzese twist: after dinner a pupazza makes her startling entrance, literally taking the piazza by fire-storm. She is a larger-than-life papier mâché figure, gaudily painted, with massive boobs and a wreath of fireworks in her crown. She pirouettes and dances around the piazza in a multi-coloured plume of smoke, as the pyrotechnics crescendo and peak. She makes kids shriek and grandparents reminisce and everyone else laugh giddily out loud.

In this region of Abruzzo such pupazze make their appearance at most local festivities. They are probably a holdover from pagan harvest-rites, representing fecundity, regeneration, bawdy abundance, communal celebration. Traditionally they’d be burned on a bonfire at the end of the night, a ritual purification by fire.

But tonight in Fontecchio there is no bonfire: the pupazza will live on to see another clear-eyed Abruzzan day, shrouded in her cloak of mountains.


wingding 500 x 30 px