The ziggurat of fire

In the past, all the families of the village left bundles outside their houses as offerings to Sant’Antonio, patron saint of the animals. A cart collected and carried them to the square where everyone took part in the construction of the bonfire, the Focara. Today the bundles are specially prepared for January 16th, the feast of Sant’Antonio.

At nightfall the great bonfire is lit up. At Novoli, a small town in Salento, 15 km away from Lecce, the work starts in mid-December. The vines collected from the pruning of Negroamaro vineyards, the local wine, are tied together with wire, in batches of about 300, forming a bundle. Stacked one above the other, according to ancient knowledge and techniques, about 90000 bundles form a giant ziggurat, ready to be burned.

It’s the largest bonfire in the whole of Mediterranean region, 25 metres high and 20 metres wide. An ancient tradition that blends pagan and propitiatory rites with sacred ones, descending directly from the Byzantines. For the last three years, the tradition has been to combined with contemporary art. The artists Mimmo Paladino, Ugo Nespolo, Hidetoshi Nagasawa, have created artwork to be placed on the bonfire, ephemeral art that disappears in the fire.

One of the most exciting moments is the ancient ritual of La Bardatura: a long human chain climbs the bonfire  putting the Sant’Antonio image on the top. It’s as if an initation for the young people to enter the adult world. In the afternoon, with the soundtrack of the village brassband, the priest blesses the animals, in the Sant’Anonio tradition. At dusk, a display of fireworks lights the bonfire. And while the fire burns, all around a party of music and dancing breaks out. When the speakers shut down, the Focara will continue to burn throughout the night and into the next day. Covering Novoli with snow ash.