Friday, May 24, 2013

Lazy Peasants and One Sucker of a Saint: Allerona’s Festivale di Sant Isidoro

Our statue of the miracle of St. Isidoro,
with an angel driving oxen while Isidoro prays. 
Allerona has a few traditional festivals each year. But my favorite, and far and away the most charming of them all (and hence my favorite) is the festival of Sant Isidoro, which takes places the second weekend in May. St. Isidore (Isidoro in Italian) hails from Spain, but he is celebrated in countries across the world, particularly in agrarian communities or those with an agrarian tradition, like Allerona. He’s known as the patron saint of “the fields and those who work in the fields.”

The legend goes that as a young man born into poverty, Isidoro went to work for a wealthy landowner. But he sometimes showed up late to work, as he first stopped to pray at church every morning. The landowner
accused Isidoro of cheating him out of time and labor, but Isidoro assured him that he worked harder and produced more than the other, less pious field hands. So the landowner, still suspicious, hid near the church door and sure enough, Isidoro went and prayed first thing. Still undetected, he followed Isidoro out to the fields, where legend has it that he saw—depending on the legend—somewhere between one and three angels pushing plows alongside Isidoro. The moral of the story of St. Isidoro is that if your spiritual life is in order, your earthly commitments will fall into order, also. Apparently, if Isidoro had been late to work because of frequent hangovers, the angels would not have appeared to help him.
Tractors waiting to be blessed,
to ensure a good year's harvest

In Allerona, the story of St. Isidoro varies somewhat from the original version. As Paolo has explained it to me, a bunch of contadini, or peasants, prayed to St. Isidoro for help tending their fields. While they either a) feasted b) danced c) slept or d) prayed some more—I’m not really clear based on Paolo’s version of the story—an angel appeared and plowed their fields.

So that’s right folks. The lesson here is that if you don’t have the time or inclination to do your work, just ask St. Isidoro for help, and then enjoy that second helping of pasta, extra few hours of sleep or another dance with your best girl.

Now that’s my cynical agnostic self, talking, of course. But the pugnaloni, a key feature of Allerona’s Festival of St. Isidoro, don’t do much to refute my contention that we’re talking about a bunch of lazy peasants and a sucker of a saint, who sends angels to plow fields just because some farmers don’t feel like doing it.

A pugnalone...
When Paolo first described to me what the pugnaloni were, I have to admit I was a bit confused. “They’re carts decorated with scenes from life in the campagna,” he explained. “Every year there’s a contest to pick the best one.” Decorated carts? Models? It was all sounding a little to craft-y to me. I gave him a quizzical look, one that I like to think conveys curiosity, but instead probably conveys, “That sounds fucking stupid.”

Still, I had to see for myself that first year. The festival kicks off with the blessing of the tractors in the town square. The priest comes, says a few words and waves his psalter in the general direction of the assembled tractors—and there are all shapes and sizes—and then the tractors slowly move out of the piazza. Then, the pugnaloni are brought in.

I’m happy to say that I had to eat crow yet again for a sarcastic eye-roll—or whatever one does to atone for a sarcastic eye-roll. (I should know this, given how frequently I make this type of atonement.) The pugnaloni, which can only be done partial justice in my photos, are among the most creative, charming and precious labors of love and tradition I’ve ever seen.

Why plow when you can polka?
Each pugnaloni depicts the story of St. Isidoro, but they also show a depiction of contadini life in the late-1800s, Allerona’s busiest and most populous epoch, when podere, or farmhouses, could easily house 20 or more family members, and their residents lived off what they farmed or traded for. Each pugnaloni is carefully, meticulously decorated, and each one features an angel, complete with white gown, wings and halo, pushing a plow or following an ox in the fields. The pugnaloni are decorated with fresh flowers, fruit and tiny little plants, and each has a tree in its center, decorated like a May pole and festooned with wheels of cheese, salami, bread, and other fruits of labor in the countryside. It may be a religious festival, but tell me there aren’t some pagan origins here somewhere.

After the pugnaloni are on display for a few hours, the corteo storico, or historic procession, begins. First comes the wood carving of St. Isidoro carried by several townsmen. Our priest, Don Luigi, follows closely behind and recites prayers into a loudspeaker, which is carried by another townsperson. Then comes our town philharmonic band, then the best part—about 100 or so Alleronese dressed in traditional clothes of the late 1800s. Their clothes are humble, simple and hand-sewn, so much so that you’d expect to see them piled into a horse-drawn buggy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
This guy's too busy fishing to be bothered with farm work.

The saint, the priest, the band and the costumed Alleronese walk through the town square and head downhill in procession, and one by one, the pugnaloni carts fall in line behind them, pulled by one or two people and gently guided by a few more. Crackling fireworks fire off along the procession route, and those viewers who don’t follow the procession await its return in about a half an hour. More prayers and music ensue, and then everyone heads for lunch. (This is Italy after all, and St. Isidoro may be the patron saint of the fields, but even he wouldn't dare interrupt the sacred Sunday lunch, which starts promptly at 1 pm.)

In the afternoon, the pugnaloni are placed all around our town centro, and in every corner of the town traditional farm crafts are demonstrated, from making yarn from sheeps’ wool, to making cheese to separating wheat from chaff.

Paolo and his Nonno Gino carved these wooden models
when Paolo was just a little boy.
Foods typical of life in the campagna are offered as well. These include beans with anchovies and onions, unsalted bread and simple cookies. It’s all known as cucina povera—poor cuisine—and that pretty well sums up what country life was like in and around towns like Allerona, not just in the 19th century but well into the 20th, too. And people gobble the stuff up, not so much because it tastes good, but because it is a reminder of a time gone by—the comfort food of another era. It’s much like the way my mother used to buy a slice or two of head cheese at the supermarket—to my utter disgust. She grew up during the Great Depression, when her impoverished family would have received the offal of a neighbor’s pig like it was a platter full of T-bone steak. So maybe like my mom with her head cheese, the people of Allerona scarf down their cucina povera just so they don’t forget what poor tasted like.

Sweet, beautiful scenes of farm life.
For me, the real stars of the Festival of St. Isidoro will always be the pugnaloni, which I could never have imagined I’d enjoy so much. Isidoro may or may not have sent those angels to plow the fields, but beyond the legend of the saint, the pugnaloni are a tender and lovingly tended record of an age that no longer exists, but of a time that Alleronese of all ages hold close to their hearts. They remember a simpler life, when entertainment consisted of singing, telling stories, and attending dances, and when you courted the girl who lived up the road because, well, she was within walking distance and you’d grown up with her and her siblings. And maybe their food tasted better to them, because it was produced by their own hands. They toiled on the land. They lost infants and children to disease and hunger. Son and brothers left for war and never came back. A hail storm or a late spring freeze could ruin their year. And just maybe they deserved an angel to come and ease the workload a bit.
The corteo storico, or Allerona, circa 1890...

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