It’s about ten weeks since the corona virus quarantine restrictions imposed in early March started to lift. Ten weeks during which we’ve very, very gradually gone from almost total lockdown with the whole country effectively closed to practically everything now being open and functioning more or less normally again. I say ‘more or less’ because, of course, no one here wants to see the currently manageable numbers of new corona virus cases start to rise again and risk a return to lockdown. Which means that no one any longer thinks twice about wearing a mask in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not possible, using the hand sanitiser provided at the entrance to every shop, bank, office and café, and speaking to every shop assistant, receptionist, bank clerk and barista through a plexiglass screen. So those really rather meagre encroachments on our ‘liberty’ aside, you’d be forgiven for thinking everyone was enjoying a summer like every other. Apart from one thing. This year’s summer programme of sagre and feste, concerts and shows, pageants, exhibitions and markets has all but disappeared without trace. And that really is a huge blow to the cultural life of the country, believe me.
The sheer number of these local events that take normally place throughout Italy during the summer months is truly remarkable – and not just in tourist hot-spots such as Siena or Venice, the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast. Even in tourism-lite Le Marche, our village – with its population of barely 3000 souls – typically holds a series of three- or four-day long events between June and September, all of which are regular fixtures in the summer calendar. May’s highlight is normally the annual artichoke festival, while in July it is the annual pizza festival that usually takes centre stage; in safer times it would have been this weekend, in fact. Then there is the annual medieval weekend and a celebration of apiculture, and over the weekends in between, more than a dozen family-orientated live music, dancing or sports events normally take place. Our village is far from unique in this respect, mind: a typical July issue of Corriere Proposte, the catalogue of events that the region produces every month, contains about a hundred and fifty closely printed pages listing more than seven hundred events in eight different categories. This year, by the way, the July issue is little more than a flimsy pamphlet.
More remarkable still is that a vast number of these events will have been organised, promoted and run by the local ‘Pro Loco’, sometimes with a degree of financial or logistical support from the Comune (town council). Roughly translated, Pro Loco means ‘in favour of the place’ and so the purpose of each of these entirely voluntary, not-for-profit associations (of which there are now some 6200 nationwide, the first having been founded in 1881), is the promotion of the town, its sites, its history, its traditions, its culture and – of course – its gastronomy. And the principal purpose of all this activity is not to attract tourists, as one might suppose, but to improve the quality of life of the local residents by celebrating community identity and strengthening community ties.
The Pro Loco movement is effectively an embodiment of the peculiarly Italian notion of ‘campanilismo’, which has its origins in the need in times past for communities to pull together to defend the parish bell tower – the campanile. This highly developed sense of local allegiance was crucial in pre-unification Italy when the country was made up of a patchwork of perpetually warring kingdoms and dukedoms, imperial territories and papal lands, where conflict between neighbouring regions, towns and even neighbourhoods was commonplace. So loyalty to the local was often a matter of survival. Consequently, even today, if you ask a random Italian where they are from, they will probably give you the name of their particular town or village rather than a city close by that you are more likely to have heard of, never mind the name of the region it is located in.
In view of these roots, it might be easy to imagine that the activities of the Pro Loco are nothing more than an outmoded expression of insularity, division and mistrust of the different. In our experience, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s campanilismo is much more akin to the very millennial concept of ‘localism’: support for the production and consumption of local goods, the promotion of local culture and identity, and lots of local accountability. It is therefore a celebration of local difference, of the produce that supports the local economy – artichokes in Montelupone’s case – and since this varies from community to community, they are also an expression of a community’s individuality, as well as civic pride and solidarity. Moreover, because they revolve around eating and drinking, processions and games, music and dancing, and lots of making merry, there is something for everyone to enjoy, from black-clad nonna to tattooed teenager to chubby-cheeked toddler. And enjoy them they do (normally) – in vast numbers, too.
The thing is, the holding of these events is currently not technically forbidden; there are, however, very stringent rules governing how they may be run, who can attend, and under what circumstances. Added to which, having got through the worst of the corona virus storm, people remain mindful of the ongoing risk of further outbreaks and of the continued need for caution. And although the virus seems to be largely under control (but not defeated), no one has any wish to waste the supreme effort and sacrifice that everyone, individually and collectively, has made over the last five months to help confine the spread of this vile disease. So in many cases, local communities have made the decision themselves, reluctantly no doubt, to cancel their Sagra della Polenta up in Penna San Giovanna, their Horror Festival over in Monte Urano, their Palio down in Servigliano, their Beer Circus in Pedaso, or our own Sagra del Carciofo and Festa della Pizza. Which in these most delicate of times is, on reflection, perhaps as true to the aims of the Pro Loco and as much an expression of civic pride, solidarity and pulling together for the benefit of the community as any amount of merry-making at those mothballed events would ever have been.