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Sikania. La festa di San Paolo a Palazzolo Acreide

Illuminations, colours, firecrackers and devotion


N°06 June 1999 - Pagg. 50-61


(text and photos by Vincenzo Anselmo)

There are several reason that will lead us to visit Palazzolo Acreide, a charming village that rises on a hill on the southern side of the valley of the Anapo River, in the hinterland of the province of Syracusa. First of all is the interesting archaeological site not far from the village; then the peculiar urban lay-out with many Baroque monuments scattered here and there; the huge artistic patrimony preserved especially in churches, works of art made by the major artists of every period; there is a remarkable museum where thousands of objects, gathered by the anthropologist A. Uccello and dating from the late 1800s, relevant to the tradition and culture of country life, are on display.
At the beginning of summer an interesting religious and cultural event attracts many visitors to Palazzolo Acreide. From June 27 to 29 the people of the village celebrate in a very magnificent way, their patron St. Paul.
The devotion for St. Paul at Palazzolo Acreide has a very old origin. Maybe it started many centuries before he was really chosen as patron saint, in 1688, instead of the Madona Odigitria. The reason for such “change” of patron saint is the presence in the town of a numerous confraternity devoted to St. Paul as well as the people's need to be under the protection of a saint that is able to help them more than any other, because of the uncertainty of everyday life and for their complete reliance on the produce of the land. And in this case it could have been no one else but St. Paul.
The two celebrations in his honour occur in two different periods of the year very important for farmers: on January 25 – the day when the saint was converted to Christianity – when wheat in the fields is just a tiny shoot and the long cold winter may be a menace, so its the right time to pray for suitable weather conditions in order to have a good harvest; on June 29 – the day of the saint's martyrdom – when wheat is being harvested and people give thanks to the saint for the good crop, asking as well for more and more plentiful ones in the future.
But the beginning of summer is also the most dangerous period for all workers that go harvesting in the fields. Such dangers are caused by bites of poisonous insects or snakes, which are so frequent in the sunny fields around Palazzolo.
This is another reason why St. Paul was the best saint to rely on, as he always was considered to heal snake bites. The origin of such tradition is linked to the incident quoted in the Books of the Apostles according to which a viper bit St. Paul whilehe was in Malta, and he had no consequences.
The designation of St. Paul as the patron of the town stirred up the disappointment of one part of the village. In fact it roused a deep rivalry between the “Sampaulisi” and the “Sammastianisi”, respectively devotees of St. Paul and of the Madonna Odigitria. Such rivalry went on for several centuries. It accentuated during the 1800s when the church of St. Sebastian, where the population of the homonymous district went to worship the Madonna Odigitria, was rised to be a parish church. At present, a slight rivalry between the two opposing groups still rises during the celebrations in honour of St. Sebastian and St. Paul. Over the centuries the festivity has remained the same as in the past, although this century is so strongly characterised by “modernisation” processes and by social and cultural changes.
Since the beginning of the past century the dreary penitential act called “lingua a trascinuni”, very common during many religious celebrations in southern Italy, consisting in crawling from the entrance of the church to the main altar dragging the tongue on the floor, has disappeared. Since 1949, the tradition of leading mules, horses, sheep, goats, cows and calves or any other animal wearing a red ribbon on the neck and an image of St. Paul on the forehead along the streets of the town and then inside the church, where they were forced to kneel down in front of the statue of St. Paul to be blessed, has been forbidden.
Also the “ciarauli” have disappeared, the population believed that such men had supernatural powers. People considered them as protectors from the bites of reptiles, and because of such virtue they were thought to descend directly from St. Paul, which was considered the first “ciaraulo”. These men used to partecipate in the celebrations carrying snakes in their hands, on their shoulders or around their neck. Pitrè, in his book on Religious festivities in Sicily, says that «women of every age, young girls and spouses, which would run away just at the sight of a snake in the fields, will go close and even keep them on their aprons, watching them unmoved some times touching them. All this caused by the strength of devotion, or the example of the others, or the power of suggestion for everything that is happening around them!». Nowadays there are no more these men, but still people believe that it is necessary to invoke St. Paul to be protected from bites.
At present festivities start on June 27 with “a sirata a villa” (an evening in the park). Then it goes on the following day, in the late afternoon, with a music band going along the streets of the town. Soon after a wooden statue of St. Paul (made by Vincenzo Lorefice, a sculptor from Ragusa), that has been covered by a mantle since the month of January, is carried outside the church amidst the sound of bells ringing, firecrackers and the crowd loudly crying “Viva San Paulu... Viva San Paulu... e cchi siemu tutti muti... viva lu gran patrunu” (Hurray for St. Paul, are we all dumb, hurray for the great patron saint).
During this celebration the shouts of the people, the firecrackers and the bells make a very loud noise that makes one hear nothing, but doesn't prevent devotees from praying and establishing a loud voice direct dialogue with the saint to ask for a grace. These are very touching moments, but only on the following day the celebrations reach their climax.
At about 9.00 in the morning the music band and the “bread cart” start going across the streets of the town. The cart is a special hand painted pushcart that is used to collect the “cudduri” – donut shaped breads with snake decorations – which are offered by the faithful and then, after being blessed in the church, sold at the highest bidders. During the morning lots of pilgrims go back and forth from the church to follow the various religious functions. Many devotees make te vow, called the “spadda nura” (naked shoulder), of carrying the heavy statue of the saint on their naked shoulders. As there are so many faithful aiming at this privilege, people tie a handkerchief on the poles that support the statue to get their position in the procession.
During the same morning, hundreds and hundreds of faithful and tourists start gathering in the small square in front of the church awaiting the most exciting moment of the feast: “a sciuta”, the exit, at 1.00 pm, of the relics and the statue of St. Paul from the church. At the end of the Mass the statue of St. Paul is removed from the main altar and arranged on the processional array, then carried out together with the relics of the saint. Outside the church the sound of bells ringing, the music of the band, the shouts of the bearers and of the faithful, the firecrackers, the throwing of thousands of pieces of paper with “Viva S. Paolo” written on and of long stripes of coloured paper, called “nzareddi”, welcome the procession. In a moment the imposing Baroque façade of the church, which has been decorated since the morning with hundreds of fire crackers and light guns to shoot the “nzareddi”, “vanishes” as it were “absorbed” by the continuous explosions, the guns firing, a huge cloud of smoke and by the thousands of “nzareddi” that fall down, wriggling like snakes, over the processional array, the bearers and the crowd of faithful.
After several fireworks, the relic and the statue of St. Paul between blue and red flags and followed by numerous women that have made the vow of the “viagghiu scausu”, that is to follow the procession bare foot, are carried along some of the streets of the oldest part of the town.
Plentiful money offerings that devotees attach on special ribbons as well as naked children that parents lift up to youngsters standing on the processional array in order to be raised towards the statue of St. Paul and, while people cry “Viva S. Paulu... e cchi siemu tutti muti... viva S. Paulu patrunu”, be consecrated to St. Paul, characterise the whole procession.
The procession goes on in this way until it reaches the Mother Church, where the relic and the statue are left until the evening. Then another procession starts again through the streets of the town to accompany the statue back to the church of St. Paul, where it will arrive late in the evening and the celebrations will end with spectacular fireworks.

Visit the website

Inclusion in the prestigious World Heritage List UNESCO "Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto": Caltagirone, Militello Val of Catania, Catania, Modica, Famous, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa Ibla, Scicli.

An archaeological zone between most ancient in the Italian panorama, with a beautiful greek theatre, roman-hellenistic road.

One of the most famous and appreciated attractions of Palazzolo Acreide is certainly "House-museum of Antonino Uccello). During the years of passionate and hard work, the Sicilian ethnologist, has collected and put in order interesting testimonies and precious materials about the life and folk wisdom.

The site hosts 12 large reliefs called "Santoni". It is the greatest sanctuary to date uncovered, dedicated to the cult of the oriental goddess of fertility Cibeles.

The ruins of the Norman castle and the surrounding medieval urban planning structure.

An historical center of great architectonic value, strongly characterized from a Baroque architecture, fruit of the reconstruction post-earthquake of 1693 and, subsequently,  from the season of the Art Noveau.

The religious manifestations like the festivity of S. Paul and S. Sebastiano, known in all the Sicily.

International Youth Festival of Classical Theatre.
Every year, during May, at greek theatre many groups of highschools students from all over Italy and the rest of Europe perform tragedies and comedy by classical authors.

The several exhibitions proposed by the House-museum "Antonino Uccello", the agricultural and food- Review of the products and typical food... and more...

Carnival is very lively in Palazzolo Acreide and is one of the oldest in Sicily. As well as the parade of the allegorical cars and groups dressed up, you may taste in various food festivals the typical Palazzolo's food products like the sausage, trout pastry, macaroni, cavatieddi (a typical local pasta) and cannoli.

A extremely varied landscape, with the  Natural Reserve of Cava Grande and the Natural Reserve of the Anapo-Pantalica.

The presence, in the beam of little kilometers, archaeological and historical important archaeological zone like Kasmenai, Ancient Avola, Castelluccio, Pantalica, the several bizantine churches, etc.

The St. Lucia watermill, is one of the four water-mills started by the torrent Purbella. It dates back to the XVI century. It is perfectly kept, plunged in an uncontaminated valley, shaded by oak-trees and walnut-trees.Inside the building is the Museum of the Millstone where permanent displays and millstones of different shapes illustrate the development of the cereals grindind technique, from pre-history up to hydraulic energy.









Centro di documentazione multimediale su Antonino Uccello e sull'area Iblea e le province di Siracusa e Ragusa. Visite virtuali dei beni archeologici, artistici, etnoantropologici, storici, naturalistici.


Andrea Latina


Centro Studi Iblei


Istituto Studi Acrensi