A tradition capable of spanning the centuries and captivating millions of people with its beauty. The Varia di Palmi is part of the world heritage recognized by UNESCO and brings with it a wealth of culture and religious devotion that have always fascinated both the citizens of Palmi and the tourists: a crowd that at each edition, on the last Sunday in August, he meets to admire the spectacle offered by the imposing votive float dedicated to Our Lady of the Sacred Letter. The origins of the Varia date back to more than four hundred years ago, and are linked to the generosity and hospitality of the inhabitants of Palma. It all began in June 1575, when Messina was hit by an epidemic of plague which led to the death of over 40,000 people. Faced with such a drama, Palmi decided to go to the rescue of the Sicilian city, sending aid by sea and welcoming people fleeing the terrible disease. After the calamity, as a sign of thanks for the support received, the Senate of the City of Messina donated to the ecclesial authorities of Palma one of the hairs that according to tradition belonged to the Madonna and which, together with a letter of blessing, would have been given away in 42 AD. to a delegation from Messina who had gone to visit her. Thus it was that, in January 1582, the vessel of Giuseppe Tigano, with a crowd of boats in tow, brought the Holy Hair of the Virgin from Messina to the Marina of Palmi. From that moment, the people of Palme began to venerate the Madonna of the Sacred Letter and her black effigy enclosed in a silver mantle. Furthermore, on the model of Messina, it was decided to create a votive chariot representing the Assumption of Mary into Heaven.
“Varia” in fact derives from “vara”, a dialectal term meaning “coffin”: a sepulcher from which the Madonna rises to be taken up into heaven, surrounded by angels and apostles. In 1733, the Sacred Congregation of Rites set the date for the celebration on the last Sunday of August. The ancient Varia was carried on the shoulders of the bearers, called “‘mbuttaturi”, who walked along the main course of Palmi, in beaten earth. In 1872, after a series of accidents, the transport of the Varia was suppressed, while the Madonna of the Sacred Letter continued to be celebrated annually with illuminations, fireworks and with the procession of the Holy Capello. In 1900, after almost 30 years, Palmi resumed the Varia event and Giuseppe Militano devised a “Mechanical Varia”, similar to the ancient one, which however was no longer carried on the shoulders of the bearers but slid by push thanks to four iron skates fixed under the base of the structure.
Thus it was that, at the beginning of the last century, Palmi resumed celebrating the festival, thanks to the ingenuity of Giuseppe Militano and the work of Rocco Isola Pelorosso, organizer of the event, “Il Gran Mago della Bara”, as he had it to define the Palmese writer Leonida Repaci in the novel “History of the Rupe Brothers”.
Today’s Varia, also known as Varia Meccanica, is a votive machine sixteen meters high and weighing 20 tons. It was born in 1900 from the creator and inventor Giuseppe Militano. Its preparation is long and complex and begins on 16 August with the “Calata du Cippu“, when the base of the structure is transported with a large procession to the setting up location, at the Arangiara. The base is a huge circular wagon on which the iron structure with the characteristic conical shape is mounted. Two small seats are placed at the top of the structure: on the higher one sits the Soul, personification of the Virgin Mary, on the lower one the Eternal Father. The structure is covered with paper and dusted with mica, to give it the appearance of a cloud. Inside there is a mechanism that allows you to move two discs representing the sun and the moon. Another gear allows a series of little girls representing the little angels to go around the moving Varia. Five wooden beams are fixed to the base of the wagon, which are used for the shoulder transport of the Varia by two hundred “‘mbuttaturi”. Each of the five beams represents one of the five ancient city corporations: Artisans, Cattlemen, Cartiers, Farmers and Sailors.
The Soul, symbolizing the Madonna assumed into heaven, wears a blue shoulder strap over a white robe and, during transport, sits on top of the structure and blesses the crowd below her. Her role is played by a girl between the ages of 10 and 12, chosen each edition from among the various candidates: the members of the Varia Committee, the municipal councilors and the main city personalities make an initial selection, choosing three. The winner among the three finalists is chosen through a popular vote which takes place in the municipal park on the Sunday before the celebration of the Varia.
The place of the Almighty is immediately below that of the Soulella, on the top of the Varia. His role, during the transport, is to encourage and support the child. Like the Sweetbread, the Almighty too is chosen by popular vote in the municipal park among the three candidates selected by the Committee on the basis of profession, age and physical prowess suitable for best performing the delicate task. When the results are announced, the winner is given a yellow band by the President of the Committee.
On the chariot there are also twelve young men who play the role of the apostles, while thirty little girls are placed on the structure to represent the little angels.
The “‘mbuttaturi” are divided into five guilds and differ from the color of the handkerchief they wear around their necks: crimson for Artisans, orange for Cattle Dogs, yellow for Cartiers, green for Peasants, blue for Sailors. The 200 “‘mbuttaturi” destined to push the Varia are chosen among the members of the “Associazione ‘mbuttaturi!”, which brings together the corporations.
On the Thursday preceding the celebration, two important moments take place in the tradition of the Varia. First the “beam delivery ceremony”, in which the “‘mbuttaturi” deliver to the workers who build the structure the five wooden beams with which the cart will be pushed. Immediately afterwards the “test of courage” takes place: the Sweetbread is made to climb to the top of the Varia, on the same seat on which it will sit during transport, to face the height and the oscillations of the structure.
The day before the celebration of the Varia is dedicated to the procession of the icon of the Madonna of the Holy Letter and the relic of the Holy Hair through the city streets.
The Varia di Palmi, which is part of the network of large shoulder machines that includes the Macchina of Santa Rosa in Viterbo, the Gigli festival in Nola and the Faradda dei Candelieri in Sassari, has been included in the oral and intangible heritage of humanity of Unesco.
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Associazione Fotografica Imagorà
Giulia De Marco