In northern Italy, the death and Resurrection of Christ is celebrated symbolically
at Easter mass, followed by a huge
family lunch and the cutting of the colomba, an Easter cake shaped like the dove of peace. In many parts of southern Italy, Easter is not only celebrated but also lived, starting at the latest on Holy Thursday, which is when I arrived in Sulmona, the ancient capital of the mountainous Abruzzi region.
''You've returned for the procession,'' exclaimed one of my host's delighted friends as I entered the crowded Piazza XX Settembre. To all appearances, Sulmona's medieval Easter procession had already begun, so many people were gathered there under the brooding statue of Ovid, the Latin poet, born in Sulmona in 43 B.C. But no, the friend went on to explain: ''It's always like this after 5 P.M. This is the daily passeggiata, not the processione. If you don't see someone for two days here, you know something's wrong.''
Easter processions are still staged in various parts of Sicily and Calabria. And in all of southern Italy there may be nothing quite as popular, elaborate and dramatic as Sulmona's feast of La Madonna che Scappa in Piazza - the Madonna who races through the square - which takes place annually in this market town of some 20,000 inhabitants, about a two-hour drive from Rome. Four days of events culminate in an Easter Sunday procession in which life-size polychrome wooden statues representing the characters in the Resurrection are paraded through the Piazza Garibaldi, one of the largest marketplaces in Italy.
The celebration begins on Holy Thursday. Small models depicting the preparation of the tomb of Christ - allestimento del sepolcro - could be seen in nearly a dozen churches, some of which date back to the Middle Ages. On the night of Good Friday there is the procession symbolizing the deposition and burial of Christ in which statues of the crucified Jesus and the mourning Madonna are paraded through the town.
This procession is organized by the Confraternita della Trinit a, a lay brotherhood that dates from the Middle Ages when such associations were formed throughout Italy to assist in the work of the Lord. The Confraternita della Trinit a began in the 13th century as an association of noblemen whose purpose was to help the needy and bring the dead to the cemetery. In the country's industrial north, such brotherhoods have shrunk to folkloric remnants. But in the more traditional south, they still represent the main divisions of social life.
In the medieval version of the Good Friday procession, the personalities of the Crucifixion were portrayed by townspeople. The event became so emotional and often violent, particularly for the character of Judas, an original member of the procession, that statues had to replace human beings as the protagonists. Yet standing in the dark, medieval streets, one could see the pathos painted on the faces of the statues reflected in the faces of the Sulmonesi. The main exception was the well-known and obviously well- loved town tippler, who swayed and joked with the crowd. As the statues of Christ and the Madonna loomed up in front of him, he suddenly yanked his cap from his head, made the sign of the cross and began to weep silently.
This eternal dialogue between the sacred and the profane was echoed in the music of the Good Friday procession, performed on brass instruments by members of the Confraternita della Trinit a. The music was brassy, even raucous, and not in the least religious to one brought up in the well-tempered tradition of Bach. It was modified, however, by the dragging step of the brothers, intended to evoke the sound of the chains of prisoners bearing their own crosses. To expiate their sins, the nobility of Sulmona used to parade naked to the waist and be flagellated or flagellate themselves as part of the Good Friday procession.
On Saturday evening, there was another procession. Though I was only a visitor, I was invited to join the townswomen who were carrying candles and accompanying the statue of the Madonna to the Church of San Filippo Neri, where she would wait until Sunday. The only other outsider in this female ceremony was a man, the town character, who rushed about constantly asking the time. In Sulmona, he is known affectionately as ''Seikoquartz.''
Another local personality is Ferdinando D'Eramo, an 83-year-old carpenter who has inherited the task of dressing the Madonna for the Easter procession. He must do so in such a way that her black robes of mourning fall away with the first gust of wind, revealing a green dress that signifies the arrival of spring. The secret of how he manages this is shared only by his nephew, Ennio, 50, who will ultimately take over the task, as will Ennio's 17-year-old son, Gaetano.
The statue bearers are chosen in a sorteggio, or lottery, of the young and athletic members of the Confraternita di Santa Maria di Loreto, Sulmona's working-class brotherhood. Just as the rival and more aristocratic Confraternita della Trinit a is responsible for the events related to the death and deposition of Christ on Good Friday, so the laboring brothers of Santa Maria di Loreto, including Ferdinando D'Eramo, are responsible for those related to the Resurrection.
Easter Sunday dawned bright and sunny, and we made our way through the narrow, gray streets to the Piazza Garibaldi. Had I not actually seen the spectacle before me I never could have imagined it. Thousands of excited Abruzzesi had filled the piazza and were packed shoulder to shoulder - on the ground, on the rooftops, in every window and even on the large, medieval aqueduct that borders part of the square.
On the open side of the Piazza Garibaldi, the magnificent snow- capped Apennines provided a backdrop to the people and the architecture. Miraculously, it seemed, the piazza had been transformed into a larger-than-life theater.
Shortly after 10 o'clock, there appeared the brothers of the Confraternita di Santa Maria di Loreto, robed in green and white, bearing the statues of St. Peter, St. John and a triumphant Risen Lord, a crown atop his head. First, St. Peter was paraded from one end of the piazza to the other, symbolically bringing the news of the Resurrection to the Madonna mourning in the church. Then came St. John, to confirm the message.
When the black-robed statue of the Madonna finally bobbed through the portal of the church to face the statue of Christ at the opposite end of the piazza, an audible wave of emotion swept through the crowd. The brothers holding the statue of the Madonna, who had been pacing carefully in front of the church, broke into a run. As their shoulder- borne Madonna was raced across the piazza, her black robes of mourning fell cleanly away to reveal a bright green dress, symbolic of fertility and spring. With the ascent of 12 doves, symbolic of the 12 apostles of peace, the crowd burst into applause, hugs, tears and kisses.
After four days of mournful masses and sonorous processions, I, too, felt a great relief, perhaps even joy, never quite experienced at Easters elsewhere. If the black veils of mourning had remained stuck to the Madonna, it is said, crop failures and general bad luck would have been in store for Sulmona. In 1913 and 1930, when some of the black fabric stayed fixed, there were earthquakes.
On Easter Monday, the Sulmonesi traditionally pack a picnic and head for the countryside for an alfresco celebration of spring. Ideally, the picnic takes place near the ruins of the massive Roman Temple of Hercules or in the Campo di Giove - the Field of Jupiter, father of all the gods.
photo of figure of Madonna figure being carried through Piazza Garibaldi.