Festa agli scogli di Sant’Anna (Sea celebration at the St. Anna rocks)

 

Ischia is a small and very charming island in the Italian region of Campania. Its most characteristic traditional event strangely doesn’t have an established name: through the years it has been called Festa di S. Anna, Sagra del mare, Sfilata di barche allegoriche, Defilé delle onde, Carnevale acquatico and more. The generic name of ‘Festa agli scogli di Sant’Anna’ (literally: ‘Sea celebration at the St. Anna rocks’) is as good as any, and denotes a grand yearly happening that took the current format in 1932. The event derives from very ancient rituals that can be traced back to the age of the Roman empire, in which on a certain date every village on the coast lighted a giant bonfire before the sea. It was a celebration of renewal and life itself, and of course it made for a powerful show that was best appreciated from a boat. Fishermen and villagers used to sail out at sunset to watch it and dine at sea with food that was partly thrown overboard in order to appease the marine gods.

With time and the advent of Christianity this celebration got associated with the patron saint of July 26th, Saint Anna, who incidentally also is the saint of women in labor, in tune with the life cycle theme of the original event. Since Ischia’s cliffs have a church dedicated to S. Anna built on them, it was then natural for the festival to focus more and more around this church. Gradually the bonfires tradition disappeared, and at the end of WWI this new formal festival was born. Boats of all sizes sailed in front of the church as great feasts were held aboard. A sort of competition sprang up to see who had the most beautiful boat of them all to show off, until the vessels became so richly decorated to become actual floating stages, complete with musicians, dancers, actors and more. The current format of the Festa is then similar to a parade with participants from every nearby island including Procida and Capri, called Palio delle isole del Golfo. The allegoric barges have become a celebration of local history and legends, with living displays of the rich past of Ischia and the region. A jury awards the most spectacular boat an artistic standard designed each year by a different international artist, plus a number of smaller prizes dedicated to the memory of important local figures. The highest point of the event comes at midnight, when a bonfire is lighted near the church, giving the signal for the feast to begin both at sea and on land. As the music rises and everyone enjoys the local cuisine, an impressive display of fires and fireworks engulfs the imposing Aragonese Castle in what appears like a real fire. The event has grown through the years. Now it begins on the 23rd with several cultural events, mostly focused on the traditions behind the festival. There are conferences, stage shows, art exhibitions and more – including a formal pilgrimage of pregnant women to the church to attend a propitiatory mass. The program ends on the 27th with a very sensible follow-up to the earlier nightlong parties. Everyone lends a hand at cleaning up the beaches and the sea, including its floor, to keep Ischia as beautiful as ever.