Telematic Review
Area: Anthropology

Coming of age in Camporosso: natural prevention in a small community in Liguria

G. Buscaglia, F. Pezzoni, A. M. Rosso

Description of the festival

The brotherhood is exclusively composed of male and female youngsters; they differ in age (from 9 to 22), and must be unmarried. (If they marry, they leave the brotherhood). They organize the feast by themselves, without the involvement of adults. Every year they elect a prior, who becomes the chief of the brotherhood. He is the boy who has belonged to the brotherhood for the longest; they follow a chronological criterion in their choice: he is the senior member. There are also a vice prior, four massars or advisers and a teacher of the novices or beginners, who protects and looks after them. The girls choose a prioress and a vice prioress following the same proceedings. At the end of his year of priorship, the prior offers a dinner to all members, leaves the brotherhood and cannot be readmitted. The vice prior takes his place. During the following three years the members who have left the brotherhood are still considered as advisers and can be asked for help and advice about the old traditions and the right way of accomplishing the rites.
The festival is organized as a rite of passage and goes through the three stages described by Van Gennep.

1) Leaving home
The festival is celebrated on the third Sunday in January; three months before this date the youngsters begin to meet almost every night in a room arranged for this purpose, away from their parents' homes. It may be a cellar, a hayloft, an empty house, an empty room in the bell tower and can vary from year to year. It is always a lonely place and is assigned to the brotherhood only. The parents show great interest in the festival and let their children go out in the evening, even the younger ones.

2) Living together, learning and undergoing trials
During their meetings the youngsters prepare the hosts, called papette, which will be used to decorate a laurel in the final festival. Meanwhile they talk together and share experiences and concerns. The hosts are different colours, mainly white and red. In the past they used an iron mould to prepare them. The youngsters bring drinks and food. If they do not have any, they steal some fruit and vegetables from the fields. The adults know they steal and tolerate this behaviour; sometimes they leave some vegetables on purpose, so that the so-called young Sebastians can steal them.
Some days before the festival, the youngsters organize a collection of alms (begging) all over the village, asking every family for money. The prior divides the members in small groups and tells them how and where to go; nobody questions his orders. He is responsible for the administration of the funds and registers them. The inhabitants of Camporosso wait for the youngsters and even the poor give something, they welcome them and offer something to eat. As members have told us, it is a way of getting to know and becoming known by the community. The money is carefully registered and used to restore the statue and the altar of the saint and to support the brotherhood.

3) Final procession before the whole community
In the past on Saint Sebastian's day, early in the morning the youngsters went up the bell tower. It was cold and dark and the stairs were disconnected and unsafe. The bell-ringer taught them how to ring the bell, assigning everyone his own task. Afterwards, during the holy service, the prior read the names of the new members and of the new prior aloud, and the nominees as well as their parents were all are very excited. The election of the new prior is not taken for granted: the boy who acts unfairly at school or in the community may be excluded. During the procession Saint Sebastian's statue is carried around the streets of the village. He was a Roman soldier, who was killed when he was twenty and is considered the patron of young people. During the procession a laurel tree, cut for this purpose and decorated with hosts, is carried around by young and old men, chosen for their skill and strength, because the tree is very heavy. When a son is born, his father plants a tree, which will be cut when the boy becomes prior. The tree is carefully pruned before the festival.
After the procession, its branches are sold by auction to the inhabitants and kept for a year. At the end of the festival the members meet in a pub (always the same) and drink wine, the new members are often astonished and feel this drink as a sort of trial to overcome. Former members say that on that occasion their parents did not scold them when they arrived home a little tipsy. We would stress that no authority interferes in the brotherhood. The parish priest and the mayor do not participate; people consider that the brotherhood is an independent organization which belongs to the community. Youngsters with different religious and political ideas take part in the event.

History and meaning of the festival

We have no intention of discussing the anthropological or historical meanings of the festival. Many scholars think it dates back to the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages brotherhoods of young people helped to express and contain antisocial behaviour and had an independent organization. A brotherhood which worshipped Saint Sebastian existed in Avignon in the twelfth century. We would only stress the psychological meanings that young people can find more or less consciously in their participation. In our view, the rite makes the management of separation-individuation conflicts easier, strengthens their personal identity and helps them to deal with issues of power and aggression.
As Winnicott says, to become a mature adult the adolescent has to identify with his parents and with some aspects of society, without giving up his own drives; in other words he has to be himself without being antisocial. The healthy youngster becomes able to take responsibilities and to preserve, modify or even wholly change the inheritance of past generations. In order to achieve this aim, he or she has to manage the conflict between aggression and submission. According to Winnicott, "in the unconscious fantasy, growing is inherently an aggressive act", because growing up means taking the parent's place. During puberty the game 'I'm the King of the Castle' (a popular game in the United Kingdom) becomes changed into a life situation. 'I'm the King of the Castle' is a statement of personal being. It is an achievement of individual emotional growth. It is a position that implies the death of all rivals or the establishment of dominance. The expected attack is shown in the next words: 'And you're the dirty rascal'. ...Soon the dirty rascal knocks over the King and in turn becomes King. "Even when growth at the period of puberty goes ahead without major crises" and the adolescent gets along well with his parents, "in the total unconscious fantasy belonging to growth at puberty and in adolescence, there is the death of someone ... death and personal triumph is something inherent in the process of maturation and in the acquisition of adult status." This triumph can scare some adolescents, who can instead show suicidal tendencies. According to Winnicott, the situation loses its richness if this conflict is avoided.
The rite of passage we have described can express this conflict and can somehow help to overcome it. In the rite, conflict is neither denied nor avoided. When they enter the brotherhood every boy and girl knows that he or she will become a prior, in other words the King of the Castle. He will be in command for a year but his reign will not last; others will come after him and take his place. The rite is both gradual and irreversible: it accepts immaturity and leaves time for growing up, without requiring premature responsibility; at the same time in the end the youngster is given limited responsibility inside the brotherhood and at the end is clearly and definitively admitted to the adult world.
From the start the members bear in mind that their experience will end, that they will face loss and mourning and lose dependence and protection forever. At the same time they have years to work through this mourning and are supported by others who go through the same experience. They spend much time in preparing the hosts and this activity can seem slow and monotonous, but in this way they can talk together and share experiences, wait and prepare themselves while apparently nothing is happening. Boys of different ages meet together and this is an important chance to share knowledge and to take responsibilities.
As we have already said, the prior is in command for a year, then leaves the brotherhood, but is still available for advice. He dies but survives. Aggressive and violent fantasies can be expressed also in other aspects of the rite: 1) the saint is a young martyr, pierced with arrows and he died upholding his ideals, he can represent passive and masochistic drives of the conflict aggression - submission; the red hosts can recall blood ("host" means "victim"); 2) the laurel can assume the meaning of a man: it is cut and in some way sacrificed with a clean blow and specifically planted with the festival in mind; 3) ritual thefts also express violence and skill - the adults are aware of these fantasies and allow them to be acted out within a ritual context; 4) the collection takes place in a peaceful way, but recalls many other rites, like Carnival and Halloween, which involve threats. The village is invaded by the young Sebastians, who can represent wild and uncanny beings, in the fantasies of the inhabitants. The adults give them money and so show their participation and approval to the rite by their own contribution. If we think of the festival as a sacrifice, we see that the adults take their responsibilities and do not draw back. Convivial and oral aspects are very important in the festival; hosts have a dietary meaning and food and drink play a major role in every stage of the rite. The final drink stresses elation and triumph and plays the role of a sort of trial and of transgression.
Space is an important aspect. As Jeammet says, space rather than time is apt to express and contain adolescent conflicts. During the first stage of the rite, the youngsters occupy secret rooms, sometimes haylofts in the fields outside town; they find these places away from the family homes and run them by themselves. During the second stage they go down the streets of the village in order to take up their collection, they share out the territory amongst them almost in a soldierly way; they get to know and are known by the other inhabitants. During the third stage, the procession takes place in a public place, along the main road and ends in front of the church; the whole community attends and gives its approval to the brotherhood. In the end the laurel tree is carried by young and adult men together. During the three stages the youngsters act as an independent and distinct group, with its hierarchy and activities, but they always communicate with the adults, who do not interfere but respond to lawful and unlawful actions and accept the challenge of immaturity (Winnicott). The thefts, the collection and the auction are three different ways to interact and to deal with the relationship with the adults.

The interviews

We interviewed some inhabitants of Camporosso, who have participated as priors or advisers in the brotherhood. We have chosen people of different ages, from 75 to 19, in order to evaluate the effect of this experience on the participants in different historical periods.
The interview is composed of 29 questions, which concern the three stages (before, during and after the membership) and investigate the personal experiences, the attitudes of the community and family, the influence on their development and their social integration.
They all personally asked to enter the brotherhood and were supported by their families. Their peers and the whole community approved of their choice. Most of them said that the most important moment was the reading aloud of the names of the new members, which took place during the holy service in front of the whole community.
They entered at different ages (they were from 9 to 16 years old) according to the historical periods. The rules of the brotherhood have changed in the course of time, in order to adjust to new circumstances, without altering the deep meaning of the rite.
In the Forties the brotherhood was composed only of a prior, a vice prior and four advisers, even if many other youngsters helped them in their activities. In the Seventies the number of young Sebastians increased, along with a growth of the population, and the festival was attended with great interest. In recent years the festival has undergone many difficulties, and old priors came to the rescue. Now young immigrants from Southern Italy participate to affirm their sense of belonging to the community. Girls, who in the past took part only in a few activities in the brotherhood, now participate in every stage of the rite.
We must point out that all the interviewees, irrespective of their age, said that the group was friendly and tolerant, and that younger members were welcomed and not teased. There were even rather tough jokes on the new members, but in a warm milieu. Transgression concerned drinking, but only on the occasion of the final festival. They did not talk about sexual intercourse, but said that they talked about sex during their meetings.
They all said that this experience was very important for their development and their entrance in the adult world.
Their sense of belonging to the community was strengthened: the membership gave them esteem and reputation for many years even after they left the brotherhood.
We would point out that Camporosso is the Ligurian town with the highest percentage of young people in its population: we were not able to verify this information but the peoplw we interviewed were proud to give us this information and said that Camporosso is in the avant-garde of social centres for young people.


We think that this rite cannot be reproduced in other social contexts. But we can say that every ritual activity, even if only resembling this festival, should be maintained and supported; they all contribute to the cultural identity and possess a rich symbolic content, which often is not yet understood and valued. In many districts old festivals have been restored and are now alive. In Tuscany we are beginning to see a paradox: some festivals that were artificially established twenty years ago are now considered by young people as traditional and existing forever. Saint Sebastian's festival lasted through two wars and major social changes during the Nineteenth century.
In the festival we described we would like to point out some features which can have a preventive effect:
1) self-government of the youngsters, who manage the activities and elect their leaders, but within a traditional institution, accepted and valued by the community; 2) public ceremony at the end of the activities, which allows them to exhibit new skills in front of others, who acknowledge their new skills and roles; 3) multiple symbolic meanings, which are neither explicit nor conscious; 4) relationship with the local tradition. During adolescence, personal identity is unsteady and the dependence on the external world is particularly strong: cultural continuity can support, enrich and help young people to overcome personal conflicts, even if it is not enough to deal with pathological problems.


1. I'm the King of the Castle...and you're the dirty rascal


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