May 27, 2013

A Look at NYC's 2013 Festa di Sant'Antonio da Padova

Viva Sant'Antonio!
Inside Most Precious Blood Church
Organized by the Society of Saint Anthony of Giovinazzo, Inc., the celebration will continue through Sunday, June 2nd. There will be a second procession on Saturday, June 1st at 7:00 PM.
Standard bearer leads the way
Exiting Most Precious Blood Church
The society's pride and joy
This year's Queen of the Festival, Michelle Fiorentino
Her first Feast!
The procession makes its way through the streets of Little Italy
This year's Grand Marshals
Adorable Franciscan with proud papa
The Queen and her court
Another look at the procession
Outdoor chapel on Mulberry Street
A look inside historic Most Precious Blood Church
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
Most Precious Blood Church
109 Mulberry Street, NYC
(Between Broome St. and Spring St.) 

Proceeds to benefit Most Precious Blood Church, Saint Jude Hospital, Sandy Storm Relief, Old Bridge High School, St. Anthony Novena, American Diabetes, St. Anthony of Padova Church, St. Rocco Society, Public School #75, C.F.S. Children Malformation, Communion of St. Anthony and Society of Pozzallo

* All schedules and activities are subject to change, so please check with organizers for any updates.

For more information visit the Society of Saint Anthony of Giovinazzo, Inc. on Facebook

May 23, 2013

Chiara Ambrosio's 'Neapolitan Cult of the Dead' at Morbid Anatomy

Chiara Ambrosio at Morbid Anatomy
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Lucian

Recently we attended an event at Morbid Anatomy entitled The Neapolitan Cult of the Dead, an illustrated lecture by filmmaker/ animator Chiara Ambrosio with music accompaniment by Bird Radio.

In the past we have visited the topic in various articles, such as "Enigmatic Traditions" and "Parentalia," so we were eager to hear what the speaker had to say. Ms. Ambrosio was very interesting to talk to before the lecture even began. She was born in Southern Italy, but now lives in London. Passionate about her work in film, she explained that her ancestors were from Naples and Calabria and the lecture was part of her own cultural heritage.

After introducing herself the lecture began with the audience viewing photos with music. She did her best to recreate the tone and emotional atmosphere of Naples and the spiritual practices of its people and did well; but as she said, the best way to experience it is to actually go there. The images were both engaging and disturbing, not because of the tombs or the skulls of the dead underground, but because of the condition of the city of Naples in the land of the living. The images were real and held nothing back, it was beautiful and dirty, full of life but poor, a landscape of contradiction. However, even the ravages of time, poverty and brutal politics could not completely cover the majesty that Naples once was. The bones of the city’s past showed through as clearly as the polished bones of the dead underneath it.

Between the images she spoke about the city of Naples, the practices of its people and the spiritual aspects of the Cult of the Dead. Her narrative felt like poetry. She spoke of the seeming paradoxes in their spiritualism, a sense of the ancient, and their respect and reverence for their ancestors, who they believed were now in purgatory. By adopting the bones, caring for them and praying for their owner’s souls they hoped to help those souls reach Heaven, and in return the dead would help the living and their families. She also talked about Vesuvius. Living in the volcano’s shadow is living in the shadow of death, and yet the fertile soil brings life and livelihood. It gave us a lot to think about.

Afterward there was a question and answer period, and Chiara Ambrosio proved very knowledgeable not only about her chosen topic, but about the history and issues of Southern Italy in general. It was impressive. We spoke again after the questions were over. I was grateful for the opportunity to have met her, and I look forward to seeing her films. She is currently working on a documentary about the religious festivals of Verbicaro, Calabria and how they include both Pagan and Christian aspects.

May 22, 2013

A look at the 2013 Feast of Our Lady of the Audience, Kansas City, Missouri

Viva Maria!
Photos courtesy of Robert Kearney
Our friend Robert from Kansas City was gracious enough to send us some wonderful pictures of this year's Feast of Our Lady of the Audience and we wanted to share them with you.
Our Lady of the Audience departing Holy Rosary Church
A canopy is raised above the statue,
which is then showered with rose petals
Devotees swab the statue with cotton balls and rose petals
After Mass parishioners celebrate with some sweets
A look inside beautiful Holy Rosary Church
For a YouTube video of this year's celebration click here

May 21, 2013

A Look at Middletown, Connecticut's 92nd Annual Saint Sebastian Feast

Primu Diu e Sammastianu!
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli

I made my way to Middletown, Connecticut this weekend for the 92nd Annual Saint Sebastian Feast. Invited by a friend, I jumped at the opportunity to finally partake in this wonderful tradition. 

Arriving early, we had the opportunity to explore Saint Sebastian Church and mingle with some locals before Mass. Beautifully decorated, the church was heavily influenced by the Baroque design of the Basilica San Sebastiano in Melilli, Sicily.

Curious about the origins of the Feast, I learned that in 1414 a galley arriving from the Adriatic was shipwrecked by a terrible storm at Magnisi, a peninsula in the Province of Siracusa. Miraculously, none of the passengers were harmed. This blessing was attributed to Saint Sebastian because his statue was part of ship's cargo and safely washed up on shore. News of the miracle spread and the Bishop of Siracusa lead a procession to the location to retrieve the statue. However, no matter how hard they tried the saint would not budge. Many wanted the prize, but only when the people of Melilli attempted the feat the statue allowed itself to be moved. With great pride they returned to their hometown with their beloved patron. 

Mass culminated with the I Nuri (barefooted devotees dressed in white with red sashes) entering the church fervently proclaiming their devotion to God and San Sebastiano. "First God, then St. Sebastian," they cried. The litter bearing the saint was covered with flowers and carried out of the church to the expectant crowd. 

With great revelry and fanfare the procession wended its way through the parish, greeted by the faithful along the way. Upon return, the Saint was brought back into the church where celebrants distributed the flowers for luck. Afterward, the festivities spilled out onto the church grounds where a fantastic festival was held. There was plenty of good music, delicious food, and fun rides and games. The rain didn't dampen any spirits.

Next year marks the 600th anniversary of the Feast and a contingent from Middletown is planning a trip to Sicily to participate in the historic celebration.

Viva San Sebastiano!

The procession leaves the church
The I Nuri make their way through Middletown
Another look at the I Nuri
Tradition is passed from father to son
This cutie was a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day
The clergy welcome back the procession 
A close up of San Sebastiano
A look inside beautiful Saint Sebastian Church
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian on the nave ceiling
Donations are pinned to the statue
Stained glass window in the church foyer
A statuette of San Sebastiano
Monument to Catholic war veterans
You know you're in the right place when Tony Andriola of Anne Marie's Concessions is there. For over twenty years "Tony Torrone" has been selling his toothsome nougat and confections at Italian festivals all over the East Coast
There was no shortage of delicious Sicilian delicacies to choose from, but my favorite was the arancini
A traditional carrettu sicilianu (Sicilian cart) was on display
Detail of the carrettu showing a battle between the Normans and Saracens

May 13, 2013

The Roman Lemuria, and the Ungrateful Dead

Fall of the Rebel Angels (detail)  
 by Luca Giordano
By Lucian

When I first attempted to research the ancient Roman holiday of Lemuria I found a lot of New Age theories dealing with lost civilizations, Atlantis, Mt. Shasta, and other things. Some of them attempted to connect their beliefs with the Roman holiday, but such conjecture was not what I was looking for. My goal was to research and summarize what we know about the Roman pagan tradition in an attempt to better understand ourselves through understanding our past. The rest, while it might prove interesting to some, did not serve my purpose.

The Roman Empire absorbed the civilizations of many Mediterranean peoples and ruled over them for many centuries. During this time the various parts of the Empire adopted many beliefs and practices that the Romans brought with them. This process, at least for the pagans, was less hostile than one might expect. As long as other religions acknowledged the Roman gods, paid their taxes, and followed Roman law they were allowed to continue their own traditions. Many of these practices were parallel with Roman beliefs, and that was to be expected because they were kindred peoples. The concept of celebrating, communing with, appeasing, or banishing the spirits of the dead were common. The Romans had two primary holidays dealing with the dead. One was a celebration and appeasement of their ancestors held in February, called Parentalia. Once appeased those spirits were supposed to be helpful and bring luck. The other was held on May 9th, 11th and 13th, and was called Lemuria. Its primary purpose was to deal with the malevolent spirits of the dead who return to the world of the living with evil intentions. Nothing good was expected from them, and the best-case scenario was forcing them to leave.

As with Parentalia and other holidays connected to the dead, the temples and courts were closed. It was considered very unlucky to marry during Lemuria, or conduct new business. The Romans felt that odd numbered days were unlucky in general, so Lemuria being observed only on three odd-numbered days lends a certain tone to the event. Ovid, in his work Fasti, describes one of the rituals in detail:
“When midnight has come and lends silence to sleep, and dogs and all ye varied fowls are hushed, the worshipper who bears the olden rite in mind and fears the gods arises; no knots constrict his feet; and he makes a sign with his thumb in the middle of his closed fingers, lest in his silence an unsubstantial shade should meet him.  And after washing his hands clean in spring water, he turns, and first he receives black beans and throws them away with face averted; but while he throws them, he says: 'These I cast; with these beans I redeem me and mine.' This he says nine times, without looking back: the shade is thought to gather the beans, and to follow unseen behind. Again he touches water, and clashes Temesan bronze, and asks the shade to go out of his house. When he has said nine times, 'Ghosts of my fathers, go forth!' he looks back, and thinks that he has duly performed the sacred rites.” Ovid, from Fasti p.292 translation by Sir J. G. Frazer 1931
Mano Fico, “The Fig” hand gesture.
Used to ward off evil, it is also for
good luck or a great insult, depend-
ing on where and how it is used 
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
The symbolic hand gesture described by Ovid is known as “The Fig,” (or Mano Fico) and can be described as a fist with the thumb protruding from between the index and middle fingers. In pagan times it was used as a symbol to ward off evil, and is thought to represent a female sexual organ. Historically it was not uncommon to use sexual symbolism, both male and female, to protect against the dead or other spiritual threats, perhaps because sex was identified with creating life. In modern times “The Fig” and similar gestures have taken on vulgar or mocking meanings. I’m unsure whether they had dual meanings in classical times, although I’m sure it is possible because sex has always been the cause of strong and conflicting emotions. It could also be possible that the change in meaning was purposely promoted to denigrate pagan symbolism or mock the superstitious. Or maybe not, modern vulgarities also have sexual connotations and do not necessarily have any connection to ancient times. In a few parts of the world “The Fig” is still used as a good luck symbol, in others it is a great insult. Oddly enough, it is also the symbol for the letter T in American Sign Language.

Winged phallus souvenir 
from Pompeii. In the ancient 
world sexual symbolism was 
often used to ward off evil
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
Ovid’s reference to knots constricting the feet was part of the Roman belief that knots or bindings hindered sacred rituals; sometimes even hair was required to be unbraided and worn loosely. There were similar ideas concerning rings. “The Priest of Jupiter was not allowed to wear a ring unless it was broken and stoneless.” (Burriss) During both Lemuria and Parentalia beans were used to placate the dead. It might seem strange by modern standards, but beans were a good source of nutrients and calories at the time. They were valuable because they helped you survive.

There is some confusion about the namesake of Lemuria. Ovid claims that it is a corruption of Remus, but others disagree. It is more likely that the name Lemuria was derived from the spirits being banished, who were called Lemures, and the Remus connection was attached to it later on, and not even advocated by everyone at the time.

Lares Familiares

The spirits of the dead were referred to as Manes, Lemurs or Larvae, but the difference between the Roman spirits is also confusing. Ovid uses the terms Lemure and Manes interchangeably, but others do not. In his City of God, St. Augustine claims: “Apuleius says also that men’s souls are demons, and become lares if their merits be good; if evil, lemurs, goblins; if indifferent, manes.” However, St. Augustine’s descriptions place the spirits of the dead into the three categories of the Christian concept of the afterlife. His book also promotes the idea that anything positive accomplished by paganism was done by pagans unknowingly following Christian philosophies before the coming of Christ. Besides, most experts agree that the Lares were originally spirits of the land, household and estate; only later becoming associated with deceased ancestors.

Most references that I have seen refer to the Manes as something positive, but references to Lemurs, or Larvae as they were sometimes called, were usually negative. Some ancient authors considered the Lemurs and the Larvae different; Pliny the Elder claimed that the Larvae (not to be confused with the Lares Familiares) were the tormentors of the dead.

People today might look down upon Lemuria and similar rituals as something primitive that humans have outgrown, but as a species we have not changed as much as we would like to believe. We have traded the Old Religion for new ones, and adopted different mythologies to explain existence. Even many of those who forsake religion entirely can be found embracing modern social theories as if they were scripture, ignoring any contradictions or obvious falsehoods in defense of their adopted philosophies, which are themselves often based on whimsical ideas about human nature.

A Jewish mezuzah
affixed to a doorframe
(New York Scugnizzo)
The belief in harmful spirits, or warding against them did not end with the pagan era. Christians have rituals to protect against or exorcise them, and there was an upsurge in those rituals in the 1960s and 70s. Even the simple act of having something blessed is a form of spiritual protection. When I was a child my family moved into a new apartment and I noticed a strange metal object fixed to the doorframe. My mother explained to me that the former tenants were Jewish and the metal container held their scripture and protected them while they slept. Even when we say, “God bless you” to someone who has sneezed, it is to protect them on a metaphysical level.

The claim that Lemuria was a holiday based on fear is not incorrect, but it is oversimplified. Fear is certainly a component, but so is facing the fear and acting to overcome the object of that fear with disciplined action. The people of the Empire knew that their ancestors lived in a world where some wished you well and others wished you harm. It is no surprise that that their observations were applied to the afterlife as well, for they also lived in such a world, and so do we.

• Fasti, by Ovid. Translation by Sir J.G. Frazer, published 1931 ISBN 0-674-99279-2
• City of God, by St. Augustine Vol. 1. Translation by John Healy published 1945, (The Ninth Book, Chapter XI - Of the Platonists that held men’s souls to become Demons after death.)
• Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome by Cyril Bailey, published 1932, reprinted 1972 ISBN 0-8371-4759-X
• Taboo, Magic, Spirits A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion, by Eli Edward Burriss, published 1931, reprinted 1972 & 1974, ISBN 0-8371-4724-7 

May 9, 2013

The Eight Hundred Martyrs of Otranto to be Canonized

Holy Martyrs of Otranto, ora pro nobis
The Holy See has announced that Pope Francis I will canonize the Blessed Eight Hundred Martyrs of Otranto, Puglia on May 12th. The Canonization Mass will be held from 9:30 AM till 11:45 AM at Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City.

The slaughter of the martyrs by Ottoman soldiers took place in 1480 during the invasion of the Kingdom of Naples. After a two-week siege, the city walls were breached and an orgy of wanton cruelty ensued. The townspeople were murdered, raped and sold off as slaves. Eight hundred survivors were rounded up and offered a chance to live if they would renounce their faith and convert to Islam. To a man they refused: "Eight hundred times, no!" they declared. They were butchered en masse.

A Neapolitan army under Duke Alfonso of Calabria with his Hungarian allies recovered the city on September 10, 1481. The remains of the Martyrs were interred in the Cattedrale di Otranto. In 1574, in commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto (1571), some of the relics were translated to the Chiesa di Santa Caterina a Formiello in Naples, fittingly beneath the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary.

In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI formally recognized their martyrdom and in 2012 he recognized a miracle attributed to their intercession, thus clearing the way to sainthood.

May 4, 2013

New Music

Neapolitan Flute Concertos Vol.2
performed by Auser Musici

Label: Hyperion
Release Date: May 14, 2013
Audio CD: $16.21 
Number of Discs: 1

Available for pre-order at

Also see:

May 1, 2013

New Books

Some forthcoming titles that may be of interest to our readers. They are available for pre-order at

Allies and Italians under Occupation: Sicily and Southern Italy 1943-45 by Isobel Williams

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Publication Date: 
September 6, 2013
Hardback: $76.29
Language: English
Pages: 320

New Approaches to Naples 
C 1500 - C 1800: The Power of Place edited by Melissa Calaresu and Helen Hills

Publisher: Ashgate Pub Co
Publication Date: 
September 30, 2013
Hardback: $119.95
Language: English
Pages: 264

Inventing Falsehood, Making Truth: Vico and Neapolitan Painting (Essays in the Arts) by Malcolm Bull

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication Date: January 5, 2014
Hardback: $24.95
Language: English
Pages: 140

Click here to see more books