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The tradition of the winter falò (bonfire) is common in many parts of Italy, including the area where we live, Lunigiana in the northern tip of Toscana centred around the medieval town of Pontremoli. The falò tradition goes back to the pagan festival of welcoming back the light after the darkest days of the year, and in many places, as has often happened with pagan traditions, it has been transformed into a Christian festival known as i falò di Sant’Antonio Abate.
Here in Pontremoli, however, this tradition has evolved into a serious competition called la disfida dei falò (the bonfire competition) which plays out between the two rioni (districts) into which the town is divided: il sommoborgo di San Niccolò (the upper borough of San Niccolò), and l’imoborgo di San Geminiano (the lower borough of San Geminiano). This rivalry, as is so common here in Italy, goes all the way back to medieval times. La disfida begins on the 17th of January, when San Niccolò lights its bonfire, dedicated to Sant’Antonio Abate, on a dry part of the bed of the river Magra. Two weeks later, on the 31st of January, San Geminiano’s day, the rival district sets its own bonfire alight beside the river Verde. These two rivers, the Magra and the Verde run on either side of the centro storico di Pontremoli. The competition is based on which rione builds the tallest and widest bonfire, how long the bonfire burns for, how high the flames reach, and how well the bonfire holds together whilst it’s burning.
A team of about 30 fuochisti (stokers) from each district work on their respective falò for months, beginning in September of the previous year with the cutting and stocking up of the materials. These consist of fascine (faggots), or ‘bochi’ in Pontremolese dialect, composed of erica selvatica (wild heather), ginestra (broom), and rovi (brambles) which are stored in the woods to dry out in secret places in order to avoid sabotage by their rivals. Three days before the night of the falò, the fuochisti start building la pira (the pyre). A tepee like frame of chestnut and/or acacia trunks is built, the main central trunk usually being between 11 and 13 meters tall. This frame not only supports the pyre, but also functions as a camino di tiraggio (draft chimney, to draw oxygen into the base of the fire). Inside and around this frame i fuochisti carefully place le fascine, which have to be hoisted up a tall ladder one by one along a human chain. No mechanical means are allowed in the construction of the bonfire, except for during the erection of the frame. Care is taken not to compact the faggots too closely together as this would prevent the air drawing up through the pyre. The circumference at the base of the pyre is usually 20 to 25 meters.
During the three days of construction i fuochisti live in a wooden hut which they build near the bonfire, taking turns to guard their material and to avoid sabotage by the rival rione. Sabotage usually involves stealing some of the rivals fascine to make their fire less successful, or painting the guard hut in the enemy’s colours. Yes, just like football teams each rione has its own colours which are displayed in the form of flags, scarves, hats, and sweatshirts!
Unfortunately this year things went too far: last November several members of the San Niccolò gang discovered where the San Geminiano gang was storing its faggots. Apparently they decided to go back the next day with a tractor to steal some of the wood, but during the night one of them, nobody seems to know who, went to the woods and set fire to the whole lot, destroying all the stored fascine and doing serious damage to the forest as well. It goes without saying that this ‘individual’ ha ruined everybody’s fun and there are a lot of angry people around Pontremoli at the moment!
Here is a video from the 2010 falò di San Geminiano (Zümian in Pontremolese): Falò di San Geminiano
At the beginning we see an interview with two of the fuochisti, whilst in the background you can see the process of the bonfire being built. There then follows an interview with some passers by, and, finally, the awesome ritual lighting of the falò. The tremendous conflagration that you see is created solely by the dried, highly combustible, materials fuelled by oxygen drawn through the conical form of the fire. The use of other ingredients such as petrol to ‘enhance’ the fire is forbidden. While the falò is burning you can see a group of the rival San Niccolò supporters displaying a banner from the medieval bridge which reads: San Niccolò made in Italy / Voi made in China / Noi da Circo Massimo / Voi al massimo al circo (San Niccolò made in Italy / You made in China / We are good enough for the Circus Maximus – the magnificent Roman stadium built in 46 BC – You are only worth the circus at the most).
Each rione has its own chant which they sing whilst the falò is burning: San Niccolò, which in medieval times supported the Pope in his fight against the Emperor, chants: Lo, lo, lo / evviva San Niccolò / evviva il Vaticano / abbasso San Geminiano. San Geminiano, which supported the Emperor, chants: Lo, lo, lo / abbasso San Niccolò / abbasso il Vaticano / evviva San Geminiano.