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Different ways of looking

If the “Santuzza” cannot be touched

The statue of Saint Rosalia during a procession (ANSA)
28 November 2020

Palermo, the devotion to Saint Rosalia denied by Coronavirus

Saint Rosalia is Palermo, and Palermo is Saint Rosalia, says Mayor Leoluca Orlando. And in these words he expresses the synthesis of a visceral bond between Palermo and its patron saint that spans the centuries. Thus, the name of the saint resonates with that of the city: Long live Palermo and Saint Rosalie!

That the patroness is a woman is already something out of the ordinary. Her full name was Rosalia Sinibaldi, a bridesmaid of honor of noble lineage who grew up at the court of King Roger II of Sicily at the beginning of the 12th century. Yet, that this “santuzza” (little saint), as the people of Palermo lovingly call her, has saved an entire city centuries after her death, sounds even more extraordinary.

It was May 1624 when a ship from Tunis brought the plague to Palermo. The contagion spread silently, but like lightening. A month later it was officially proclaimed a plague.

The plague spread, despite the closing of the city gates, quarantines for ships at the port, lazarettos. There are four saints to whom the population turn to, St Agatha, St Christine, St Oliva, and St Nymph, but salvation comes from the “santuzza” Rosalia, who first appeared to a leper, revealing a cave of Monte Pellegrino where her remains were found.  The following year she appeared to a poor soap-maker who climbed the mountain to commit suicide after the death of his wife. There she told him that the cardinal of Palermo must put an end “to disputes and doubts” about her discovered bones and that they must be taken in procession throughout the city.

Thus, on June 9, 1625, as the relics of the saint crossed the streets, the plague victims recovered. The saint freed Palermo from the plague, triumphed over death and became the city’s undisputed patron saint.

 “The contact...the bones... Saint Rosalie did not say ‘pray to me’, she said ‘take my bones around the city’”, explains the anthropologist Deborah Puccio-Den.  “The miracle happened not because the saint is prayed to, or asked to intercede, or at least not only because of that, but because her relics crisscross, and touch the city. This is what creates that very strong bond between the saint and the polis, the community”, which is renewed every year on the night between 14 and 15 July with the “Festino” procession through the streets of the old city.

This contact is important for the devotees, and we can understand it by going up to the sanctuary on Mount Pellegrino, the sacred mountain of Palermo. We experience it on the night between 3 and 4 September when small groups or even entire families of faithful, make the four kilometers “acchianata”, the climb to the cave of the sanctuary, to commemorate the death and ascent to heaven of the “santuzza”, To watch over her and the next day to celebrate her with a mass held by the bishop. In their hands, pieces of paper to be left at the sanctuary, which are thanksgivings for grace received or invocations for grace to be received, written meticulously in pen or in the stunted way of those who are unfamiliar with words.

 “Before it was all a touch... the wooden statue of Saint Rosalie at the entrance, the rock... it was all a matter of taking off bracelets, jewels, beloved objects and putting them inside the case next to the statue lying wrapped in the golden cloak with the crown of roses on her head. It was all a huddle of kissing...because relics and images, on that day, are invested with their maximum saving power, which is there, manifest, and one must touch it”, explains the anthropologist Puccio-Den.

And in that “before”, at that time in the past, does the reality of today not nestle?

It was a Sunday in this autumn of 2020 when those who had died from the Coronavirus virus were beginning to be counted again in Italy too.  I went up to the sanctuary. There were just a few faithful there, making the “acchianata”. Going up the mountain, and at every tight turn there are signs of the arson attack that occurred in 2016, which stripped the landscape of eucalyptus pines and cypresses. It is time for mass, and voices of the cult can be heard. “Over there”, says a girl from the Civil Defense. Here was a large white tent -like those that are raised to house people after an earthquake. “Mind the social distancing”, she adds, alluding to the small size of the sanctuary. It is only once you pass the churchyard and disinfect your hands that you experience the sense of emptiness, in that place that has always been so full of objects, gestures, and signs of devotion.  Cards, votive offerings, roses, and the faithful on their knees or in prayer. Even the taps from which we could once drink or touch the sacred water of the mountain are dry. Along a path marked by stakes and red and white plastic chains which are used to demark an area, we can see discreet but ubiquitous signs that mark prohibitions. These warnings are repeated by the Civil Protection volunteers: No kneeling; No laying notes; No depositing flowers on the shrine; “give them to me, I’ll take care of it”, says a volunteer to a lost couple, no touching the glass, no giving a kiss, no reaching out of hands to the system of sheets of metal that run along the cave to permit the sacred water of the mountain to run through. “If it falls, it falls, you cannot touch!” A devotion denied in one of these most ordinary and spontaneous gestures.

Inside the shrine, there is no trace of all the precious gifts that have always covered the statue in the sanctuary. The sanctuary’s vicar to whom I ask for explanations spread out his arms. For the entire month of September, the sanctuary was closed, and everything was locked shut; no one was able to go up there, except for the night between the 3rd and 4th. No ex-votos, donations, cards, or flowers.

In March, during the first confinement, some artists projected the image of the “santuzza” wearing a surgical mask on her face onto the facades of the palaces near the cathedral (where the relics are kept). A way of entrusting oneself to the patron saint that seems more like an invitation to protect oneself and to protect her.

“People want to find the saint who frees us from the plague, but at the same time they cannot because if people keep on seeking to meet her and make her a saving saint in the traditional way, touching her and kissing her, would lead to an explosion of virus cases,” explains my anthropologist friend. A neutralized saint in short, to be prayed to from a distance, even in streaming, as a devout Mrs. Carmela tells me. She is the one who explains to me that during the confinement last March, every evening she followed the mass celebrated by a parish priest online, and that concluded with the hymn to the Patroness: “O bright Rose...”.

Among the faithful who must abide by the prohibitions in the sanctuary there is a lady with long black braids, her brown face carries the red pottu on her forehead symbolizing she is a married women. She sits composed in her decorous attire on a stone seat with a tapered candle in her hands, catching her tired breath from the climb. However, she cannot stay there. It will have to be disinfected! So she gets up quietly. She is one of thousands of Tamils, Hindus or Catholics, who are devoted to the saint in Palermo. The Sicilian capital has the most populous and ancient Tamil community in Italy. About 8,000 have arrived there as refugees since 1983, while in Sri Lanka one of the bloodiest and most forgotten civil wars between the Tamil minority made up of Hindus and Catholics, and the Singhalese who are Buddhists, raged.

The Tamil Hindus explain their devotion to the Mother of the Mountain, which began with a miracle in the nineties, “coming here to St Rosalia is like returning home with the heart”; “we also build temples in the mountains”; “we do not have our own temple”. A 4-year-old girl woke up from a coma while her parents and hundreds of community members were shuttling back and forth between the hospital and the sanctuary. Thus, Saint Rosalie has her place among the Hindu gods,  because “God is one, but has many aspects, and one of them is St Rosalia. Their religious affiliation is a strong element of their sense of identity; but, it is not an exclusive element”, explains Professor Giuseppe Burgio, who has a wide-ranging knowledge of the Tamil world in the city

The Tamil Catholics, on the other hand, have a temple, which is a church in the heart of the old town where mass is celebrated by a Sri Lankan priest. The Tamils, Catholics and Hindus, have a cultural life of their own within the city, which includes their own coordinating committee, satellite TV channels, and videotapes produced by the Indian film industry. They buy food and clothing from their compatriots’ stores, and for the most part, they keep themselves to themselves, working in houses as maids or homehelpers. They play cricket, which is the national sport in Sri Lanka. They have very little contact with the people of Palermo, but every Sunday at dawn they walk the two hours from their houses in the heart of the old city (in Ballarò, and Il Capo) to the sanctuary.

To ask for a grace we have to put our body on the line, to suffer. This is the reason for a form of devotion that also manifests itself in ways proper to Hindu cults; for example, the practice of piercing various parts of the body with hooks as a vow to divinity.

The journalist Marta Bellingreri recalls how, until some time ago, during the night between the 3rd and 4th of September -and before the Covid pandemic hit-, some men made their way to the sanctuary while hanging with hooks from a pole supported by their compatriots.

It does not seem to me that the pandemic is at the center of the prayers, however. So, I ask for confirmation from the vicar.

The vicar looks at the landscape of bare trees, he sighs. “Palermo has so many plagues”, he says to me.

by Evelina Santangelo

The author

Evelina Santangelo is a writer and editor. With the Italian publishing house Einaudi she has published the short stories L’occhio cieco del mondo (Berto prize, Mondello prize, etc.) and several novels: Senzaterra e Da un altro mondo (book of the year 2018 Fahrenheit Rai-radio 3; Superpremio Sciascia, etc.). Also for Einaudi she edited Terra matta by Vincenzo Rabito, she translated Firmino by Sam Savage and Rock’n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard. Her articles have been published in national newspapers, blogs and weeklies.