Byzantine Traditions in the Heart of Abruzzo: Villa Badessa, a small village in the province of Pescara, has a population of about 400 souls and boasts a stunning collection, unique in Italy, of 77 Byzantine icons dating from the 15th to the 20th century.
The major national tourist organisation, Touring Club Italiano, in its popular series of guidebooks recommends a stop in Villa Badessa to admire the collection, calling it one of the fifteen “must-see” destinations in the region.
Villa Badessa is one of the several Italian-Albanian communities (Arbëreshe) spread throughout Southern Italy
These diasporas were formed between the 14th and 18th centuries when groups of Albanian refugees fled religious persecutions when the Balkans were invaded by the Ottoman Empire. The founders of Villa Badessa were the last to arrive and set up the only Arbëreshe community in Abruzzo in 1743. Other Arbëreshe communities are found in Molise, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily.
Despite the perilous journey, the people of Villa Badessa brought the centuries-old collection of Byzantine icons and, like other Arbëreshe communities in Southern Italy, have maintained a strong connection to their origins: attachment to the Greek-Byzantine Catholic rite, and lovingly preserved civil and religious rituals. The village’s parish of Santa Maria Assunta is part of the Italo-Greek diocese of Lungro in Cosenza, Calabria. The liturgy service sang in Greek, wedding ceremonies, greeting chants in the Albanian language called Kalimere, the Great Holy Week and commemoration of the dead are all fervently observed in the village. The cultural association Villa Badessa http://www.villabadessa.it/ organises various events to preserve the traditions.
Byzantine Traditions in the Heart of Abruzzo
In particular, the cult of the dead is very much felt which, according to the Byzantine ritual, is celebrated in February, eleven days from Ash Wednesday. In Arbëreshe communities it is customary to dedicate a week to the memory of the dead. It is believed that Jesus Christ gives permission to the souls of the dead to leave the afterlife for eight days to return to our world and see the places where they lived. In all the houses, during this week, lamps are kept lit, powered by oil, so that the dead entering are not in complete darkness. Furthermore, meals are eaten near the graves of loved ones, and anyone who passes by is invited.
What to see in Villa Badessa
The Church of Santa Maria Assunta
Built in 1754, this small church is the only one in Abruzzo which follows the Greek-Byzantine rites. Here you can admire 77 precious icons on the side walls.
A small ethnographic museum dedicated to the history of the local Arbëreshe community is located in one of the first houses built in the 18th century by the newly arrived settlers. Open on Saturday and Sunday mornings. To book your visit (in Italian), contact the Associazione Culturale Villa Badessa at 0039 348 7374449 or email email@example.com
Gara di Ruzzola
This is a traditional competition that dates back to the Etruscan era and takes place every year in Villa Badessa on May 1. Locals throw wheels of aged, hard pecorino cheese on the roads of the village. The winner is the one who has thrown the wheel the farthest, and receives the cheese of all the participants.
The feast of Maria Odigitria
On September 8, Villa Badessa celebrates Maria Odigitria (Our Lady of the Way) with an evocative evening procession and “enkomia”, the weeping of women during the night vigil over the icon of Christ’s deposition.
On Easter Sunday, the villagers walk holding torches that illuminate the last hours of the night in a great silence. After the morning liturgy, everyone exchanges greetings by giving each other painted and decorated eggs.
By Giorgio Mendicini (journalist, history and photography enthusiast living near L’Aquila)
The article was first published on Abruzzo Travel and Food (ITALIAN VERSION). Translated and edited by Abruzzissimo Magazine