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Matera's Festa della Madonna Bruna
Mark July 2nd on your calendar if you're touring Italy and want to see a spectacular fireworks spectacle.

This gem of a city in Italy's Basilicata region holds a special celebration on the second of July called the Festa della Madonna Bruna. If you miss your 4th of July fireworks, this may be the place you'll want to visit.

Photos and graphics © 2000 by James Martin, licensed to About.

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This is the story of one of the most interesting Festivals in Italy: the Festa della Madonna Bruna.

We found ourselves in Matera on the second of July. It was stiflingly hot. A festa was being prepared; the streets were decorated with festive lights, and by the time the sun squirmed under the last sassi, vendors had begun to set up their wares along the main street.

Knights of Santa Maria della Bruna
The Knights of Santa Maria della Bruna and a decorated....Cadillac!?

Yet nothing, exactly, seemed to be going on. Costumed men on horses--the Knights of Santa Maria della Bruna--paraded through town, stopping to chat with locals while television cameras panned for interesting angles. People gathered, but mostly in front of the local gelato shop where the fight to keep the doors closed was lost and the line snaking out into the parade route shuffled defiantly toward their goal, which by this time had become a wilted cone dripping with melted ice cream. The electricity, not able to keep up with the demand the freezers were putting on it, lent a festive air to the proceedings by flickering the naked bulb lights on and off, the off times increasing as the night grew darker but not cooler.

Then a float came by. It was intricately produced, we are told, out of paper maché by local artisans. It made the whole route through town. The people watched it intently; the television cameras rolled. But still, there seemed to be nothing much actually going on.

Then the float appeared again. This time it was surrounded not only by a few knights, but by Basilicata's entire allotment of caribinieri. The crowd pressed closer. Excitement filled the sticky air as best it could.

 

Madonna Bruna
The Madonna Bruna

We had just about given up on this unlikely devotion to the brown madonna and were heading back to the hotel when a crowd of young ruffians in street clothes jumped the float's vigilant guards and a scuffle ensued. This was no faked fight; punches were flying and people had even abandoned their quest for gelato to see it. Now we had the makings of a festival.

Eventually, the biggest of the ruffians made it through the wall of guards and started to pull pieces off the float.

And the crowd....cheered! Yes, as the guards abandoned all hope, young and old flailed away at the float, grabbing souvenir pieces of it until it was reduced to a few flopping wings of chicken wire with tissues stuck to it.

Shaking our heads we headed back to the Hotel Italia, where the staff was watching this festa on the television. They were happy. The television announcer was also happy; in his joy he began to summarize the events that had happened before us. The youth, representing new ideas and rebirth, had torn apart the old, established order. And this sign of rebirth meant that fertility would come to the fields, and the hard life being scratched out of Basilicata's soil would be a little less tedious with the harvest to come.

Satisfied that we had finally seen what we'd come to see we trudged back to our room. After waiting for the advertised fireworks until midnight, we finally hit the sack.

fireworks in Matera Italy
Fireworks in Matera

But as the unrelenting church bells struck 2 am, a noise had us bolting upright in our beds like the crack of close thunder. We ran to the window. In the midst of what sounded like bombs bursting in air, the ravine across from us burst into fire. Suddenly there was an explosion in the sky and the sassi below us shimmered with ever changing light. The fireworks had hit with a vengeance and the dry grasses, having lost the struggle to live in the intense Basilicata heat, had become the victim.

It was a fitting conclusion to the Festa della Madonna Bruna and the most amazing fireworks spectacle I've seen.

The Festa della Madonna Bruna happens in Matera, Italy on the second of July. The hotel referred to in this article is the Albergo Italia, Via Ravenna 17, Matera.

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