The Festival

by Eugenia Frothingham IT WAS “a great while since, a long, long time ago” that the sea flung a Christian saint upon the shore of an Italian island and the holy man turned himself to silver where he lay. In this precious and amazing condition he was found by natives, who built him a cathedral […]

By Yankee Magazine

Nov 08 2018


by Eugenia Frothingham

IT WAS “a great while since, a long, long time ago” that the sea flung a Christian saint upon the shore of an Italian island and the holy man turned himself to silver where he lay. In this precious and amazing condition he was found by natives, who built him a cathedral and worshipped him happily for hundreds of years. They give him a day of every June when his countenance is made to shine by proud and reverent polishing of its silver surface. The little streets are blessed as he is carried through them. The four corners of the earth are blessed as his body is inclined to the rocks which Ulysses passed by, to the peacock-blue and violet sea and to the smoking mountain. From the large new hotels and the small ancient houses come showers of colored paper and roses and affectionate laughter, which follows the progress of this dear saint as he is carried through the streets by his people.

It may be that the existence of such a precious miracle in their midst keeps religious enthusiasm very warm in the hearts of these islanders, and perhaps this is why no other spot sees the great Festa of the Corpus Christi celebrated with ancient rites so pure, so unhampered by commonsense, so little perturbed by humor: which is why I came to see it.

We stayed at the Palace Hotel in spite of its orchestra which played European and American music every evening. An essay should be written concerning the detestation of music which sometimes overwhelms a traveler after months of voyages, and sojourns in hotels, but this has not yet been dealt with.

Many people were on the island and many joys preceded the Festa, but never the joy of silence. In the narrow streets dense crowds of a virile and childlike population thronged and pushed and overflowed on to the shores and hillsides, for these were giorni di festa and it was necessary to make a noise.

I was prepared for religious ceremony by certain loud explosions which occurred just as we were choosing lace tablecloths from a tiny shop. My friend cried out that the Bolsheviks or anti-Fascists were perpetrating fresh outrage; but the saleswoman held her wares against the light with a plump and comfortable hand. “Niente! Niente!” she said, “they are only bombs being tried on the Cathedral steps for the Festa of the Corpus Christi. It is a great Festa and it must be known if the bombs are good.” Judging by their detonations the bombs were excellent; but so many were tested that there seemed danger of exhausting the supply, thus causing the sun of a great and sacred festival to rise upon a bombless day!

The solemn morning dawned, or more accurately speaking burst for me at 5 A.M., when I was wakened by an immense sound of brass instruments playing a spirited march. I had not gone to sleep till three o’clock owing to the presence of several mosquitoes, which had somehow got within the netting so laboriously prepared to keep them out. At this fresh outrage I rose—wearily, but with the swiftness of anger—and from my window saw a large brass band giving tongue under the ilex and oleander which leaned so delightfully over a garden wall.

It seemed as though I could hardly wait to ask our hall porter the meaning of such a disturbance. When I did so his face radiated happiness.

“Ah, but yes! They are musicians imported from the main land for the celebration of the Corpus Christi. A magnificent band. Ma splendida! splendida!” He told me further that it had cost I do not know how many lire and consisted of I do not remember how many persons. This large and enthusiastic group drifted about the island all day, its musical contents bursting forth temperamentally amid the vineyards, the streets and the startling beauty of the mountains, so that I never knew where to expect it. But everyone—or nearly everyone—on the island was happy. The auguries were excellent. My neighbor’s gardener, who polished the silver face of his saint found that face to be benign, “Si, molto molto benine sta mattina!”

“But is it not always benign?” I asked, wondering that vicissitudes of temper should be ascribed to Christian saints.

“But no! Sometimes it is displeased, and then we know that wrong has been done or that disaster may arrive from the mountain.”

I find it difficult to describe the religious procession which culminated in the blessing of the Corpus Christi under a burning Italian sun. A malevolent writer, possessing the distinction which is accorded to literary malevolence, has said that a sacred ceremony on this island is more like a polonaise than a procession. I will let it go at that.

From an upper window of the piazza I saw only the end of the occasion, and remember how that happy and excited populace thronged and writhed beneath us. It almost engulfed the acolytes and young priests—if so they were—who could only be distinguished from the crowd by their gorgeous colored raiment.

The sacred blessing for which so large a band and so many bombs had been imported, took place upon a precariously contrived platform festooned with flowers. Quick as a thought the great moment came and went: bearers of the sacred burden stepped down among the crowd, and the brass band exploded into a high and spirited uproar of martial music.

Thousands of years have dropped away since Grecian men and maidens danced and shouted and ran with the running wind under just such a burning sun to celebrate the hour of a god they loved.

The day went by. The band was stilled at last and all the noisy happiness, so I sat on my balcony alone in the dusk and looked out over the sea.

Imagine, if you can, all that has been said of beauty and a summer night: moonlight and water, fantastic and lovely shapes of rocks against the sky. What words can tell of that sky and its stars? Its waters “at their priest-like task of pure ablution?” One knows that on such a time as this and on such a land the great Aeneas kissed his Queen, that Charybdis flung her spirit upward through the sea in terrible ecstasy till the stars dripped water, and that there was wild shrill singing upon Ulysses’ rocks.

Then the moon came. Like Kipling’s sun it rose “huge and amazing.” It made the sea shine and flash, and just below my terrace the great rocks, which seemed to have left the island and to have been arrested by some august hand just as they were stalking magnificently out to midocean, were black and superb against this flashing sea.

Such beauty and drama cannot be endured with philosophy. They make the soul tug at its moorings. Life! What is its mystery? What its consummation? And then suddenly the trance of pain and rapture was split wide by the hotel orchestra, which burst into self-expression—its measures capering out of the windows on the joyous rage of “Shuffle off to Buffalo.” Brazen and triumphant this tune galloped into the garden and the night, and I knew that it would slip out over the sea of magic, where it would sound faint and thin but brazen still.

And now was to come the hour when people who had dined felt the need of noise. Jabs of sound began to rise from various hotels and villas whose twinkling lights were pretty and innocent. The voice of a great operatic tenor could soon be heard singing vociferously from three different places and from different records and radios. It began with Pagliacci, strident and tormented in the villa below. The heroic measures of Aida soon emerged ponderously from a tea room at the left; and a little way up the dark Rock of Constantine there tripped the aria from Rigoletto. A jazz orchestra or two flung themselves enthusiastically into the rumpus, while a woman’s voice singing at incredible altitudes was lifted spasmodically above it. Now and again the volume of noise lowered itself sufficiently to uncover the sound of a piano in the act of being played upon with immense speed and competence.

Thus came civilization to the rocks and vineyards of an Italian island.

Relief from the hotel orchestra came ·later than usual; its generous extension of noise was probably a largesse to the greatest religious event of the year.

The night was advancing to middle age before our musical menagerie subsided, and quiet began to descend upon the Italians. But precisely at twelve o’clock the island blew up! That rehearsal of bombs on the Cathedral steps burst forth into terrific achievement. There were detonations which shook the earth and threatened the heavens. Wild flames streamed upward from behind our hotel and the once white walls of villas now red in the awful light, leapt from the darkness-leapt, vanished and leapt again.

“Che belezza! Ahl Che belazza!” cried enthusiastic voices from the balcony below.

And then it was really over. Humbled, shattered, and cautious I crept under the mosquito netting, and my shutters were closed willingly against the Italian night.