Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Jan 2010

The Bonfires of Saint Anthony


January 17 is the feast day of Anthony the Great
(c. 251-356), also known as Anthony the Abbot, in Italian as Sant’Antonio abate and in Naples and the rest of southern Italy as "Sant'Antuono" (in order to avoid confusion with St. Anthony of Padua). Anthony the Abbot was from Egypt and is one of the founders of Christian monasticism. He is prominently venerated in the Coptic Church, i.e. the Christian community in Egypt. In Italy, the saint is regarded to be the patron saint of animals as well as a healer of skin diseases and inflammations, from which we have the medieval term “St. Anthony’s fire” for the affliction known as ergotism. In the 1100s, the Order of Knights Hospitallers, an organization that cared for the sick across Europe, adopted Anthony as its patron saint. He is often depicted with a pig because pork fat was also used as a treatment for skin diseases. This led swineherds to take Anthony as their patron, and he thus became the patron saint of charcutiers (pork butchers) and also the patron saint of bacon! (I didn’t know that bacon even had a saint. Theologically, I detect some conflict of interest in having the same saint protect (1) the pig, (2) the butcher, and (3) the bacon. Maybe I'm missing something.) There is a church in Naples named for Sant’Antonio abate. (See this link for the history of the church and the Knights Hospitallers.)


'O cippo 'e Sant'Antuono (dialect: the bonfire of St. Anthony)

In Naples, the celebration for “Antuono” involves the building of bonfires —cippi (the plural of cippo) in Neapolitan— the bigger the better. The word cippo in dialect means 'bonfire' and probably derives from the pyramid-like shape of the mound of wood as it is piled up for the fire; thus, it may come from the Italian word cippo in the sense of stone piles used to mark borders once upon a time. The fires, themselves, are ancient and no doubt have to do with the destruction of the old (as winter comes to an end) and purification of that which is new or regenerated as spring approaches. This is reflected in the dialect verse,

 "sant'Andùon', sant'Andùon', pigli't 'o viecch' e damm 'o nuovo"
(St. Anthony, St. Anthony, take the old and give me the new)

Collecting wood for the bonfires developed over the years into a contest among quarters of Naples to see who could build the biggest fire. And from the hill town of Calatri near Avellino comes this version of a local "trick or treat" tradition; children go knocking door to door and semi-threaten with the ominous,

"Trikk' trakk' e trùon', e ddamm' 'na lèuna p' sand'Andùon'; si nn' m' la vò rà chi t' pozza fà app'ccià."

("Bang, boom and thunder! Give me some wood for Sant'Antuono. If you refuse, may you burn!")

The pyrotechnics are the most impressive near the above-mentioned church and adjacent area. Old wood and furniture are used to feed the flames, and any wood that isn’t nailed down or well-protected is fair game. (For example, the Christmas tree in the Galleria Umberto got swiped again last night—for the second time this season. The first time around, the Christmas season had just started, so the coppers went and found it. This time—well, they’ll just let it go. The tree will wind up in the nearby Spanish Quarter, fueling a different sort of St. Anthony’s Fire.

Although young people are generally most active in collecting wood for the bonfires, the results are anything but child's play. The fires can be very large and in the close quarters of the streets and alleys of Naples, they are a threat to life and property. St. Anthony's night is somewhat of a "hell night" for local fire-fighters, almost the way New Year's Eve is. The law now says, of course, that you can't set these fires anymore, but that doesn't have much effect.


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