Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Day of the Dead & Halloween

      Italians call today Il Giorno dei Morti (the Day of the Dead), while officially it is the  Catholic feast of Ognissanti, All Saints Day, a legal public holiday throughout Italy.  Tomorrow, Nov. 2, is All Souls Day, which could be considered the true Day of the Dead, which some southern Italian cities do, thereby extending the long holiday weekend.  Last night was Halloween, an Anglo Saxon tradition that has become popular in Italy over the past 10 years.  Photographers Carly, Michelle and myself set out to make some sense of these interwoven, bicultural festivities.

I always say, "gli italiani vivono in condomio, vanno al mare in condomio, e stanno in cimetero in conodomio," (Italian live in condominums, frequent condominums at the beach (beach clubs) and hang out in condominums at the cemetery (where frequently they are buried one on top of each other in mini-marble apartment buildings in individual loculi).  Italians (I love them, I am of Italian blood and have dual citizenship) are also known for moving en masse at the precise same time.  So it should come as no surprise that on  Il Giorno dei Morti that everyone in the country decides to visit their loved ones at the cemetery to deposit a bouquet of flowers.

Carly and I decided to go to a cemetery within walking distance of my home close to via Senese.  Besides the fact that two of my neighbors are buried there, il Cimitero degli Allori, however, is no ordinary cemetery.  It is a historic Protestant cemetery, a Cimitero Evangelico, run by a group of local Protestant churches and located outside the walls of a Catholic city.  When Carly, with a camera around her neck, and I got out of the car, the cemetery custodian appeared and shouted, "NO PHOTOS, NO PHOTOS."

"But we are not going to take pictures of people, just gravestones," I said.  (The Allori Cemetery, in non-Italian fashion, has many individual graves with tombstones).  The man didn't budge, and upon my suggestion, called the cemetery director, whom I know.  Gerardo Kraft gave us permission to take a panoramic shot.  After this, the custodian, who identified himself as Fabrizio, warmed up to us and even allowed us to take his picture next to a cypress tree.  The cypress in Italy is traditionally planted in and identified with cemeteries.

Fabrizio admitted that he had already chased away Italian journalists and TV crews reporting on the Day of the Dead, but as we were the only foreigners and simpatiche, he gave a quick tour.  He showed us the Swiss artist Arnold Boecklin's grave.  We saw that many of the tombstones were engraved in English, including one "In Loving Memory of Catherine Seaborne/died in Florence on March 30, 1881/Aged 69/Deeply Mourned by her Loving Daughter."  Another, a foreigner identified by his Italian nickname of "Pavo,"
carried the inscription, "Peace at Last."  In a plot there were the graves of seven Gibsons
plus "Baby," born stillborn to James and Lily.

Fabrizio took us to a grave where, according to him, a relative of President Truman was buried.  "Yes, military men come here often to pay him tribute," he said.  Well, Carly and I saw two stars above the name "Truman Seymour."  As we suspected, he was not related to Harry Truman, but a West Point graduate, a veteran of the Mexican-American, Seminole and Civil Wars.  He fought in many major battles, and according to Wikipedia, commanded Union troops at the Battle of Olustee, the largest Civil War battle fought in Florida (incidentally Carly is from Florida and
I grew up near West Point).

To give Fabrizio credit, it was customary for Italians sign their last name first, so for him Seymour could have been the American military warrior's last name.  But how did he end up (and die) in Florence?  Looking online I discovered that General Seymour retired to Europe, where he became
 a watercolor painter (!!!)
Beautiful Florence, it is known, has always attracted artists....

On the way out, we found a time-worn stool next to the grave for family mourners to sit on and meditate on death.  Fabrizio gave us permission to photograph it.

Yesterday evening, on Halloween, I was in a hardware store having keys made when a man came in and asked for face paint.  "No," the man at Bati (near the office) said, "you need to go
 to Filistrucchi on via Verdi."

Curious, Michelle and I decided to investigate.  I met Gherardo Filistrucchi, who is the youngest family member to run the business, which was founded in Florence in 1720.  Filistrucchi specializes in wigs made of human hair, makeup, special effects, masks and costumes for theater, Carnival and special events such as Halloween.  When I was in the shop, a man came in to buy a scar.  Obviously I need to dedicate an entire post one day to Filistrucchi.  Suffice it to say that I asked Gherardo how Italians perceive Halloween and he answered, " for us it is a Carnival of horrors
il morto in tutte le salse, the dead in all flavors,
zombies, Jack Sparrow, Frankenstein etc. etc."

When I wrote Florence's first article (in English) in the 90's on Halloween for La Repubblica, Italians barely knew what it was.   I explained that it is the evening of the last day of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon calendar when (appropriately in view of the following Day of the Dead), those who passed away can visit their former haunts on earth.  I was the first to translate "trick or treat," as "dammi un dolcetto o ti faccio uno scherzetto" literally, "give me a treat or I'll play a trick on you."  As Filistrucchi specified, "Italian children and grown-up foreigners" walk the streets of Florence on Halloween dressed in costume saying "dolcetto o scherzetto."

Sweet or trick--well Italians have their priorities straight,
 food first.

Speaking of food, Sugar & Spice, Florence's American bakery, besides offering themed cupcakes, did a nice Halloween display window at their via de' Servi location.


In the spirit of the two holidays, I will sign off with a tomb inscription I saw at the Allori Cemetery:

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