The Quarantana’s custom in the Valle d’Itria villages

Author: Maria Teresa Acquaviva


If you visit the Valle d’Itria villages during Lent you will inevitably be curious by puppets with terrific old women likeness, hanged in wires between the houses, at the junctions and in the small squares of the historic centre, a horrid allegory of Lent. It is known that Lent for Catholics was, at the origin, a period of deprivation opposed to the abundance symbolized by the Carnival just concluded. Carnem levare, (“remove the meat” from which Carnival) originally referred to Ash Wednesday, the first Lenten Day that ended on Holy Saturday. Forty days of abstinence from fatty foods, meat, eggs, milk and derivatives after the Carnival’s revelry, when everything was granted in function of the penitential which fell on  after Fat Tuesday. Forty days of deprivation (quadragesimam diem) that refer to the time Jesus Christ passed into the desert, feeding only on herbs but above all feeding his spirit. The deprivation of fatty foods during Lent for Catholics assumed, and assumes for those who strictly still observe the custom, a symbolic connotation as a path of purification preparatory to Holy Easter.

The popular imagination, it is known, transforms everything into effective and communicative symbols. So was born the Quarantana, the old woman hanged in the alleys, dressed poorly, holding a spinning spindle, a fagot or any other tools that symbolize daily and especially domestic work. The popular tradition consider her as the wife of the Carnival who had left on Fat Tuesday. For this reason, suffering from pain, Quarantana has a aching and shabby look and bring with her some food, that refers to obligated abstinence, and some objects. Variations between the villages and other regions of southern Italy are minimal. In Valle d’Itria the seven lenten weeks are often symbolized by seven taralli, in other regions you can find an orange with 7 chicken’s feathers roundly skewered, salami or a bottle of wine. in Valle d’Itria is bizarre the grater, which reminded not to eat cheeses, replaced in the first courses with bread crumbs. In Martina Franca you can also see scissors as a warning to the children to whom the Quarantana would cut off their tongue if they had transgressed with forbidden food.

The butchers in past times were closed, except one day a week when the butcher was authorized by the clergy to distribute meat to the sick. No eggs or milk were consumed. In fact, during Lent in the farmhouses, all the milk daily milked was turned into cheese that would be sold aged after Easter. The eggs, of course, were accumulated and a some groups of players and singers, used to visit farmhouses and rural houses from Holy Saturday until Easter morning to beg eggs or anything else. Maybe this is the way the custom of unmissable Easter Monday omelet was born, just to use all the accumulated eggs.

At last, on Holy Saturday, the Resurrection Day, the Quarantana kicked the bucket by gunfire or at the stake, this last ritual still in vogue. The purifying fire enriches the rite with other symbols. From the fire the farmer took the wishes for a good year; fire represented the victory of abundance on poverty (the lenten abstinence); the victory of life (rebirth, spring) on death (winter). These cultural elements certainly point to a pagan origin of the ritual, linked, for example, to the agricultural-pastoral cultures of Indo-European peoples who celebrated the regeneration of nature after the winter with fire.

The symbolism of Lent and Quarantana has a meaning that goes beyond the religious boundaries, perhaps a call to seek a synthesis between the excesses of abundance and the rigors of privations, to find a more moderate form of living among the well and the evil.