Lent in Naples and Campania between the sacred and the profane

Lent is a period of about forty days preceding Holy Easter. It is a fundamental holiday for Catholics all over the world, commemorating the endless days Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism. A period marked by penitence and privations, historically in antithesis with Carnival, the festival par excellence of pleasure and fun. So much so that the first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday, which comes immediately after Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnival. Today, the strong penitential atmosphere of Lent has been strongly diluted and only the ban on eating meat every Friday remains in use, while complete fasting is only provided for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The contrast between Lent and Carnival has given rise to many events balanced between the sacred and the profane, especially in southern Italy. Today we are going to tell you the story of a couple of traditions that were once in vogue in Naples and Campania but still survive in the more remote provinces: the so-called Puppet of Lent or Old Woman of Lent and Carnival riding the Old Woman.

The Old Woman of Lent: a symbol of waiver and austerity

The Lenten Puppet, or Old Woman of Lent or, according to some sources, Widow of Carnival, is a rag doll made of rags and black rags that was hung from the balconies of houses in Naples and other towns in Campania, starting on Ash Wednesday. It marked the beginning of Lent, 'the countdown to Easter', but also marked the death of Carnival and all its excesses. Most probably the tradition originates from some ancient rituals, such as the Roman custom of hanging anthropomorphic sculptures, the so-called Oscilla, from trees. Five feathers were added to the worn-out costume of the old carnival widow to symbolise the five weeks of Lent. At the end of each week, one of the feathers was removed from the puppet until it was completely undressed. Then, finally, on Holy Saturday, the old woman was burnt at the stake, to solemnly decree the end of the period of Lent and penance. This custom was widespread in Naples until the 1960s, especially in the historic centre, in districts such as Sanità, for example, but today it still survives in the provinces of Benevento and Avellino and on the Sorrento and Amalfi coasts. A particular version of this rite still takes place in Alife, in the Caserta area. In this case, the old puppet, which can sometimes also be a covered tree trunk, is sawn, cut into pieces or burnt, to symbolise the end of the Lenten period or, more broadly, the end of winter and the advent of spring.

The history of the Carnival riding the Old woman in Naples

Another traditional ritual marking the transition between Carnival and Lent is the so-called Carnival on horseback of the Old Woman, a sort of theatrical-musical performance, interpreted by an actor who cleverly managed to wear a double mask. The carnival was represented by a Punchinello who, with dummy legs, crossed over the back of a toothless and undernourished old lady, who symbolised Lent.

The ceremony was accompanied by some musicians playing a tarantella or other popular music. The Carnival-riding Vecchia danced awkwardly and slowly, as if to symbolise the difficulty of Lent, i.e. of penitence and renunciation, to shake off the heavy and lusty carnivalesque partner. To this cadenced rhythm, the ceremonial group would stop in front of the basses and fondaci of the Neapolitan city where they were greeted by the people with joy and conviviality and above all with carafes of wine and the so-called salatielli, lupins soaked in water and salt.

During this sort of procession, Punchinello often shook castanets and recited obscene mottos, forcing the old woman to simulate erotic acts, gestures that provoked the laughter of passers-by, inducing them in some way to be more generous towards the 'Vecchia'. This ancient staging, which took place on Carnival Thursdays and continued during Lent, can be associated with another ceremony still in vogue in some municipalities of Campania: the so-called Carnival funeral. This is a real funeral procession in which a puppet, representing Carnival, is carried in a coffin surrounded by flowers and garlands and then burnt in an expiatory bonfire. Before the purifying act, a sort of public condemnation of pleasure and vice is read, solemnly marking the entrance to the Lenten period, described by many Neapolitans as 'blacker and uglier than Death'.