Scampanata – The Art of Humiliating the Sleepy
I love living here. It offers everything I need and throws in some delightful surprises along the way. The pace of life suits me and this culture holds dear many of the same principles as I – have fun, laugh a lot, work enough, and celebrate food as that which gives us life. I’ve been coming to this town for almost 20 years and I fell in love with it on the first trip. During all the time of this love affair, I’ve never witnessed a Scampanata. But living here year-round has offered me many opportunities to participate in things that I otherwise would have missed. Enter Scampanata 2020+1+1.
Societa della Scampanata
The origins of Scampanata, like many things with ancient roots, are somewhat murky. It could be tied to a pagan ritual, an employer tired of his people showing up late, or some combination of the two. It dates back to the 1620s and has continued (with the exception of those pesky world war years) since then. It occurs every five years and the last one was scheduled for 2020. We all know what was happening in May of that year, so it was postponed until 2021. Well, in Italy in May of 2021, there were restrictions on gatherings and social distancing, so it was postponed again. So we have the special 2020+1+1 edition of Scampanata.
The Societa della Scampanata is pretty much anyone in town who joins and agrees to show up in the piazza at 6:00 am every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday during the month of May. You don’t have to join, but everybody does. This sounds bothersome, annoying, and inconvenient, but not hard, right? I mean all you have to do is set your alarm and roll down to the piazza, check in, and be on your way. As with most things Italian, it’s not quite that simple.
As the bell tolls 6:00 am, a tally is taken of everyone who has checked in. Anyone missing from the official rolls of the Societa is then hunted down, ripped out of bed, and placed on a donkey cart festooned with May flowers. The cart is pulled through town, led by the town band playing various melodies (there’s an official Scampanata song and the Mexican Hat Dance figures prominently in the mix) and followed by the entire town. As the cart makes its way around town, people throw raw eggs, flour, and chocolate all over the poor sleepy soul until he or she is covered in a gooey mess. There is also a dead fish dangled in front of his face the whole time. A fellow American ex-pat from California with much better creative skills than I did a video about it which you can watch here.
If you check in even one second after 6:00 am, you’re toast. There can be extenuating circumstances under which you can have a “trial”. Guess which way the trial always goes? As you can imagine, the fun of all this is actually getting someone on the cart. I guess it’s great to get up at 5:30 and meet all your friends in the piazza, but unless someone gets put in the cart, it’s kind of anticlimactic. So all kinds of tricks are played to make someone late.
In Scampanata-land, there are no rules and playing dirty is part of the fun. A friend of ours climbed up on the roof of his cousin’s house and sealed all the doors and windows from the outside. When the poor guy got up he couldn’t exit. Panicked, he tried every exit until he found a hard to reach window that had been overlooked. He went out, but had to drop down to the balcony below then wiggle down trellises and drainpipes to the ground. He arrived in time with torn pants and bleeding hands and plenty of sprezzatura, acting as if nothing had happened. This same friend sleeps (that’s a general term because I’m pretty sure there’s not much sleeping involved the nights before Scampanata) with his front door off the hinges to prevent any tampering. Another friend has a rope he can use for a quick escape through an upper floor window. Preparation is key to surviving Scampanata.
In this special 2020+1+1 edition of Scampanata, there were only a few violators. You could feel the disappointment in the air on those early mornings when bleary-eyed souls gathered to watch public humiliation only to stumble back home to grab a few more winks. And since this is Italy, what gathering would be complete without food and drinks? All the bars are open on the piazza on Scampanata mornings, with people walking around with pastries and espresso. One Sunday morning (or Saturday night, depending on your perspective) I saw a young man sipping on a Negroni. He was with a group still dressed in their Saturday night short skirts, ridiculously high heels, and meticulous make-up. I asked a friend, jokingly, if those girls got up super early to get ready for this or if they had been out all night. He said definitely they had been out all night because he just saw them a few hours ago. Ah, to be young!
What’s the Point?
I’ve described this to Americans who look at me with puzzled expressions. What’s the point? This seems silly and non-productive. Well, that’s just it. It is silly and it is non-productive and there is no point. No point that anyone can really remember, anyway. But it is an experience like no other and I’m so glad that this one got postponed so I could be part of it. I didn’t get up every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, but I did go to several and I can tell you that there was an electricity in the air as the anticipation built to see if everyone checked in. The pranksters in the crowd acting smug and hoping their victim would be late, the kids dancing to the scampanata song and eating panini, the young adults glamorous in their Saturday night finery watching with bleary eyes until they could finally lay their heads down.
I marched through town following the donkey cart while the latecomer was doused with goo, dead fish slapping him in the face, and thought what a unique experience this is. This only happens in Anghiari and it only happens every five years. And it is part of that thing that defines this culture to me – outrageous fun, centuries worth of tradition, and living life to its fullest. Life is fun and doesn’t always make sense. Just follow the band as it plays the Scampanata song and smile. Besides, it’s a great way to see the sun rise over the Apennines.