When you travel in Italy you expect to feel the presence of the Roman Catholic church. Churches on every corner- Cathedrals marking the center of town in almost every city, bell towers keeping time and marking important holidays like the heartbeat of the communities. Religious art is everywhere, telling the stories of the Bible and serving as visual tools to educate the masses on religion, and the glorify and bless the wealthy families who would commission the artwork itself. Catholicism is everywhere in Italy.
However sometimes, if you are lucky, you catch a glimpse into the story that came before Christianity in this beautiful country. Paganism, Druidic rites, Celtic Pantheons, all of these elements wove their way through the various city-sates and communities of pre-Christian Italy. When the Romans decided to propagate Christianty, the Church overlaid a lot of existing Pagan celebrations with the Christian calendar. This made the religious transition easier to enforce, and allowed the people to keep their traditions alive in their communities. Very sneaky.
We came across just one such tradition last night- the “Foccaracce” or “Fugaracce“, which is the burning of massive amounts of dried olive trimmings on the night of December 8, in honor of the The Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We asked the locals about why this is done, and they pointed to the nearby shrine to Mary and said it was in order to “riscaldare” the Virgin Mary. To warm her up during the long cold winter months. In reality, we know this is an ancient Pagan tradition which was overlaid with these Christian tones- a celebration after the final harvests, and a fire to purify the spirits of the people and ready them for the annual cycle to begin again.
I love discovering these stories hidden underneath. Christianity is everywhere in Italy, kind of like Pizza. But when you find some truth underneath all the noise, you end up with something really great, historically significant, interesting and impact, and truly worthwhile. You have to search for these things in Italy- ask questions, be curious and open-minded. You’ll be rewarded in the end.