The first official edition was held on July 2, 1389. That year, in fact, Pope Urban VI, who had been archbishop of Matera from 1363 to 1377, had instituted the celebration of the Visitation. But the devotion to Mary is certainly older, at least as much as the city of the Sassi. Someone even identify it with the pagan cult of Ceres, the goddess of wheat, very fervent in Roman times when Matera, according to the historian Gianfranco De Blasiis “… was a granary of the Roman people”. After all, the same Cathedral, built over a century before (the works began in 1230 and ended in 1270), was immediately dedicated to Santa Maria di Matera.
A millenial festival therefore, the highest expression of the identity of a Matera,s people. Then it has evolved over the centuries, enriching itself with elements deriving from the dominant cultures in the following ages, to arrive at the intense articulation of our days, which makes it unique in the panorama of popular festivals: the longest intense and emotional day of Materans … the most awaited. Now also by thousands of visitors who come to the city from all over the world. As many as national and international television crews that arrive that day. Another opportunity to visit Matera.
Here are the salient phases, with the most reliable hypothesis on their respective origins.
The procession of shepherds who wakes the city at dawn
Until the ’50s there were still many shepherds in Matera. Indeed, ancient pastoral communities, established by the High Middle Ages in the caves of the Gravina, to originate the millenarian rock civilization of the Sassi. The shepherds, however, could not abandon flocks and herds even on holidays. And so they honored the Madonna della Bruna in their own way, carrying in procession early in the morning an ancient effigy around the streets of the Sassi, and then return to work in the pastures. Today in Matera there are no longer any shepherds, but that same effigy still crosses the old town at dawn, followed by a festive stream of people with the crackling of pyrotechnic batteries that wake up those people stayed in bed, announcing that their longest and most exciting day has finally arrived.
A midday of emotion and faith in Piccianello
That was where, according to legend, a “beautiful and unknown lady” appeared to a farmer. At that time it was a desolate country district. According to another version, it would have been the scene of a severe clash around the year 1000 between the Materans and the Saracens fleeing the city. As the historian Pierino Moliterni tells, before leaving, the ferocious Arabs would enter the underground church of S. Eustachio (under the current Cathedral) to plunder the jewels from the statue of Maria Ss. della Bruna: having difficulty in detaching them, they would bring the whole statue by placing it on a cart and then heading towards the exit of the city. It was dawn, and some peaseants at that moment in church to greet the Madonna and pray, saw what happened. So they immediately called all the willing youths to gather, and on horseback they reached the Saracens near Piccianello: there was a terrible battle, but the Saracens were defeated. Since then, that place would have always been dear to all the Materans … Piccianello, the beating heart of the city, a quarter that on July 2 shines and tightens around the Madonna and its Triumphal Chariot, whose factory is right near the church of the ward. Where at noon the statue of the Madonna, coming from the Cathedral (where it lodges all the year), with applauses, songs and prayers, makes its triumphal entry.
The impressive and colorful evening parade
The historical reconstruction of Moliterni tells then that to bring back to the city the statue of the Madonna, the Materans set up a cart and adorned it with flowers. Around evening, escorted by young men who mounted on harnessed horses and by the priests who had been promptly warned, the chariot, with the statue fixed on the boarding, returned to Matera and was welcomed by the celebrating people. That would then become the impressive and colorful parade of the current days, with a hundred knights in medieval dress on horses beautifully harnessed. A tribute, according to another reconstruction, by Giancarlo Tramontano (earl of Matera from 1497 to 1514, when he was murdered by the people) to Mary and the city: the first Knights would in fact have been the men of his armed escort.
Peak of adrenaline for the Cart to be torn apart
It is the culminating event of the long and intense day. What makes this Feast unique. After the statue of the Madonna is deposited in the Cathedral, the mules are groomed to bring back the Cart as quickly as possible to Piazza Vittorio Veneto for its destruction by the people. Who then will proudly preserve statues and papier-mâché decorations in shops, houses, offices and workshops. This tradition too derives from the story of the Saracens in Matera. After bringing the statue of the Madonna back to its place in the underground crypt on the Civita, the flowered cart would have been brought back to the square, so that every believer could take a flower as a sign of devotion. Others, however, trace the tradition back to the time of earl Tramontano: it seems that the tyrant, perhaps to ingratiate himself with the people, had promised to give a new cart every year, but the Materans, wary, would have destroyed the artifact to force it to keep the promise.
The night illuminated by the firerworks on the Murgia
The Feast is now over and once again “You remain as on July 2”, a popular expression that sums up the mixed feeling of emptiness and melancholy that every Materan feels at the end of the day. Immediately swept away by the renewed enthusiasm of “a mogghj a mogghj a l’onn c’van” (even better next year in Matera,s dialect), while enjoying the amazing fireworks show that at night light up the sky above the Gravina … this is the Feast of Materans!