Dancing with shadows - Tarantella in Old Calabria

The 2023 Segmento Tarantella Festival prompted valuable reflections on the historical origins and significance of the tarantella in Italian culture, particularly in Southern Italy.

These perspectives, though readily and broadly accepted, can sometimes verge on the stereotypical. For this reason, I find it worthwhile to explore a more shadowy depiction of the tarantella found in a short passage from Old Calabria, a travelogue written by Norman Douglas and first published in 1915.

In Old Calabria is a chapter titled “Molle Tarentum”, which translates from the Latin as “soft or gentle Taranto”, wherein Douglas mentions the tarantella, briefly and once only. Yet I am struck by how the author is exceptionally allusive to the interplay between a religious practice, a folk tradition and a superstitious belief that extend back to the 14th century.

Here is the passage:

[San Vito] came from Mazzara in Sicily, whither they still carry, to his lonely shrine, epileptics and others distraught of mind. And were I in a discursive mood, I would endeavour to trace some connection between his establishment here and the tarantella— between St. Vitus’ dance and that other one which cured, they say, the bite of the Tarantine spider.
Cover of the book “Old Calabria” by Norman Douglas, first  published November 30, 1914

Note that in this extract Douglas does not explicitly describe the characteristics of the tarantella, such as frenzied movement and music, but accomplishes this indirectly by conflating the cult of San Vito with St. Vitus’ Dance. Although St. Vitus is the English name for San Vito, St. Vitus’ Dance is not a dance in the literal sense. It is a neuro-physical disorder, now commonly known as Sydenham’s chorea, characterised by uncontrollable spasms of the legs and arms.

St. Vitus’ Dance is not the only reference to a disease. Douglas evokes the phenomenon of Tarantism, a condition historically believed to result from the bite of a tarantula spider, and to affect mostly women. He makes a distinction between the tarantella and the enigmatic “that other one,” a turn of phrase that unmistakeably alludes to the pizzica, which can translate as a pinch, sting or bite. The significance lies in the pizzica as a regional variation of the generic tarantella, where the tarantula’s bite may serve as a metaphor akin to Cupid’s arrow, but conveying physical and emotional states associated with unrequited love or being in a loveless relationship, rather than falling in love.

Moreover, by noting the frequent pilgrimages of “epileptics and others distraught of mind” to the shrine of San Vito, Douglas hints that the tarantella might have been considered heretical by medieval Christian authorities. San Vito, or St Vitus, whichever name you prefer, is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and serves as the patron saint of entertainers, which naturally includes dancers and musicians. But one has to question the connection between his veneration and various mental afflictions.

Davis Muccari and Ciccio Nucera at the Melbourne Italian Festa

The saint’s name is derived from the Latin word vitium, which signifies sinfulness or immorality. It is well documented that the medieval Church regarded certain folk traditions with immense distrust, particularly if associated with pagan revelry. While I can only speculate on the connections Douglas would have penned had he been “in a discursive mood,” I think it is reasonable to assume the Church sought to suppress forms of music and dance that it perceived to be uninhibited and immodest—an apt description of the tarantella—and considered its performers to be possessed of madness.

The tarantella, often perceived as a celebratory dance, takes on a more profound role in Douglas. While on the one hand he invites the reader into the intricate relationship of folk traditions like the tarantella dance within the healing beliefs of Southern Italy, on the other he encourages the reader to delve deeper into the historical and cultural roots of these practices.

Ultimately, for Douglas, the tarantella serves as a symbol for ominous, if not tragic, facets of human experience. It is a dance that interweaves local beliefs and religious practices as it casts a web of historical shadows that define the essence of a local community.

Maddalena Grosso

Cover image: Segmento Tarantella Festival at Edwardes Lake Park, Reservoir, Melbourne
Photography by CalabriaSona