Matera, Italy's Amazing "Festa della Bruna" is Unlike Anything We've Ever Seen

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Last night Brent and I witnessed a public celebration that was off-the-charts bonkers. But that's not culturally insensitive, because even the locals describe it that way.

Brent and I are currently living in southern Italy in a town called Matera, with a population of 65,000. Southern Italy is very religious, and the yearly highlight of this town is the Festa della Bruna, which has been taking place for 629 years! Which is about five times longer than our hometown of Seattle has been a city. 

Every July 2 at 4:30 AM, a float sets out carrying a statue of the Madonna (the Virgin Mary, not the singer). The float is escorted by knights on gorgeous horses, and travels around the city, which is itself decorated with colorful lights.

In the evening, things get really interesting. The Madonna is taken off the float, and the whole thing is "deconsecrated" by the local cardinal. Then the float is escorted into the town square packed with at least 20,000 people.

It's a small town square. (We know. We were there.)

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In the town square, the float is then destroyed by the young men of the town. But not right away! At first, the escorts hold the crowd back with whips. Finally, the men break through, leaping up onto the float and tearing it to shreds.

And get this. This year, for the first time ever, a young woman joined the throng (and an African man too). Go, Matera! Look at you, being all progressive 'n stuff.

By the time it's finished, all that remains is the frame.

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It's considered very good luck to get a piece of the float -- he bigger, the better. Apparently, some folks have sold especially impressive pieces for as much as €25,000.

I'm not even going to try and analyze the psychology of religious folks tearing apart a float filled with religious iconography, but the event is fascinating for a lot of other reasons.

Did I mention it's been happening for more than 600 years? There are different theories as to how this particular ritual involved. One involves an appearance of the Virgin Mary, and the other posits that the events mirror an actual (victorious) battle from long ago.

Even more interesting is how civil the crowd stayed. Twenty thousand people packed into a small square on a very hot night? Plus, the float was late. But everyone remained calm and (mostly) polite. No one was drunk or obnoxious or abusive. There were young and old people, families, and groups of friends. It's truly a community event that brings folks together. 

Was it because of all the police? No, they were mostly there to keep people out of the way of the horses escorting the float.

Afterward, we walked to another part of the city for a pretty spectacular fireworks display.

I can't think of an event like this anywhere in the US. Mardi Gras in New Orleans? Nah, that's a drunken bacchanal, which this definitely wasn't. A winning Super Bowl? Maybe, but they often leads to riots and destruction.

Look, being jammed into crowd of 20,000 people on a steamy, July night is probably not something we're going to be doing every year. But it was sure worth doing this year. Check out the video to get a better sense of the event!