Italy. A landing place for immigrants, but at the same time quite the opposite.
A land to leave behind. Over 115,000 departures, in 2016 alone. Many young Italians leave to build a new life abroad, where they discover new impetus and shape new realities. But they take their origins with them, etched into their skin. They make them their own, they rework them and when they go home for a few days, their return has a different meaning. As in the case of Mario, his Virgin Mary and his blood.
“Tradition does not mean looking after the ashes, but keeping a flame alive” wrote Jean Jaures over a century ago, and Mario’s story is all of this: tradition, blood and intentions. Mario is 40 years old and twenty one years ago he left Nocera Terinese, his home town near Catanzaro in the southern Italian region of Calabria: a fortified town in the hills that lead down to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Now he lives in Portsmouth, a port city on the southern coast of England. There, Mario has two children and two jobs, because he has become a fully integrated and integral part of his new world: by day a workman and by night a pizza chef in his Italian restaurant. In addition, he cultivates a passion for body building that spans many years.
But every year, just before Easter, Mario returns to Nocera Terinese alone to dedicate his days of annual leave and his blood to a powerful creed that has always been with him and that, despite the distance, he has never forgotten. Mario discards his workman’s overalls, chef’s apron and even the clothes befitting a husband and father, and becomes a Vattiente. The Vattienti belong to an ancient and controversial rite of flagellantism. Dating back to 1600, stained with the blood shed intentionally by the devout for the Virgin Mary, the pratice is not approved of by the Catholic Church. Even so, the tradition is kept alive, with perserverence and love. The entire town is actively involved, closing itself off during the Easter period in order to perpetuate and defend its ritual, by now well known across the world and an attraction for many visitors.
A few days before Easter the preparations begin, uniting ancient medicine with age-old wisdom. Rosemary, wine, cork, glass, sparacogna (wild asparagus, in the local dialect): each of these elements has a role, to wound or to cauterize, to disinfect or to absorb. Mario, too, returns to the woods to gather what he needs, then he visits friends and relatives to receive the load of their offerings and prayers before returning to his own
house and becoming a son once more. And then, like the Son of God, he faces pain and scourging. On Holy Saturday he leaves the house barefoot, standing before the people of the town, there in feverish anticipation: he holds in one hand the thistle, with thirteen pieces of glass embedded in it, the longest representing Judas Iscariot, and in the other the rose, a cork without glass that becomes impregnated with blood and serves as a stamp. Mario processes through the streets of his old life, the streets of his childhood, on bleeding legs, flogging himself for the Virgin, for his faith and for his loved ones. The thistle tears his skin and the rose soaks up the blood which Mario uses along his journey to stamp the houses of friends and relatives, prostrating himself both as a sign of respect and in an act of homage to their offerings and prayers.
Mario has been away for 21 years, but Mario has returned. Behold the man.
And on his path Mario finally sees again, processing alongside the ritual, Our Lady of Sorrows, a real being for Nocera Terinese, with whom the Vattiente has an intimate, secret dialogue. It is the same Pietà that Mario has tattooed on his back, below the muscles that like his wounded flesh are regenerated in training session after training session, in the gym, late at night, far away in England.
Tradition is keeping a flame alive, but also keeping a wound open. Because there are wounds that must not heal immediately, blood that must not congeal quickly but that must flow freely to pursue an intention and to purify. And there are wounds to the soul; a tear that cannot be resewn, the lesion created by abandoning one’s own land to begin an adventure in another country while remaining inextricably tied to one’s origins.
And this bond is unbreakable, in spite of how it may seem.
At the end of his ritual, Mario shaves his beard, sheds the garments of the Vattienti and, like a superhero, returns to being simply a man. He says goodbye to his family, boards a plane and goes back to England, carrying those wounds on his legs and, in his soul, the scars of a lifetime.