Cartapesta: Lecce’s Artistic Legacy

Discovering the old tradition of Cartapesta in Lecce with Victoria | #PugliaByMe

A craft very unique to Lecce in the Salento region of Puglia is cartapesta, papier-mâché. No, not the papiermâché you did in elementary school… papier-mâché as an art form! In fact, especially here in Lecce you will find many spectacular statues and even a ceiling in one of the churches is actually papier-mâché e! And trust me, you would never suspect it unless it was pointed out to you!!

Putignano Carnival

Farinella_PutignanoThe Putignano Carnival is one of the biggest Carnivals in Italy and is also the longest and one of the oldest carnival in the world. It has in fact very old origins (few records date this event back to the 26th of December 1394) and it still retains few traditional rites such as the “Feste delle Propaggini”, “Festa dell’Orso” (The Feast of the Bear), the “Burial of Carnival”.

The “Rito della Propaggine” signs the beginning of the carnival and is a celebration of the event that gave birth to the carnival on the 26th of December 1394 when the Holy Remains of St. Steven Protomartyrs were transferred from Monopoli to Putignano in an attempt to protect them from invading Saracens. People dress as farmers join the procession while dancing, singing and reciting satirical verses in the local dialect. They also bring a candle to the church asking forgiveness for all sins they will commit during the carnival period.

Starting on the the 17th of January until the Fat Tuesday, every Thursday is dedicated to satire with floats and parades celebrating different social classes. The first Thursday is usually dedicated to monsignors, followed by priests, nuns, widows, married women and married men.

Another traditional step of the carnival is the Festa dell’Orso (Bear Feast) which is celebrated on the 2nd of February. According to an old tradition and following a burlesque logic the bear forecasts the climate for the remaining of the winter: if the weather is good then the climate for remaining part of the winter will be bad, if it is bad the weather will be good.

Farinella is the figure that represents the Carnival. Farinella is a jester wearing a multicolored suit and has bells on the two tips of the hat and also on shoes and collar. The name comes from farinella, a poor but tasty dish made with chickpea and barley flour. Eaten with fresh figs it was a dish for country workers.

The peak of the celebrations is in February when able craftsmen make papier-mâché floats and a massive parade is organized in town to celebrate this period of fun before the arrival of Lent, the Catholic period of prayer and penitence. The floats usually represent caricatures of politicians or TV personalities and carry social or political messages and their themes are related to satire or current public affairs. They are always accompanied by troupes of costumed dancers tossing coriandoli, hundreds of tiny pieces of colored paper with loud music engaging the crowds of spectators. In addition to the floats, lots of jokes are organized in town and it is lots of fun for people of all ages.

The carnival ends on the evening of Fat Tuesday when 365 tolls resonate from the bell tower reminding everybody that the Carnival is over and the Lent is approaching.

For more info on this event visit the official website:

The Fòcara of Novoli

Can you imagine a giant bonfire that reaches a height of 25 meters and a diameter of 20? It is the Fòcara (dialect word simply meaning bonfire), an unmissable event for believers and folklore lovers that takes place in Novoli, the province of Lecce every January.

Focara_Novoli3The origin of Fòcara presumably dates back to the 17th century: some historians attribute its birth to the Venetians who at that time were very active in Puglia producing and selling wine, oil, cotton as well as breeding horses. Others claim that it has pre-Christian origins, and used to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Today it is an event that celebrates the devotion to St Anthony Abbot (Sant’Antonio Abbate), who officially became Patron Saint of Novoli in 1664.

The Fòcara is a symbol and pride of the town of Novoli: it has been classified as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Region of Puglia and locals are trying to get the recognition by UNESCO for the event as an “intangible cultural asset”. Furthermore, the Fòcara is also one of the main events of the winter in Puglia and throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a symbol of the type of tourism that we like to define as different, a mix of ancient traditions and pagan rituals that together with the beauties of the territory and the goodness of the gastronomy, aims to enhance the local area. In recent years it has gained a lot of media attention with full regional coverage and streamed live on the internet. The National Geographic has recently dedicated a documentary to the event.

Focara_NovoliThe construction of this huge bonfire could literally be described as a work of peasant engineering, made by hand without the aid of mechanical means. Volunteers will start its construction from early December using thousands of bundles; each made of about 200 vine stocks recovered from pruning the vineyards during autumn. The bundles are carefully stacked one by one to form a giant and symmetric pyramidal structure with a tunnel built at its base. The official celebrations take place from 8th until the 17th of January and includes religious rituals, festivals, markets and concerts.

January the 16th is the big day: a flag depicting the Saint is hoisted on top of Fòcara. Early afternoon people carry the statue of the Saint on a procession through the streets of Novoli ending in the square that houses the fire and passing through the tunnel of the Fòcara.

Focara_Novoli_FireWorksFollowing the procession is the ceremony of the blessing of the animals, it should be remembered that St. Anthony Abbot, is also the protector of all animals from the stable and yard. Music, dance and spectacular fireworks herald the start of Fòcara that is set ablaze at 8pm and burns from the top to bottom. The Fòcara burns all night and all day; it is a magnificent setting to the various gastronomic and musical events that animate the whole feast.

The Fòcara, attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year, it is a remarkable event not to be missed if you are visiting Puglia at this time of year.

Photos of Francesco Sciolti

Pizzica & Tarantismo

Definitely one of the most famous Italy’s folk dance the “pizzica pizzica” is a traditional music and ballet of considerable social and cultural importance which is becoming more and more popular and is largely appreciated even among young people. This ballet is surrounded by religious believes and something mythological which has always fascinated people since old times.


According to popular belief, the tarantismo (whose birth is placed by some historians back to 1100), was a disease caused by the bite of a spider called the tarantula, this used to occur particularly during summer months during the harvest and mainly to women. The bite caused epilepsy, combined with sweating and palpitations. The “tarantismo” no longer exists today, it has nevertheless given life to a dance and music called tarantella or pizzica.

Tarantella or Pizzica, music and dance as therapy

Apparently the traditional medicine could not treat symptoms like epilepsy and palpitations; it was noticed that people had no response to traditional treatments and the only reaction they would have was a hysterical and obsessive dance to the rhythm of the traditional tambourine from Salento.

This is how the pizzica was born: it was a therapeutic element against the tarantismo and was considered the only remedy against the bite of the tarantula spider. The music was performed by various instruments with the tambourine being the most important, it was accompanied by violins, mandolins, guitars and flutes. The tarantolati (people who had been beaten by the spider) were exorcised by the music and the frenetic dance. It’s said that the dance could go on for days, sometimes weeks, and had a very accelerated pace.

The tarantolati, used to lie on the floor or in bed, and while listening to music they began to move the head and legs, crawling on the back and identifying themselves with the tarantula spider; they were unable to stand and eventually collapsed to the floor exhausted by fatigue but hopefully cured. Subsequently, the ill person was brought to St. Paul chapel of Galatina (Lecce) where they drank the holy water and after repeating a quick ballet they were healed by the Saint. According to tradition, St. Paul used to appear to tarantolati and provided them with a healing time. Even today in Salento there are testimonies of people to whom St. Paul has appeared.

Today tarantismo is completely gone, what remains is the so-called neo-tarantismo, which keeps alive the tradition of the pizzica dance. In addition to the pizzica of tarantolato, who dances alone under the hallucinatory effects of the tarantula bite, there are also two other forms of highly choreographed dance, named “pizzica pizzica” and “sword dance”.

The pizzica pizzica is a dance performed by a couple, not necessarily partners. It is a dance of courtship during which the two dancers are approaching, but never touch. There are no specific steps to learn and follow in this dance, it’s all given to the own feelings. A symbol and important piece of the dance is the handkerchief waved by the woman, it was once used to invite the partner to the ball and no man could take it. It adds a spectacular choreography to the ballet. During this dance the woman usually wears wide skirts and scarves, her hair are loose to express the most of her femininity; the man will show masculinity and strength by engaging in more determined and marked movements.

The other type of dance is called pizzica a sherma and is also often referred to as a swords dance. This kind of pizzica is danced by two men who simulate a fight with knives. There was a time when men used to used real knives: today however the presence of weapons is simply simulated by the index and middle fingers or by opening the whole hand.
The dancers are always surrounded by the so-called cerchio (a circle), spectators gather in a circle around the pizzica and watch the show while urging the dancers and applauding them. There are also musicians and tambourines players in the circle.

The pizzica is widespread mainly throughout the Salento sub-region, in Galatina on the 29th of June and in Melpignano in August. Here takes place the largest festival dedicated to the pizzica called La Notte della Taranta, the Night of the Taranta Spider.

Video of the Pizzica