Every Italian town has more than its fair share of annual festivals – some based on food, some on cultural activities like music and art, some on folklore, some on religion, and quite a number that cleverly combine folklore and religion together. Orvieto’s La Palombella, which takes place on Pentecost Sunday, falls into this last category.
To celebrate in days of yore, an unfortunate dove was TIED inside a metal ring that would slide down a wire going from the top of the San Francesco church to a temporary religious shrine set up outside the Duomo’s door – a distance of perhaps 200 yards. Around this metal ring were firecrackers set to explode during the entire descent. The trip might only take about 20 seconds, but if you were the dove, believe me — it would seem a lot longer. As if the poor bird didn’t have enough discomfort, there were even louder fireworks to celebrate its arrival at the shrine.
Why did the normally kind townspeople subject this inoffensive creature to such punishment? Well, the dove was unlucky enough to be the perfect symbol to represent important messages for the two key groups in the town’s life: the farmers and the Church.
To the farming community, this ritual served as a prediction of what they could expect for that season’s crops. A live bird at the end signified good luck and a dead one was not so good. I’m just not sure which committee decided it was a smart idea to subject its good luck charm to explosive noises while tied in an unnatural position, since one must assume that not a lot of doves made it alive back in those days. Surely there had to have been a lot of empty bottles of Orvieto Classico wine when they took that vote.
To the religious community, this was a chance to hammer home its message once again by having the dove represent the Holy Spirit entering the Duomo each year. Personally, I feel this sends the wrong message because it makes it seem as though the Holy Spirit expires and, therefore needs renewing, but they have obviously convinced their followers to think along more symbolic and less literal lines than I do. Since the Church has had centuries to hone its ability to make limoncello out of lemons, they could present their best spin whether the dove was alive or dead. You know….“In death there is life” type of thing. Breathing or not, they would ceremoniously remove the ring from the shrine and carry it into the Duomo, thereby completing their ritual.
And then, because fertility was important to both the farmers and the Church, they would give the dove to the most recently married couple. I always hoped this gift would have been a live bird rather than a dead one, but since they don’t seem to have kept records about this part of the ceremony, there’s no way to know for sure.
At some point — and I hope you won’t think me TOO cynical here by suggesting that perhaps it had something to do with either the distastefulness of this torture to the tourist trade, or the fact that there were so many year-after-year crop failures — it was decided to put the dove in a protective container inside the ring, where it could at least sit out the ride in a semi-natural position and not have its eardrums destroyed. Nowadays they say that the container is padded and sound proof. Sure.
But let’s talk about last year’s event and what I will call The Miracle of 2011. Somehow, before they could get the dove into the Duomo, the latch opened, and it escaped!!!!!!!! Witnesses said it flew to the top of the building across the piazza, looked back at the Duomo, backtracked its path in captivity to San Francesco and then just kept on going. I’m merely guessing here, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it didn’t give its captors a middle talon as it flew over.
If we want to go along with the religious symbolism of this glorious day, it can only mean that the Holy Spirit did NOT get into the Duomo. As for the folklore symbolism, it has to be considered somewhat good since the dove was alive, but what if the crops were REALLY great? That could mean that those folklore folk are going to want the dove to go free every year, resulting in a Duomo with a permanently expired Holy Spirit. I can only hope that the poor newlyweds went home with some kind of consolation prize. Perhaps a ceramic dove? A painting of one on black velvet?
Some people are saying that an animal rights terrorist snuck in and loosened the latch. Others view it as a Message From God — especially considering that right before this, there was an incredible uproar about the sacking of Orvieto’s favorite bishop by the Church hierarchy. His crime, evidently, was being a fair-minded guy, which automatically meant a demotion…..not being a man of questionable moral character, in which case, of course, he could have kept his job.
In a small town where there’s not much new to talk about, the potential for all kinds of stories circulating for a whole year would be totally unlimited……truly an Italian dream come true. Orvieto’s motto from Pentecost 2011 to Pentecost 2012: Symbolism Run Amuck!!!!!
(NOTE: By the way — if you want to line up for the 2012 festivities, the fireworks start at noon on Sunday, May 27th, but you better get there early. My bet is there will be a lot of people who’ll want to see if we can make it 2 in a row for the Flight to Freedom.)