In the period of the Great Western Schism, the Archbishop of Prague Giovanni Jenstein wanted to establish the feast of the Visitation in his jurisdiction and proposed to Urban VI (Pope from 1378 to 1389) to extend it to the whole Church, to avoid its definitive division. This Pontiff, who was called Bartolomeo Prignano and who had already been bishop of the city of Matera, prepared the decree in 1389, which however was promulgated in 1390 by his successor, Boniface IX (1389-1404), setting the date of the feast at 2 July. Following this event, the Cathedral of Matera, originally named after the Madonna of Matera and later called also of the Episcopio, was definitively dedicated to the Madonna della Bruna, much revered in a Byzantine fresco declared “privileged” in 1579 with a “short”of Pope Gregory XIII. The origins of the feast are uncertain and are lost over time, becoming imaginative legends. One of these tales tells that a young and unknown lady asked a farmer to pick her up on his pulling to accompany her to Matera. Arriving in the Piccianello district, she suddenly turned into the statue of the Madonna, asking the unbelieving farmer: “so, on a very well decorated carriage, I want to enter my city every year” and mysteriously disappeared. Equally improbable is the legend on the destruction of the Carriage, referring to an unknown Saracen assault from which the Matera people would have defended it, destroying it themselves, in order not to drop the sacred images into the hands of these infidels. Profane insertions such as the “carro navalis” and its violent destruction, flanked over time with intimacy and original religious solemnity, make this festival an interesting event that has its roots in ancient representations that were held in many Mediterranean countries.
In ancient Egypt and Greece real parades were held on these “ships on wheels” on the occasion of wedding parties and more. Even in Italy the use of these party machines is very old. During the Renaissance, in fact, artists such as Leonardo and Brunelleschi dedicated themselves to the preparation of these surprising triumphal chariots, with allegorical representations, to celebrate sovereigns and patrons. Even in Europe in the seventeenth/eighteenth centuries the use of these pompous vehicle spread on which musicians or actors took their place performing on these “carrales” (Spain) rich in suggestive scenographies, where they represented plays, in order to so easily move from square to square, from city to city, with the whole scene.
The floats were mainly of two types: a “vessel” or a “candelone” vertical, referring to the votive candle, the tower or the bell tower of the place. Over time these wagons, created by architects and made by skilled craftsmen, have acquired a refined elegance of shapes and volumes so as to be used and desired by the “powerful” to better impress the people’s memory on particular and solemn civil occasions.
The exposure of these allegorical scenes gradually loses the aspect of secular feast and increasingly takes on that of procession and religious manifestation, as a historical procession dedicated to the Patron Saint in the popular festivals of our districts. For the triumphal chariot of Matera, which had wooden statues up to the mid-1800s and then always made of papier-mâché, the central scene reproduced on the Madonna della Bruna Chariot is different every year. It is always established by the Bishop and refers to parables and events of the Gospel. The papier-mache who best represents the scene chosen in the draft presentation at the best price is awarded the tender. The delivery date of the characteristic artifact is 29 June, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, when, in the evening, the chariot is blessed by the Bishop and is exposed to citizenship, which can thus admire it carefully by turning around it, in its completeness and integrity. On 2 July the cart houses the statue of the Madonna in the “stern” turret and parades from Piccianello to the Duomo, where, having deposited the sacred effigy, it heads towards the central square.
The feast can thus reach its climax with the spontaneous and uncontrollable “rag”, around 10.30 pm, under the curious and incredulous eyes of the whole city. Unusual and unique is the ritual of destruction of the Triumphal Chariot that is repeated every year, where everyone tries to grab a small image of papier-mâché, a fragment, to keep it with devotion in their home or workplace, to show it proudly to friends. As new life is born from the death and decomposition of matter, so the dismemberment of the chariot recalls similar rites, which have their origin in the millennia of history, from the Sumerians to the Egyptians, recalling the renewal of life after death, of the sacrificial rite and of the cyclical succession of seasons, which, to encourage the birth of new plants and fruits, explode in new spring buds, but only after the autumn stripping and after the apparent death of winter.
After the blessing and the exposition of the Triumphal Chariot in the last week of June, another fixed moment of the feast is that of July 1st. In the morning, the knights gather, without the costume of the parade, in Piazza Duomo or in Piazza del Sedile for the blessing and for the so-called “trial” of the horses and riders, which amount to ninety. This consists in verifying the ability of the animal and its steed to endure the confusion of the crowd and, in case the horse gets mad, the knight’s ability to govern him properly. For lovers of this test, the nervousness that takes hold of the horses has not escaped, they trample with their hooves on the slippery pavement of the path. Beautiful specimens, combed and brushed, perform to the crowd that watches them with curiosity and fear.
The Knight of the Madonna della Bruna has always been a role played with devotion and pride. Expression of the neighborhood, the Knight represents one of the three aspects of the feast.
The first is the sacred one represented by the Madonna, the second is the triumphal chariot that houses it during the journey and the third is the Knight who escorts it. They are about ninety and do not have a uniform, but a parade costume with decorations and colors to taste, in which the armor, the helmet, the cape, the pole on which there is a flag with a cross must not be missing.
The helmet and the armor are made with skill by rare craftsmen and are not referable, as a style, to a precise era, nor to a particular army.
The figure of the trumpeter is very popular and has a lot of sympathy in the people during the parade. His trumpet is heard from afar as he calls the Knights to gather or when, upon request, he plays the notes of the charge repeatedly. Someone associates them with the Crusaders, paladins of Christianity, but they do not represent a real defense guard, they are, instead, an ornament, a display with great pomp, a baroque frame, like the whole feast.
The colorful show of the Knights during the parade is the result of a long and careful work of sisters and girlfriends, mothers and wives, committed to creating, with skill and imagination, the embroidery on the velvet or satin cape. The appearance of today’s horses adds elegance and harmony to the Rider, unlike the mares or rough draft horses of a few decades ago. The noble animal represents the perennial contact between man and his work, between the farmer and the countryside, although it should be remembered that in Matera the mule was the most used means of transport and work. The theme of the drawings represented on the fluttering cloaks is free, but refers to the image of the Madonna, a dove, a cross, a star or an angel. On the occasion of the festival, these tireless animals are decorated with special garnishes and have an apparently marginal, but very, very important task: towing the cart with the Madonna, as if to recognize and reciprocate their valuable contribution offered every day during hard work in fields.