June 24, 2011

The Isle of Ischia and the 'Ndrezzata

Gulf of Naples
By Giovanni di Napoli

At the northern periphery of the Gulf of Naples lies the enchanting Island of Ischia. Steeped in history and legend, this jewel of the Tyrrhenian is the birthplace of the 'Ndrezzata, a traditional folk dance whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Twirling with increasing speed, armed participants strike and parry with wooden swords and mazzarelli (cudgels) in a dance, some say, symbolizes the war between the sexes (or nymphs and satyrs). Depending on whom you ask, there are any one of a number of stories offering an explanation.

According to one legend the 'Ndrezzata was taught to local villagers by the island's nymphs. It was supposed to remind them of happier days when the spirits of the wood gaily danced to the celestial sounds of Apollo's golden lyre. During the sybaritic festivities the sun god fell in love with the beautiful nymph, Coronis, and the two conceived a child, Asclepius, the god of healing and medicine. Blessed, the island became famous for its therapeutic qualities.
A View of Ischia from the Sea (1842) 
by Jean-Charles-Joseph Rémond (1795-1875)
This all came to an end, however, when Coronis betrayed Apollo with the faun, Ischi. A white raven looking for the god's favor exposed the infidelity, but Apollo's fury singed the bird's feathers, forever turning the species black. In a jealous rage he killed the lovers, but unborn Asclepius was saved. In some versions of the story the sun god's sister, Artemis, slew Coronis. Bitter over his mother's death, Asclepius made the hot springs of Ischia undrinkable. Be that as it may tourists still visit the ancient nymphaeum, fumaroles and thermal baths.

Colonized by Euboean Greeks during the first half of the eighth century BC, it has been suggested the martial aspects of the dance harken back to the military prowess of the ancient Hellenic warriors. Others say the custom doesn't date from the Classical Era, but simply recalls a military victory over Saracen raiders during the sixteenth century. Considering the great frequency and ferocity of these attacks (in one raid alone the infamous Turkish corsair, Barbarossa, captured 4,000 slaves) any success in repelling the invaders would be worth celebrating.
Sorrowful Woman of Ischia (1822) by unknown artist
Nevertheless, the most popular interpretation claims the dance represents the reconciliation between the neighboring villages of Barano and Buonopane. In 1540 a Baranese boy fell in love with a Buonopanese girl. He secretly gave her a belt made of coral as a token of his love and symbolizing their union. The transgression was discovered by a rival suitor and led to an open feud between their clans. A battle ensued, but thanks to the divine intervention of the Madonna della Porta cooler heads prevailed and the belt was burned at the Church of San Giovanni Battista on Lunedì dell’Angelo (Easter Monday), satisfying both parties. It remains unclear who got the girl.

Tradition has it that one cannot be taught the 'Ndrezzata, it's a special gift bestowed at birth to the people of Ischia from the nymphs of Nitrodi. The dance is performed only twice a year — during Easter Monday and Midsummer (June 24th), the feast day of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Buonopane. Whatever its true origins, the 'Ndrezzata is a beautiful reminder of the long history and rich heritage of Southern Italy.