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In Search Of Tarantism

This is an except of David Kerekes’ travels through the Italian south in search of the tarantella and tarantism, which is a specific type of folk music and a sort of existentional meltdown. It follows his visit to the village of Montefalcione in Campania to watch his mother die, where he chances upon Pino Zimba and his group of musicians Zimbaria, whose playing during the festa helps galvanise the moment and sends him on his way to write Mezzogiorno. Life. Death. Southern Italy. (Buy the book, it’s out now»)

The first part of this essay on tarantella and tarantism, which is set in Montefalcione and is called ‘Zimbaria,’ appears in Mark Goodall’s forthcoming book Gathering of the Tribe: Music and Heavy Conscious Creation (Headpress, 2012). The rest of the work is ongoing.

To get some idea of the kind of folk music we are talking about, check out David Kerekes’ field recordings here»

Image montefalcione festa and tarantella
Montefalcione, August 2008. Author David Kerekes (centre) flanked by (unknown) musicians from the nearby village of Montemarano for the procession of Tarantella Montemarano. Photo: Gino Kerekes

Image chapel of St Paul in Galatina

Chapel of St Paul in Galatina, home to tarantati.


By David Kerekes

I arrived in Apulia on the so-called ‘heel’ of Italy in June 2008, hiring the only rental car available on Sunday and filling it with the CDs and papers I had accumulated for my research, and taking the lot along the Adriatic coast from Lecce down through to Otranto. I was destined for the village of Galatina, where a festa is held on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29. One of the most widely travelled of the early missionaries and author of much of the New Testament, the apostle Paul is regarded as a protector against venomous animal bites and insect stings (and, fortuitously, the patron of writers and publishers like myself, because, within minutes of arriving in Galatina, I am singled out by the village idiot who warns me to “be careful”). Having survived a shipwreck and arriving in Malta, the New Testament records how St Paul was bitten by a viper while making a fire, but did not die or suffer any ill effects. This earned him the appellation with which he is associated throughout the Italian south and in Galatina in particular. The chapel of St Paul in Galatina is the focal point for tarantate. No snake or insect is said to dwell in this chapel, and the water drawn from its well is a cure as miraculous as the musicians that drive out the poisons with their melodious sounds.

The chapel, situated on the main square, opposite the church of saints Peter and Paul, dates back to the eighteenth century. It is now incorporated within the Palazzo Tondi, and closed off except on feast days. Those people inflicted with the tarantula bite would often exhibit a greater display of abandon and even aggression within the confines of the chapel, literally climbing the walls and traversing the altar, before spilling onto the street, berating the public for observing the spectacle and getting in their way. There is no evidence to state when the chapel of Saint Paul became the focus of such activity, but tarantism in the region can be traced back to the 1600s, and one may assume it has long represented a point of catharsis. But it’s fair to say that Ernesto de Martino’s seminal study of tarantism, La terra del rimorso/The Land of Remose, first published in 1961 and still in print, has influenced the role of the chapel as a tourist attraction. De Martino, an anthropologist writing extensively on magic, ritual and religion, documents the use of the chapel by tarantati in case studies through the summer of 1959. Further proof shows that tarantati were gravitating towards the chapel in the 1960s, as evidenced in footage shot by Gianfranco Mingozzi for his short film, La Taranta, and continued into the early 1990s, judging from photographs taken by Luigi Chiriatti (which appear in the book Immagini del tarantismo). But there was little evidence of it on my visit in 2009.

Today, Galatina is regarded as something akin to a birthplace for tarantism, and by extent, the tarantella. (I would encounter another birthplace of the tarantella on my travels, in the neighbouring region of Campania, next door to the village of Montefalcione. See below.) Groups perform on a stage during the festa, in front of the church of saints Peter and Paul, and dancing takes place. Many people come specifically to dance, but they are not the drab, pitiful peasants of yesteryear flailing without reason about the place or crawling along the floor. Today, the tarantella is a colourful, joyous expression, and certainly local enterprise plays on this fact. The civic museum has an exhibition of paintings on the subject of La Tarantate (by the artist Luigi Caiuli), while, during the festa itself, a museum devoted exclusively to the phenomenon opens its doors. It is here that the visitor will encounter the first acknowledgement of the deeper significance of Galatina’s musical heritage, with blowups of astonishing b&w photographs from the 1950s on the walls, depicting some of the pained scenes that took place just around the corner.

The car I hired for the trip, a tiny automatic, was giving me grief and more than once passersby lent a hand in getting it into gear. The only reason I managed to secure a car at all was because I belaboured my familiarity with the automatic gearbox, otherwise I might never have got out of Lecce. Prior to Galatina, I had called in at the town of San Donato di Lecce, twenty minutes from city centre Lecce. San Dontao di Lecce, more specifically its church, is the subject of a short film by Luigi Di Gianni, or so I believed, and this was the reason for my visit there. In actual fact I was way off the mark. Di Gianni’s film, Il Male di San Donato (1965), is actually set in Montesano, Salento, some forty kilometres away, on the tip of Italy’s southeast coast.  Influenced by De Martino, Di Gianni has been documenting the ethnography of the Italian south since the late fifties, in vignettes such as this one (you’ll be hard pressed to find them; the only access to Di Gianni’s catalogue appears to be the limited release of Il Male di San Donato, through Kurumuny, a Lecce based publisher). S. Donato is the protector of epileptics and the mentally ill, and Di Gianni’s film shows a procession of people arriving at the church of S. Donato, in Montesano, on the feast day of the saint. A number of them are in a state of agitation. The camera records several peasants writhing on the floor of the church, manifesting strange repetitive behaviour, such as banging a hand on the ground, snapping their head from side to side, or crawling on their back in a circle, and shouting.

From a cinematic perspective the film is beautiful. It has the classic Italian hallmark of stark and precise images, which capture the moment, and the editing between them is not flash but perfunctory. The sound is similarly stark and haunting. 

Unwittingly at the wrong church in the wrong town of San Donato di Lecce, I surveyed the scene before me: A thin road rising from the uninspiring houses below through to the locked doors of the chiesa madre, the mother church, via a circuitous one-way system. It was midday, siesta time, and not a soul was about. This was an inauspicious start for my search through the Italian south, but then I laboured under no illusion that it would be an easy or straightforward journey. This Italy promised to be difficult to navigate, with tradition and folklore in ruins, decimated beneath industry and mediocrity, its roads accessible only through the archive documents of film and audio recordings, some of which I had in the car. Di Gianni’s film is simple and beautiful. It is also in black and white, whereas San Donato di Lecce that is spread before me is in colour –a naïve sentiment for sure, but a more suited analogy I am hard pressed to find. Thus my Italy is displaced figuratively, and while standing in the wrong town it is a literal displacement, too.

[To be continued]

Image cover mezzogiorno
Mezzogiorno: Life. Death. Southern Italy by David Kerekes is a work of biography, autobiography, fable and fact, spanning three generations of southern Italian family life. Set amidst a landscape of peasant riots, vicious landlords, religious festival, feuds, the collapse of the Fascist party, and the tarantella — a world lost to the changing face of the twenty-first century. More about this item»

mezzogiorno  , david kerekes  , tarantella  , gathering of the tribe  ,
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