We are crowded into the medium-sized piazza before the sanctuary of Montevergine. There is no town or village; it sits alone near the top of an isolated mountain. A narrow road leads up to the sanctuary walls, which rise seamlessly from the sheer limestone incline. The buildings are simple: just a few square blocks tucked behind a rectangular bell tower and a tall, narrow church. They are uniformly pale, and at this time of year, in bitter winter, sit like dirty butter pats under a dusting of snow. The snow also covers the barren scrub of one of Italy’s wildest regions, Basilicata, which unfurls with dreary panache in the valley one thousand metres below.
I am early and the cold drains the blood from my hands, rushes it into my cheeks and to the end of my nose. I’m even early enough to catch a candle seller so old that she seems to be made of stone. She is tiny and she sits against the wall. She is rotund only because she is wrapped in so many layers of blanket. What appears to be a blue pillow is tied to her head. She clutches her brightly-painted candles as though she doesn’t really want to sell them, as though she’d rather donate them all to the Madonna that everyone is here to worship. When she realises that my real purpose is not to buy them, but to talk to her, she refuses to utter another word and looks angrily at the ground.
The old woman is selling candles because today is Candlemas. This is the official end of Christmas and the day on which candles are blessed in Christian churches all over the world. Candlemas is the oldest Marian ritual and one of the earliest to appear in the written sources.
Despite its imposing history, this celebration does not appear to be an entirely serious event. All over the piazza small groups are arriving. Most of them come from Naples, which lies sixty kilometres to the east of Montevergine. A lot of people carry unrecognisable instruments; many of them shake cymbals at the cold mountains. In the evening a mass will be held, and the blanket blackness of the church will be illuminated by the candles of the faithful. But for the moment prayer seems far from people’s minds: many of them are singing, and even at this early hour, some have begun to drink and dance.
Almost everyone is wearing a long thick quilted jacket – shades of black interspersed with provocative orange, olive and purple. A modicum of glamour resides in the synched-in waists and the faux-fur trims which float around Michelinman hoods. Only the older members of the crowd are dressed demurely in heavy felt, black and white scarves tied around their heads.
Everyone is moving except Angelo, who is rooted, solid as a rock, in their midst. His curved body is topped by a black flat-cap on grey curls, and he is so short and round it is difficult to tell whether he is sitting or standing. He has a blooming jowl, deep-set eyes, and resembles nothing so much as a very amenable scone. He is here to sing popular Neapolitan songs. He holds an instrument which is like a great wooden fork with movable prongs. The prongs are straight, square, and very blue. When he shakes himself about they clack together like giant castanets. I ask him what the instrument is called, but he seems to think it is needless curiosity to give it a name:
‘Oh, this in my hand?’ he says, and looks down at it as if he’s never seen it before: ‘How would I know? It’s in my hand, I play it.’
Many groups are singing and playing, but for the whole motley chorus the performance is a sideshow: everyone is waiting for the Mass. And the star of the show is the Madonna, the Madonna of Montevergine, whose stately procession is winding its way up the hill. Over the course of the year a constant stream of pilgrims come to see her, and about two thousand of them arrive on this day, 2 February.
There are literally thousands of Madonnas in Italy; what makes this one so special? For it is not just the likes of Angelo who are here, nor is it your average church crowd: pilgrims of all shapes and sizes spill from the bright red cable car that’s transported them the last 300 metres up the mountain. The steep road is becoming choked with buses that glint aggressively in the harsh light. They trail out of the tiny parking space and breathlessly wheeze open and wheeze shut their doors. From one a flock of laughing, flirtatious, outrageously dressed figures flood onto the snow. There is something unsettling about them – most of them are women and they are either mannered or mask-like under their heavy make-up, all red lips and chunky blonde hair. It’s hard to lay my finger on what exactly is out of place. They bring a buzz as they flow raucously into the crowd clotting at the bottom of the steps leading to the church.
The crowds come because this is their Madonna, the Madonna of the people. There are many earthy locals here to worship their Virgin protectoress in strange little songs which praise her for being the one person capable of loosening the bonds of life. The crowd, glamorous blondes included, adore this Virgin, who they affectionately term ‘Mamma Schiavona’ (or Slave Mama), because she is ugly, and because she is black. She, not unlike them, drew the short straw, yet still managed to end up as the Queen of Heaven.
Mamma Schiavona not only provides a precious ray of hope, but also has some important practical jobs to perform. She heals illness and finds husbands for unmarried girls. Rather idiosyncratically, it is she who helps her devotees to win the lottery. The proceeds of this talent are, I am unsurprised to note, not much in evidence at the festival – the attendants are decidedly shabby.
I contemplate the likelihood that, in a similar environment, I would also pray fervently for a stake in my rather precarious future. While I mull over my answer I stare blurrily through my thought at a lady mincing along in front of me. And suddenly I am aware that she’s actually mincing, twirling her bare torso and pink feather boa on theatrical tiptoes, periscoping sideways over thrust-out shoulders, under spinning castanets. And of course I realise what was so odd about all those women: they were not women at all, this is not a woman, and nor is ‘her’ partner, who now I realise is enormous, and has a jaw of steel and a greasy low ponytail. Not even their retinue: one broad-shouldered, well-wrapped figure, slowly flipping a cymbal which flashes in the sun. Or am I imagining things now? No, he’s bending towards me and blowing a kiss from thin scarlet lips that glow from behind a slight darkening of stubble.
This, then, must be where the edge comes from, the hum through the crowd, the schoolboy sense of transgression: a significant fraction of the crowd is gay or transgender. And that, in an Italian Catholic environment, is more of a shock than the freezing mountain air. What are they doing here, in the bosom of the notoriously homophobic Catholic Church? The answer meanders through history and in doing so takes in an ancient earth-mother cult, Renaissance Neapolitan rent boys, and the extraordinary culture of acceptance that exists in this corner of Southern Italy.
These men (for they are uniformly men) are known as femminielli, and they have made the journey from Naples, where they live and work. Femminiello literally means ‘little-man-woman’, but a more accurate English translation would probably be ‘rent boy’. The femminiello is not actually transsexual. He dresses as a woman but for most observant passers-by he is recognisably male beneath his feminine facade. He makes his living through prostitution.
Femminielli were first recorded in Naples during the sixteenth century. By this point in its history the city had been submerged under the waves of greater European forces for centuries. Naples, beautiful and rich, a key strategic port for both defence and trade, has always been worth fighting over. Its history reads like a rather poetic shorthand of the struggle for power in Europe – rulers of Naples: Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Emperors, Lombard Princes, Normans, Hohenstaufen, Anjou, Aragonese, Spanish Hapsburg, Bourbon…
In 1502 it was the Spanish who marched into the city. They set about the issue of control with a heavy hand. They garrisoned a whole platoon of troops in an area of Naples that is still known as the Spanish Quarter. It is a sizeable chunk of the city, and its plan retains a military grid to this day. The logical form of the grid was meant to provide a network of streets that would facilitate Spanish control over the unruly population. It’s ironic that such a chaotic city had some of the earliest and most logical urban planning in Europe, all of which is still visible, neat and ordered, on the Neapolitan town map. It is even more ironic that it was the Spanish soldiers themselves who brought, along with discipline and parallel streets, an impetus for the underground world which consequently bloomed, quickly embracing the new market for prostitutes of both sexes who happily made themselves at home in this old-new section of the city. Indeed the prostitutes became an accepted part of society, and when the Spanish left in 1714, they overran the Spanish Quarter, where to this day chaotic lawlessness paints itself around the right-angled, neat streets.
Walking around Naples today, it is clear that everyone knows everyone else’s business. Knowing other people’s business is a fact, no, a prerogative of Neapolitan life. You cannot cover twenty metres without seeing an old man sitting on a bollard and quietly dry shaving as the crowd bashes past him; or witness a voluptuous young girl suggestively eating an ice-cream in front of not one, but a crowd of young admirers. In Northern Europe it feels voyeuristic to glance through a street window and glimpse supper being prepared, or a flash of somebody else’s television. It is impossible to take this attitude in Naples; if you did, you’d soon feel the need to blindfold yourself, for the people might as well not build walls to their homes. Through gaping great windows and wide open doors you see whole families sitting in front of a blaring TV in cheap, ground floor, single-room apartments; seven or eight people are squashed onto a sofa-bed, stuffed between a sink, a hob, and the battered communal scooter. The volume is loud enough that at the far end of the street the background game show jingle still quavers with speaker static. Even this is sometimes drowned out by a cross-street conversation, which may be about something as mundane as what good fish there may be for sale in the market that day. To an unfamiliar ear, it sounds like a heated argument. Worse though, is when the family silently stare, not at the TV screen, but out into the street, and meet a curious gaze with a mixture of resignation and melancholy.
In this environment the femminielli used to flourish. The Neapolitans loved them and still do. They quickly became a part of the street furniture in the poorer quarters of the city. When the Spanish eventually ate up their own power in the Wars of the Spanish Succession and were forced to leave Naples, the femminielli had their heyday. They became firmly established and by the eighteenth century Naples had become one of the sexual capitals of Europe, drawing visitors from all corners of the globe, later famously hosting ex-inmate Oscar Wilde.
The femminielli colonised the Spanish Quarter, but despite laws against prostitution, and despite the homophobia and prudishness of the nineteenth century, they were never exorcised from society. In fact, they were and are accepted and adored. Why? Because the femminiello is an integral part of Naples’ social fabric. In the past he was often a younger son in a large and poor family. The child’s good looks provided a relief for the family, who would have pushed him towards his future in order not only to relieve their financial situation, but also to considerably supplement it. Nowadays the family pressure is largely removed, but the reward is the same and just as tempting – a successful femminiello can make a considerable amount of money through prostitution.
The femminiello ‘chooses’ his calling at an early age, and pursues it with the vigour of an apprenticeship. He learns to dress, to sew and to crochet with the local women. He learns to flirt and to apply his peculiar make-up. Most importantly, he learns to be a semi-permanent performer, an entertainer, almost a clown. This is important because he is the street mascot; the person that your baby must be photographed with the moment it is born; the person that you desperately want to draw your lottery numbers; the person who entertains and enlivens the community. In return he is awarded a strange social liberty and becomes a star player in the microcosmic environs of the street.
The femminielli do not trek for sixty kilometres into the hills just because the Madonna is a protector of minorities. They come because Montevergine is the site of an ancient pagan cult. This was not any old cult, but the spot where the goddess Cybele had her temple. There was not much rational about Cybele, who was a hang-over from the great early civilisation mother-goddess cults, which died out in Western Europe with the Phoenicians in about 3000 BCE. Cybele, however, lived on through the cultures of Greece and Rome. She was the mother of all the gods, associated fundamentally with the earth, caves, and wild nature. Her cult was Eastern, and probably has its roots in the Bronze Age. Representations of her dating back to the sixth century BCE litter the Middle East, from ancient Anatolia right across to Afghanistan. Her devotees celebrated her cult with night-long orgiastic ceremonies, in which explosive drumming, drunkenness and torch-lit dancing were essential elements. This ritual was transferred to Rome where it was described by the poet Catullus:
the clash of cymbals ring, tambourines resound, the Phrygian flute-player blows
deeply on his curved reed, and ivy-crowned maenads toss their heads wildly.
According to myth, Cybele was in love with a young man named Attis. Attis, however, fell in love with and married another woman. In a fit of rage Cybele cursed him so that in a state of ecstasy he castrated himself and bled to death in front of his wife and the goddess. Cybele was deeply remorseful and, full of regret, brought Attis back to life, ensuring his chaste devotion by recreating him in the form of a fir tree. Cybele’s exclusively male priests developed their identity under the influence of this myth. They not only removed themselves from the sexual game by assuming a role in which they were neither man nor woman – growing their hair long and dressing in female clothing and jewellery – but many of them also physically precluded themselves from any sexual activity by a dramatic ritual self-castration.
Pagan cults in Italy were viciously stamped out in the fourth century, yet the temple at Montevergine survived long after Constantine legalised Christianity in 313 CE. The temple even survived the retributive destruction that spread through the newly Christianised world under the Emperor Theodosius I. Between 379 and 395 he issued a series of decrees which made any public expression of the ancient pagan cults illegal, and any practice of them, or implicit support of them, punishable by death. Despite this Cybele’s followers at Montevergine practised their extreme rituals right into the eleventh century.
How did the Montevergine temple and its following survive? This is a bit of a mystery, and one which is not made any clearer by the murky mixture of unreliable sources which chart its history. The most likely (and most mundane) explanation is that its remoteness, and the devoted – but most importantly contained – zeal that it incited amongst a limited, local group ensured its escape from the fate that befell so many other places of ancient worship. Another explanation – and the one which seems to make the most sense in human terms – is the unusually permissive attitude that has endured in this corner of Italy since it was first colonised by the Greeks in the ninth century BCE, and is a fundamental part of its past.
Transgression has been a part of Naples’ identity for millennia, long before it gained an international reputation as a den of mafia sin and prohibitive danger. Originally a Greek town, Naples clung to its Eastern roots, and as early as the first century BCE it was the place to which wealthy and powerful Romans escaped for their little fix of ‘Greek living’. Not that Naples was associated with moral laxity, it simply played by different rules, and these were emphatically not the quasi-impossible standards of moral perfection demanded of the ideal Roman citizen. An illuminating example is that of the unruly (to say the least) Emperor Nero. The Roman historian Suetonius relates how the exhibitionist aspect of Nero’s character reached its apex when he underwent a Neapolitan ‘marriage’. Although Nero already had a wife in Rome he escaped accusations of polygamy because his betrothed was a young boy. Nero had apparently castrated the child before ‘actually trying to make a woman out of him’, dressing him up in a dress and veil, and whisking him off from Naples to Greece for a rather unorthodox honeymoon.
Was it Naples’ link with Greece and the Orient that fitted it for its role as the Romans’ pleasure garden, or was there another element that contributed to what has always been an outstanding level of cultural tolerance? Surely it has something to do with Vesuvius, the great ‘question mark in the sky’ which dominates the city. It sits on the near horizon, threateningly familiar; a permanent promise that nothing is predictable, that life cannot be controlled, that the joy of today is worth more than ten indefinite tomorrows.
It is difficult to live next to a monster and remain impervious to the unpredictable throes of fate that it can create. Or certainly this is how it feels in Naples, where those who have made it to old age look somewhat startled, even disappointed to have done so. And well they might, in a city where motorbike helmets are slung casually over the shoulder rather than on the head, and where an entire apartment block may suddenly discover that the reason why so many of them have developed cancer is because the local mafia has been storing asbestos in their basement for the past twenty-five years. Or maybe tolerance is just an extension of chaos, for there is no doubt that it is in chaos that the Neapolitans thrive. Quiet? It’s anathema to them. Even the typography of the city is confusing. It rolls itself along its famous curving bay, flirting with the boats, and then stacks back up the hill, rising steeply from the sea as if hunching its shoulders over its damaged and slightly dilapidated historical heart. The steepness of the streets lends the buildings a strange sense of proportion, as though they were trying to flatten out the skyline, so that palazzi by the sea reach up to compete with the hills and dwarf cars, people and streets with a bulk so massive that even their terracotta pink walls look grey. Halfway up the hill things begin to shrink. You can look over the edge of a road and see below a borough that is itself a city in miniature, and which, complete with a bird’s eye view of a church cupola, looks like a snow shaker, as if you were seeing it through glass. In effect you are, because like the rest of Naples it exists in another universe, and pays attention to rules that you will never understand and never risk understanding. Even as you drive onwards along the main road, back down, around the bay and up the next hill, the whole city disappears so swiftly that it’s already a postcard, a vista, an unreality; and the tortuous, heavy streets of the twisted centre glisten in your memory and lose the looming darkness that turns even pigeons into threats and lends the subtlest of transactions a transgressive thrill.
As an outsider it is relatively easy to accept chaotic Neapolitan life and moral open-mindedness. This, however, is more of a challenge for the Church, which considers the gays and the femminielli to be an irredeemably sinful group. This would not be such a problem were this not the group with whom the Church has to share its beloved icon at Montevergine. In 2002 the situation overwhelmed Archbishop Tarcisio Nazzaro, who was officiating at the shrine. Unable to hear himself above the shaking of cymbals and the stamping of feet, he lost his temper, grabbed a speakerphone, and began publicly berating the Madonna’s less orthodox followers: ‘Shame!’ he yelled. ‘You are shaming the Church! You are worse than the money changers! I will chase you from this temple!’ His targets merely fluttered about in disarrayed rage, loving the spectacle. They were right not to be afraid: a few days later he was forced by a younger cohort of priests to retract what he had said, issuing instead a statement welcoming this ‘very special’ cohort of followers, and humbly asking that they be a little less exhibitionist when they come to visit the Madonna, who was offended by the noise and ‘required respect’.
The Archbishop’s retreat was a triumph for the femminielli, but not so much as events the following year. Rather than discouraging his unorthodox flock, the Archbishop had unwittingly highlighted what many in Italy consider to be the stranglehold of the Church. In 2003 the gay contingent of the crowd was considerably greater than it ever had been before, and hundreds of protesters arrived in Montevergine to show their support.
Most of the supporters were predictable: young and male, holding large billboards with images of male bodies and slogans demanding a ‘free state and free love’. The interesting element was the fairly numerous older contingent. When I spoke to an elderly lady named Rosa, who would look more at home on a cookbook cover than at a gay pride march, she shook her majestically rounded, softly bearded chin: ‘But this is our history, this is Naples’ heritage. Our soul is dying with the femminielli – Naples is ceasing to exist.’ I considered this to be a rather idiosyncratic, even melodramatic point of view. Until I heard it repeated again, and again, and again: ‘The foreigners are taking over.’
‘Our community is in crisis…’
‘Where have all the femminielli gone?’
Naples has the most churches of any city in Italy (which is no mean feat), but it seems that this is not enough: there is a tenacious desire to hang on to a sense of identity that is based on the antique past. As the Neapolitans feel increasingly threatened – by poverty; by immigration; by the mafia; by the inevitable loss of community that is the fate of almost every major modern city; and by the very nature of change itself – they increasingly romanticise the femminielli. The values of openness and tolerance that this anomalous group embodies are a part of the Neapolitan character, which many feel is in decline.
When we eventually walk into the church it is like walking into a cave: very dark, with thousands of candles giving off tiny aureoles of light that bob, seemingly disembodied, down the aisle.
Two femminielli enter. They look uncomfortable, and glance at each other with the solemnity of children, taking slow steps to keep pace with the crowd flowing down the nave. They tug their coats across their low-cut, leopard-printed chests. The shuffling silence is broken with a grave, low chant: ‘Gloria, Gloria, in excelsis deum.’ Each person anoints a towering candelabrum with their individual offering of light. A priest casts a disparaging (unnoticed) glance at a journalist who is flashing his camera at the femminielli. The journalist is distracting the priest but only the priest is upset – everyone else is intent on the altar. The femminielli are without their accustomed audience – perhaps this is why they are suddenly united in self-consciousness.
Although the church pews are packed, there is nothing static about proceedings. I drift along the northern aisle of the church, my eyes flickering, like everybody else’s, towards the great icon of the Madonna high above the altar. There are people everywhere, but apart from a general draw in her direction, there seems to be no logic to their movement, and certainly no focus. There is some kind of Mass going on, and two beautiful disembodied voices, one male, one female, sing out to one another, calling across the church to Mamma Schiavona. Other than that I cannot work out the logic: candle-clutching worshippers are hissed at by official-looking men in black; priests sporadically chant and pray; pilgrims fight their way to donate their blobs of light. Above it all the Madonna looks on, as impassive and beautiful as she is on every other day of the year.
When we walk out of the church it is to a renewed frenzy of activity. There is the sense of reckless lightness that comes just before an overdue holiday. Rather like coming out of the cinema in the middle of the day, I expect the valley to be dark, but the sun is still glaring off the snow, and balloons are still blazing in technicolour above the crowd. The oriental-sounding warble of Angelo’s voice echoes all across the piazza, reverberating from the moustached mouths of young men and old ladies.
I wonder what the Virgin would make of the noisy crowd now dancing on this sacred spot. Would she be horrified or delighted? Certainly most of the conservative-seeming congregation appears to fully support the more outrageous behaviour that is now entering the stage. One woman just laughs and gestures to the church: ‘For the Madonna it’s always a party. You sing the songs from your heart or not at all.’ Then the icon comes into view. She is ugly, broken and utterly serene as she bobs over the heads of the large assorted crowd that has come to sing her praises. The woman looks at her with adoration. So do the femminielli, and so do the priests. The contradictions seem extraordinary, but then again, perhaps this is what makes this celebration, such as it is, an inevitability.
 There are several vague references to a sermon on the subject of Candlemas, given by the Bishop of Patara, on the west coast of Turkey in 312, before Christianity was even legalised. A more reliable source was the intrepid nun Egeria who, during her three-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land (381-384), wrote a full account of the service (see Gingras, G., Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage, 1970, The Newman).
 Not the most trustworthy of historians, but certainly a very good storyteller.