Few Carnival festivals can rival Putignano’s history. The Apulian town started celebrating Carnival in 1394 and never stopped.
The revelries started by accident. Story has it that the Knight of Saint John wanted to move some sacred relics from their castle in Monopoli to a safer place inland. They chose Putignano and, when the precious cargo arrived, farmers left their work and celebrated the occasion with dances, verses and music.
Since then, this ritual, called the Propaggini, has been repeated every year, although it has long lost any religious connotations and replaced them with a satiric quality. Verses now take centre stage in the revelries and politicians are the main targets.
The Propaggini are held on Boxing Day, making Putignano’s Carnival not only one of the oldest but also one of the longest in Italy. Just before the poets take to the soapbox, however, the good people of Putignano celebrate another unusual rite—they bring a candle to their local Church to ask advance forgiveness for the sins they will undoubtedly commit during the happy days of the festival.
But the Apulian Carnival is also a synonym for a great float parade—one of the few in Italy that can rival Viareggio’s. This custom is much more recent in origin—it probably started in the 19th century with some simple, cart-drawn floats, but evolved to the huge papier mâché sculptures of the modern parades during the Fascist era—although it is unlikely that, at the time, the floats showed the same penchant for political satire as they do now. The parades take place on the last three Sundays of Carnival and on Shrove Tuesday.
If politicians are the preferred victims for verse and float satire, common people are the butt of other jokes. Every Thursday between January 17 and Shrove Tuesday, comedians take to the streets and stage sketches, making fun of priests, widows and widowers, madmen, married women and two-timed husbands and wives.
When the Carnival season reaches the end, revellers disguised as priests give it the last rites, dipping a broom in a miniature loo, and splashing the water on onlookers. On Shrove Tuesday, the very last parade and the rather un-sorrowful funeral of King Carnival take place along the main streets, while an enormous papier mâché bell tolls 365 times to mark the last moments of the festival.
Then Lent begins—but not before the people of Putignano have had a late-night feast of pasta, wine and dancing to fortify themselves against the somber days of fasting.