Bologna’s Feast of the Roast Pig: A carnivalesque festival in a sixteenth-century Italian city square

by Nicholas Terpstra

Early modern Italian cities had many public festivals that sent food and fists flying. Carnival time was the most popular, but others, like Bologna’s annual Feast of the Roast Pig (Festa della Porchetta) on 24 August, the Day of St. Bartholomew, were no less chaotic. Bologna’s premier balladeer and broadsheet writer, Giulio Cesare Croce, caught the public imagination with accounts like the one below that conveyed the Porchetta's full carnivalesque energy, and hinted at the ever more elaborate spectacles that would mark the day until French armies put an end to many such early modern rituals in 1796:

“Four or six days before the feast day of St. Bartholomew, the illustrious members of the Council of the Elders ... find a great quantity of suckling pigs, and have them roasted and sent as gifts to many ladies and gentlemen and to pregnant women and their families, friends, and others. Then they order up a truly large one to be prepared carefully stuffed full of the best ingredients and the most perfect spices, and then roasted. The fragrance is so soft and appealing that it would bring a half dead person back to his senses. This roast suckling pig is thrown down from the balcony of the Communal Palace1 an hour before sunset, when the piazza is full of people, carriages, and horses, with thousands more people at the windows, on the roofs, and in the towers. In short, there isn’t a corner or hole that isn’t crammed with people.

“Before the pig is thrown down, peacocks, geese, pheasants, turtledoves, quail, partridges, ducks, pigeons, and an infinite number of other living birds are thrown from the balcony and from the windows of the Palace. They have their wings clipped so that they can’t fly very high but fall down and land on people all around the piazza. In order to catch one, everyone gets pretty crafty. All you can see is arms shooting up into the sky. This one grabs a duck, that one a peacock. It all goes on for two hours and more.

“Then, when the birds have all been launched, the cornets and flutes and trombones begin to play beautiful music as the roast suckling pig is carried in. It cuts quite a figure: all covered with flowers, and wrapped like a poetess with fronds of laurel. It lets off a fragrance so sweet that the entire piazza is filled with the most appetizing smells. This is when the gluttons expose themselves. Many are panting with the saliva pouring down their chins. People bring bags

Bologna’s Feast of the Roast Pig 93 and sacks of all sizes and even sheets and other things like that. You’d even see fine gentlemen there if they weren’t so concerned for their honor. Instead, the piazza is filled with manual labourers, low class types, and others who care less about their honor than about a half piece of pork.

“These all stay glued to their spots for a quarter of an hour, twisting their necks this way and that, now glancing down, now craning back - it all adds to the entertainment of the feast. They all push and shove forward a little, and then back a bit, all to keep in line with the table far above them where the roasted pig is sitting. At last, after endless foolishness and jesting, the servants throw the pig down. You barely see her falling before the arms all shoot up in the air to grab her. She hardly reaches the crowd before she’s torn apart into a thousand pieces; one takes the snout, another a leg, another the head - one grabs this and another grabs that.

“Then to give even more entertainment to the people, they throw down a great caldron of hot soup. It rains down suddenly on the crowd, washing over their faces in such a way that they wouldn’t want any other soap. The laughs double all round, and those destined to be drenched and splattered in this way suddenly break apart. They’ve really asked for it. With all these jokers giving each other jabs and blows, they would kill each other if something like this weren’t done to break them up. Many go home with their eyes swollen like squids, and very well washed, and others are scalded and burned - in short, everyone has something. Nor are other amusements lacking on that day, because there is a race of a horse, a hound, and a hawk. ... they identify the horses with a cloth cap that has a feather stuck in it, because you often see riders thrown to the ground.”2

Why celebrate the feast of Saint Bartholomew in this way? Certainly, the disciple of Christ was popular locally. Five churches within Bologna’s city walls were dedicated to him, and another five outside, more than any other saint. While the day’s festivities began with a Mass, it seems that there was more at work here than religious devotion. Some think that it marked a thirteenth-century military victory, and others now suggest that its roots extend deep into pre-Christian culture. Many popular proverbs point to St. Bartholomew’s Day as the time when cooler weather and rain arrive, when harvest gets under way, and when shepherds begin moving their flocks down from the hills. Days with this kind of natural significance often made it into the Catholic calendar as saint’s days, bringing with them ancient rituals like the sacrifice of pigs and the distribution of food to the poor.

Politics were also involved. The Bolognese raced horses on St. Bartholomew’s Day from at least the thirteenth century, but there are no documents testifying to birds, roast suckling pig, and soup pouring out of city hall before the midsixteenth. This was a time of political upheaval, when authorities put a priority on distributing food to the poor. The day’s rituals put these authorities on public display as civic benefactors in order to promote obedience, peace, and social cohesion. Yet for many, this was simply a day to gamble, fight, and feast.

94 Nicholas Terpstra


  • 1 City hall.
  • 2 Giulio Cesare Croce, L’eccellenza e il trionofo delporco, Ferrara: Vittorio Baldini, 1594. Translated by Nicholas Terpstra.

Taking control of village religion: Wendelstein in Franconia, 1524

by Katherine G Brady and Thomas A. Brady, Jr.

During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, some villages in the southwestern German lands established new parishes. In these, and often in older parishes, they claimed the right to approve or depose their priests. They acted just as abbeys, nobles, and princes had in earlier times, endowing parishes and holding the right to nominate the local priests. This movement illustrates, therefore, how the power of communal village governments had grown in these lands since the fourteenth century.

This document is a statement (later issued in print) by the mayor and court of the Franconian village of Wendelstein, which lies south of Nuremberg and near the town of Schwabach. It concerns a new parish priest, Kaspar Krantz, who was installed on 19 October 1524. The village lay under the authority of Margrave Casimir of Brandenburg- Ansbach, a prince of the Hohenzollern dynasty, whose right to nominate to the parish pastorate the villagers did not challenge. They did, however, lay on their new pastor certain demands, which this text reports in detail.

This document comes from a time before the Peasants’ War at the very beginning of the Protestant movement in this region. It combines individually familiar elements - the laity’s religious needs, mutuality of pastor flock relations, free administration of the sacraments - with a stern, even ominous, tone that makes the whole text a sign of a new time rather than a voice of tradition:

“Now, dear brother and good friend, since, though not called by us, you have come here at the command of our lord, the aforementioned Margrave,1 to be our servant, you should take heed of our desires and wishes about how you should deport yourself in the future.

“1. We hold you to be no lord but a servant and employee of the community, and that you have not to command us, but we to command you. And we therefore command you to proclaim faithfully the Gospel and the Word of God loud and clear according to the truth and uncorrupted by human teachings.

“2. In the village community and in church, you should follow the Gospel as a true servant of Jesus Christ. You should distribute the sacrament of the

96 Katherine G. Brady & Thomas A. Brady, Jr.

covenant of Jesus Christ and in all things follow what the Lord has taught and commanded us to do.

“You should deal in similar fashion with the sacrament of baptism, so that the people shall understand it and be reminded of their own baptisms. Whatever, though, is useless or blasphemous, you should avoid entirely and at all costs, holding like a true pastor to the eternal and unique Word of God, and allowing yourself to be frightened from it by neither human law nor human command. ...

“If, however, you behave to contrary and play the lord and live as you please, you should know that we will not only regard you as a false servant, but we will drive you like a ravening wolf into the net and tolerate you no more among us.

“Also, in the past we often had trouble and enmity from the priests, who burdened us with collections, Mass stipends, fees for the sacraments, and other inventions, which cost us a lot of money. Now, however, since we have been taught by the Gospel that these things are given to us freely by the Lord [Matt. 10:8] and should not be sold for money, it is our opinion and decision that we are not legally obliged to pay you or anyone else such payments.

“Since, however, the servants of the Word may expect support and sustenance from those among whom they proclaim the Word, and since we are well aware that this office or pastorate was endowed by our ancestors and that from this endowment the community’s servants and pastor can and should receive their pay, we do not intend to diminish what belongs to this office, whether tithe or rights to use the woods, the pastures, and or the plowland, but to leave them to you as agreed. You, as a true servant, may use them according to your needs, as we state above. Whatever else has been demanded and shorn from Christ’s flock, on that you shall have no claim, but you shall be content with what you have. ...

“It happens from time to time that the sacrament must be carried to the sick in other villages that belong to this parish. When it has to be taken to RayberBried,2 we shall not be obliged to provide you with a horse. You shall nonetheless have care that no one is left untended.

“With this we consider the matter closed, and we affirm that this is the way it shall be, whether you occupy the office or not.

“And we admonish you in a brotherly manner to take the matter to heart, and to behave yourself as a humble servant of the Lord, who fashions his word according to the truth. May God help you and all of us! Amen.

“On such Christian terms the pastor of Wendelstein took up his office, agreeing to obey as a true servant of the parish, as God gives him grace. Wednesday after St. Gallus’s Day, 1524.”3

The community’s demands mostly have to do with the villagers’ insistence that the pastor was a servant of the village, not its lord, and he would be paid his dues only if he performed his sacramental duties faithfully, and demanded or asked for no more. The text shows that the village’s officials - mayor and court - laid these conditions on the pastor’s installation, an act for which the

Taking control of village religion 97 justification may have rested more on the parishioners’ will than on ecclesiastical law. Their language is strongly communalist, especially in its characterization of the priest as subordinate to his flock. Not only do the village’s officers address their new priest as “dear brother and good friend,” much as they would have their neighbors, but the text contains no ambiguity about who must obey whom at Wendelstein, a subject on which the village officials will brook no opposition.

Not only does this document take a firm, even unyielding, position on the clergy as servants of the laity, but it also gives voice to common late medieval grievances which are, however, given edge and emphasis through an employment of a new language that, at this time, still possessed a radical ring: Phrases such as “the Gospel and the Word of God ... uncorrupted by human teachings” strongly suggest the biblicist influence of the early Protestant movement, which had already reached Wendelstein via preachers from Nuremberg. Every term, every phrase, every demand can be found in earlier documents, but their consistency and combination are not traditional. This is most strikingly true of the village officers’ condemnation of charging fees for access to sacramental grace.


  • 1 Margrave Casimir of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1481-1527).
  • 2 Raubersried, 1.5 kilometers from Wendelstein.
  • 3 The German text is printed in Günther Franz (ed.), Quellen zur Geschichte des Bauernkrieges, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963, pp. 315-317, no. 97. Translated by Katherine G. Brady and Thomas A. Brady, Jr.
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