The Festa Della Madonna Bruna is an annual celebration in the Italian city of Matera, in the Basilicata region. It will be of particular interest to all people who love to see apparently random destruction and hear one of the loudest firework displays you’ll find anywhere in Europe. The Patron Saint of the town, Maria Santissima della Bruna has her Saint’s Day on July 2nd and the inhabitants of Matera – along with a good number of interested visitors – begin their procession at dawn.
The first few hours of the procession see it meandering through the streets of the town, including past the historic cave dwellings – the World Heritage Site of the Sassi – making a stop at every church and piazza. In the Sassi there is a longer stop when a special iconic painting of the Virgin is honoured by music and, of course, the obligatory fireworks.
At noon, a statue of the Madonna and child is escorted from the Cathedral to the church in the Piccianello district. It is guarded by a large number of costumed ‘knights’ on horseback. Waiting for the statue in Piccianello is an incredible handmade triumphal float – designed to represent a passage from the Gospel and painstakingly constructed from papier maché.
When the statue is safely upon the float, at around six in the afternoon, it is then taken, led by a team of eight mules and covered by an abundance of freshly cut flowers, back to the town centre. At the head of the procession now are the archbishop, bishop, assorted clergy and many horsemen in their velvet cloaks. The horses of the knights are similarly covered with paper and flowers. Once the statue has been replaced in the cathedral, after three circuits of the Piazza Duomo, the ‘chariot’ returns to the Piazza Vittorio Veneto when the sacred atmosphere generated earlier completely disappears as the frenzied spectators attack it, rip off all the ‘sacred’ paper relics and, within a few seconds, the float is utterly demolished.
Apparently if you are able to get your hands on a piece of paper from the chariot, you are sure to have good luck until next year’s new offering has been designed and built. According to which tradition you prefer, this destruction was originally either to stop the original much loved images from falling into the Saracens’ possession after a battle or because a much-hated Lord of matera promised to buy his citizens a new carriage every year and so they wanted to see if he would keep his word.
The day finishes with a succession of street parties and then the most fantastic late evening fireworks display. Many places, of course, boast of the quality and volume of their fireworks. Few, though, can match the intensity of the display in Matera. Apparently, it is safest to stand with your mouth wide open so that the noise can escape rather than echo around your head!
More information about the traditions and legends of the festival can be found at http://www.festadellabruna.it/en/.
Visiting film buffs will undoubtedly recognise the area of the Sassi as it has frequently been used to represent biblical Jerusalem – in films such as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, for example, and many more. The recent growth of tourism in the area has led to a number of hotels – some in refurbished older buildings but there is also the 125 room Hilton Garden Inn. Because of the great demand at the time of the Festa della Madonna Bruna, you would be well advised to book as early as possible.
The nearest airport for visitors to Matera is at Bari, which is about 35 miles away. From Bari Central Train station, the Appulo Lucane Regional Railway has a direct service to the city. There are daily buses from Rome, Milan and Naples, although they are all long journeys. All three cities, however, are on the main motorway, the A1 Autostrada. Rome, though, is 450 kilometres and Milan 940 kilometres – so plan your journey carefully.