The pagan, pre-Christian origins of the Focara, and its association with fire and the ending of winter have been mainly lost with the passage of time, but today the Festival in the town of Novoli marks a celebration of St Anthony Abbot (Sant’Antonio Abate) on 17th January.
The Bishop of the time in 1664, declaring St. Anthony as the Patron Saint and protector of Novoli then dedicated the existing annual festival of the Focara in his honour.
The organisation of the annual event begins on the 17th December, with the actual celebration of the festival lasting from the 7th till the 18th of January. It reaches its climax on the 16th when the Focara is lit.
The construction of the assembled fuel for the Focara commences at dawn on the 7th of January, utilising the prunings and cuttings of vines which have been stored by the farmers after the cutting back of the vineyards following the grape harvest the previous autumn.
Supported and shaped during its construction by wooden beams, scores of volunteers begin the building and erection of the giant structure which is constructed every year in Novoli’s Piazza Tito Schipa.
Today the Focara is protected as an “intangible cultural asset” by UNESCO
The great mass of fuel slowly rises in the shape of an inverted stepped cone until it eventually reaches a height of 25 metres and a diameter of 20, – built of up to 90,000 bundles, each bundle containing 200 vines, this wooden volcano is threaded with fireworks and towers over the square in which it is set..
A series of religious events and celebrations take place throughout the locality in the preceding days, until on the afternoon of the 16th of January a Mass is celebrated that includes a ritual “Blessing of the Animals” – thus marking the Saints other role as the Patron Saint of animals – in addition to being the protector of Novoli itself.
After the Mass is concluded, and amid the pealing of Church bells and thunderous salutes, a life-size statue of the Saint is borne on the shoulders of bearers from the Church and leads a procession through the thronged streets of the town until it finally reaches the Piazza Tito Schipa and enters the shadow of the Focara.
Watched by a crowd of up to 60,000 spectators, the procession now passes through a narrow corridor left through the bonfires structure. The Saints effigy is carried aloft and placed on a bed of orange tree branches atop the summit along with banners and icons depicting his life.
In a direct link back to the festivals pagan birth, at 8pm the bonfire is set ablaze.
A slowly increasing crescendo of sparks, smoke and fire arises, with the fireworks igniting and the flames leaping higher it is possible to see the Saint in the light of the inferno that will consume him, perched high above the crowd on his ghastly throne.
The fire burns all night, and as dawn breaks on the hot glowing embers the festival continues on the 17th, a day associated with satire, which even extends into articles in the local papers.
Meat being shunned on this day, traditional dishes of dumplings and salt cod, seafood pittules and scapece (small fish coloured with saffron and flavoured with breadcrumbs and vinegar) are enjoyed by the crowds from street vendors and stalls selling hot food.
The festival concludes with a feastday celebrated on the 18th January by the inhabitants of the town, in the peace that descends after the hordes of visitors and spectators have departed for home.
The winding down of the Novoli’s “Festival of Fire” marks the birth of a new season with the onset of Springs growth.
Come on and treat yourselves with a winter break in any of our Villas, leaving you ideally located to witness and enjoy this unique winter festival.
Located in the province of Lecce, just a short drive will lead you from the gate of your Villa to the warmth of not just the heat of this fire but also the friendliness of the people who must surely be some of the most welcoming in Italy.