Misteri di Trapani, One of the Oldest Religious Events in Europe
The Misteri di Trapani, or the “Mysteries of Trapani,” is one of the most ancient religious festivities in Europe. Since 1612, the inhabitants of the Sicilian coastal city of Trapani have been re-enacting the passion of Christ—his trial, suffering and death. This Easter pageant, held on Good Friday, is known as a “passion play” and the central figures, the “Misteri,” are groupings of life-sized sculptures that represent the biblical scenes leading up to Christ’s resurrection.
These life-size figurative scenes are known in the Catholic faith as the “stations of the cross”, a devotional ritual found in most Catholic churches that serves as a contemplative path and is based on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the actual route believe to have been taken by Jesus to his death and resurrection.
Curiosity about the Mysteries of Trapani was the chief reason I decided to visit this city of about 70,000 on the northwest coast of Sicily. And who better to help me understand the awe and power surrounding this ancient phenomenon than a master entrusted with their care?
Thanks to Giuliana Occhipinti, founder of cultural tour company Uncovered Sicily, the nature of this ancient ritual was revealed—and I was able to meet and learn more from expert conservator Benevenuto Cafiero, a second generation artisan steeped in the knowledge of how to preserve these antique sculptures, many of which are more than 420 years old.
“The first group to make the “Misteri” statues was the Brotherhood of San Michele, which no longer exists,” Giuliana told me. The cost and commitment required to care for the 20 works of art was significant, and so the Brotherhood deeded the rights of each group of statues to local Maestranze, professional guilds comprised of tradesmen such as fishermen, butchers, bakers, carpenters, salt pan workers, and so on.
“The statues are made of different materials: wood, silver, gold and dressed with prestigious clothes soaked with glue, according to the local technique called carchèt,” she explained. “All the statues have a wood base called “vara” needed both to carry them around and to make them sway, thus adding to the touching atmosphere of the parade.”
“The Good Friday procession in Trapani lasts about 24 hours and crosses all the streets of the historical city center,” she said. “Each of the 20 groups of statues is always accompanied by a local band that follows the key moments of the procession.”
“The Misteri procession helps you understand the vocation of the island and the spiritual side of the Sicilian people,” Giuliana observed.
I met Master Conservator Benevenuto Cafiero outside the Chiesa del Purgatorio, where a group of Misteri Statues are kept. The beautiful facade of the church, decorated with the statues of the Twelve Apostles, was designed by the architect G.B. Amico.
Conservation of Misteri di Trapani: A Family Legacy
Benevenuto was born in Trapani, as were his father, a painter and sculptor, and his mother. His parents were married in Chiesa del Purgatorio.
During the Second World War, his parents escaped the bombing by leaving Trapani, but when they returned, his father’s workshop and house had been completely destroyed. They rented a new house in the same neighborhood and there Benevenuto was born in 1946, and there he has stayed for most of his life, practicing what is, to many, a sacred craft –preserving the Misteri, which are figures representing stories from the Passion of Christ.
When Benevenuto was two years old, his father was entrusted with restoring some of the Misteris that had survived the war. Young Benevenuto played with pieces of those figures as a child obviously learning some techniques. When he was 18, his father asked his help.
“My job was to reconstruct the fingers,” he recalled. “I made 52 fingers! Then, in ’73, when my father died, I started restoring some of the Misteris myself, removing the dark layer of painting that covered the original colors.”
Benevenuto told me that during the Spanish occupation in the 1600s, they made statues depicting the standard stories, but they modeled the faces on actual people known by the community. When the groups of figures were later entrusted to worker’s corporations, the first was the Virgin Mary, which was given to the gold makers and gold peddlers for stewardship.
“Most of these statues are from the 1600-1700s, but my father learned the technique, how they had been made,” Benevenuto said. “To shape the body, for example the shoulders, they used cork. Only the faces, the hands and the feet, those parts that are visible, are sculpted with cypress. Everything else is made of fabric solidified by the glue.”
“Many were almost completely destroyed by the Communists,” he said. ”Sometimes, the statues were missing the nose, an ear, other parts of the face, so those details were fixed by my father, creating a restoration, but also a reconstruction. They were also repainted, reproduced in the same color of paint.”
“When you first begin doing this, working with a piece of sacred art that is 500 years old, were you nervous?” I asked.
“I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “I felt very emotional but also respectful toward those that had made or previously restored the statues. I was connected to them. I handle them exactly as I do paintings –with particular care because they are very delicate.”
“People have come and adored these statues and sought solace from them for 500 years,” I mused. “Does that create some special energy?”
“I don’t have the right words to describe the feeling that I have while working, while touching them,” Benevenuto said. “Let me tell a story to illustrate the connection.”
“My father was restoring the wing of this angel,” he said. “He needed to use cypress wood, which was not easily available. So, he decided he would use pieces of a cupboard from his own house to restore the statue, because it was the only source of cypress wood he had.”
“Just then the bombing began, and while my parents were away, somebody stole the cupboard,” Benevenuto continued. “My father was certain he knew who the thief was, so he went to the thief and said ‘I want to buy this cupboard,’ without mentioning that he knew it was his own. This just tells you how much he cared about making the wing with the right material: he was willing to re-buy something that had been his own.”
I asked Benevenuto how the statues would get damaged, other than in a situation like the bombing.
“Time,” he said, simply.
Symbolism & Stewards of Ancient Trapani Traditions
“Or during the procession, if it rains,” he went on. “Or the just the light damages them. Every year on Good Friday, for 24 hours they stay outside, being carried.”
“See this?” Benevenuto asked, pointing to a statue’s crown. “These look like silver, but actually are fake silver. The real silver is used to decorate the statues only the day before the procession starts. That day, everything you see that is silver is an actual real piece of silver. Each one of them has an inscription. Many companies produced silver objects, a tradition that is almost extinguished today. The products made here in Trapani have the stamp of authenticity. Every one of these objects was made in a different year by different artists, but you can reconstruct the history by looking for those little signs.”
“During the procession they are substituted by those made of silver that we saw in the picture. When they bring it to procession it goes out with this huge balcony all made of silver. It’s beautiful. It’s very shiny. You see the ropes, everything you see is made of silver, actual silver.”
“They are decorative, ornamental” he said. “They’re very prestigious because most of them were handmade by women from Trapani. All those embroideries, they’re all handmade. Sometimes they wash them or change them because they yellow.”
“This group is noteworthy because of the gesture that this one is making, actually the two gestures,” he pointed out. “One with the thumb and one with the fingers. He’s making fun of Jesus. You know the gestures? It’s an offense. It’s like the middle finger.”
I asked Benevenuto to explain what was involved in the civic association sponsorship of a scene.
“The corporation collects money to adopt them– to buy the flowers and the candles, to pay the big band that follows each one,” he said. “The misteri don’t belong to the church. That’s something you have to know. They belong to the people of Trapani because they were made with the money given by the people.”
I observed that this is a big issue right now in the realm of cultural heritage. It is the people’s heritage, not the government’s heritage.
“Here, there was never an owner,” Benevenuto said. “People gave money that was entrusted to a specific corporation, officially, with documents signed by both people and the corporation. The misteri were made by and for the people and they still belong to the people.”
“So, the corporation that supports each theme has been the same corporation going back hundreds of years?” I asked.
“Some old professions disappeared,” he explained. “The makers of barrels of wine. Those that made rocks. They’re made by machines now. This is why they changed. It’s rare, but the corporations do change ownership or stewardship sometimes.”
“Do the guild members believe that sponsorship gives them some kind of protection?” I asked.
“Yes, they do,” he declared. “The people like it.”
“Every donation is managed by a group,” he explained. “Barbers and hairdressers. Fish sellers. Bakers. masons. Shoemakers. Today owners of shops of shoes, people who work with shoes somehow–because no one makes the shoes anymore. Butchers. And one belongs to the all people of Trapani who don’t have a guild.”
“The guild chooses representatives, called consuls, from those that have always followed the organization and the preparation of the Mistero, or those whose fathers or grandfathers have been participating, sometimes for generations,” Benevenuto continued. “The representatives take care of the decorations, of investments for restoration and so on. People give money and the consuls distribute it.”
“Are these guilds mostly the same families?” I asked.
“The group you choose depends on what you do or what your father did,” he replied. “It depends on the feeling you have or the connection you feel with a specific group. It’s likely that you do something professionally completely different than your father, but you still belong to the guild that your father used to belong to, because you grew up giving donations to that group and following it.”
Restoration of Misteri di Trapani: Art & Science
“The angel there was cleaned by me,” Benevenuto said. “I know the little pieces. Cleaning means I remove the layers of painting that had changed color and become darker over the years because of oxidation, or from the smoke of the candles that surround them during the procession.”
“How long does it take to clean one?” I asked. “I assume you can’t clean just part of one, or the cleaned area will look different than the rest of the statue.”
“How long it takes depends on what it needs,” Benevenuto said. “Today, they take them apart, dismember all the statues to clean them. This is the new technique. I didn’t choose to do it like this. I cleaned them without being too invasive. A few months ago, a group of restorers were working in a church and you could see each piece being cleaned independently of the others. Physically separated. Then they had to assemble all of them. Obviously, this is dangerous because of the mix and because they have to put the pieces together, sometimes they make mistakes. The fact that this is not very straight is due to the way it was restored. When they reconstructed it, they were not able to put him in the original position. The balance changed.”
“I don’t do restorations anymore,” he said. “I’m considered an expert in the old technique. Some 30 years ago the government changed the law for restoring statues of this importance. You have to have certification; you have to be recognized as a professional. I already had a career as a teacher at that time, so I didn’t continue as a professional in the field of restoration.”
“When you were doing the restorations, did you do them in the church?” I asked.
“Yes, we did it here inside the church,” he said. “We closed a section with some panels and we worked behind it, with chisels and hammers, making a lot of noise.”
“We also remade the chair, the original was very old and damaged by termites,” he said. “The wood was covered with thin layers of gold leaf. There is a specific technique for making the gold leaf of adhere to the wood, called ‘miscione’. The pieces are molded like foil– they have to be cut with a stencil and applied with a brush, with a kind of glue. You have to be very delicate to make it adhere to the piece you want to cover. They’re very, very thin. They’re not rigid.”
“This is also reconstructed by my father,” he said. “Christ is not made of wood, but cork, to be lighter. This was remade and restored many times by different hands. But it also has to do with the hands of the artist, my father. Thirty years ago, he cleaned the Christ and Veronica, which were almost black. People were surprised by the details, particularly the blue eyes of Christ. No one knew about that. And the foot of Christ. Ah, it is exactly the same color of the rock.”
“Can you describe the difference between your father’s work and yours as opposed to newer restorations?” I asked.
“If you just look at them, you see how bright they are,” he replied. “This was repainted. They didn’t only remove the layers of painting, but they repainted them and I didn’t appreciate it. These restorers say that they don’t repaint, but I can tell that they’re not the original colors. It’s a new painting.”
“Is the Madonna significant to Sicilian Catholics?” I asked.
Absolutely, Sicilians are very, very religious and in particular about the Madonna,” he replied. “People care more about the Virgin Mary, who belongs to the people. It’s a matter of belonging more than the religious story. In the procession, she is probably the most – I don’t want to say important – but who people care most about.
“A similar procession takes place in southern Spain, in Malaga and other places in Andalucía. They all derive from a Spanish tradition. We were occupied by the Spanish for centuries.”
“There are differences between people who are scientifically trained and people who have learned the old way,” I observed. “Is the new way of doing it scientifically based? Was the way you learned more of an art? Has something been lost?”
“My feeling is that science is important in art because you have to know the techniques and such,” Benevenuto said. “But, at the same time, sometimes practice is superior to science. Artists in the past did not study in school, but they learned by practice or as an apprentice, the way I learned from my father.”
“Since you’re no longer doing this, do you miss it?” I asked.
“Yes, I miss it,” he said. “I get very nervous about the techniques that they use now and I’m a bit angry, especially when I look at the colors that they say are original, but I know that they are not.”
“What was it like to have your father as a teacher?” I asked. “Was he patient with you?”
“No, he was not patient,” Benevenuto said with an emphatic shake of his head. “We were not really being father and son because we worked together.”
“Would you say that your relationship with his father was enhanced or special because of the work you did together?” I asked.
“I would have missed something,” he said. “Because we cooperated, and we had something in common, we felt more connected.”
“Did you ever have an experience where you taught your father something?” I asked.
“No, that would be impossible,” Benevenuto said. “My father was the top, the best.”
Publisher and editor of www.BestCulturalDestinations.com (BCD), which profiles people engaged in creating & preserving culture, and celebrates our unique differences and shared human condition. BCD defines “Best Cultural Destinations” as those that teach us, and help us grow in understanding, compassion, and capacity for connection.