James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Holy, Mystical Week

Photographer Karl Mancini documents the most mysterious and disturbing religious rituals of southeast Italy.

I have always been fascinated by how intensely people celebrate religion in some parts of Italy. Growing up in Rome, my childhood is full of memories of obscure rituals that I didn’t know much about at the time. I remember being surprised at people’s raw emotions, their sudden screams of joy and pain, their mysterious facial expressions that I could not translate. Religious rites in Italy are both an important part of our culture and a mystery for those who, like me, are not religious.

To document Holy Week, I drove through the region of Apulia, in Italy’s southeast, where people are still very attached to religious traditions. From its cities to small villages, I discovered that each place has its own peculiar way of celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the region gets more and more popular with tourists, I wanted to show a different side to the images I had been finding online. I decided to document the spiritual and the bizarre. Although there were people everywhere, I excluded the crowd and isolated my subjects to investigate the hidden aspects of religion. I tried to see the celebrations as a child again.

Blood, sweat, pilgrims that dress up in secret so as not be recognized, women covered in black from head to toe. I visited attics and crypts inhabited by mummies, I witnessed hands being punctured by nails and crosses being dragged on the floor. Easter time, it turns out, is when Apulia reveals its most mystical and disturbing side.

Inside the secret chapel of the Church of Death in Francavilla Fontana. Inaccessible to the public, it is where old statues are preserved.
A church in the region of Apulia during Holy Week.
Two “Pappamusci” in a church during the Holy Week pilgrimage in Francavilla Fontana.
In Noicattaro, Molfetta, Francavilla Fontana and other cities of Apulia, hooded penitents called “Cruciferi” drag crosses along the streets in procession on the Friday of Holy Week.
An old priest is dressed. On the Wednesday of Holy Week, the Bishop himself will be washing the feet of devotees.
Two “Pappamusci” are reflected in a mirror. During the pilgrimage of Francavilla Fontana, pairs of barefoot penitents dressed in white visit all of the churches in the city throughout the night to ask for forgiveness from the Lord. Their identity is kept strictly secret.
The pilgrimage of Francavilla Fontana is strictly monitored in order to preserve the pilgrims’ identity and guarantee sincere devotion.
A Friday procession in Apulia. By tradition, statues are put up for auction at the beginning of Holy Week.

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