A useful exclamation familiar to every Neapolitan – but what are its origins? They go a long way back, possibly to the 8th century, and they are focussed on a church in the lively, chaotic, story-rich district of Naples near Piazza del Mercato. Here you’ll find a church called the Basilica Santuario di Santa Maria del Carmine Maggiore, a basilica devoted to Mary of Mount Carmel. And amongst the many associated stories is that of some monks who, fleeing persecution in Palestine, arrived in Naples carrying with them a painting of a ‘Brown Madonna’ (dark-skinned). They were granted a chapel for the image and a strong cult of devotion developed linking the poor people of Naples to La Madonna Bruna. Experts date her image to only the 13th century and the style is definitely Tuscan; however, one shouldn’t let such details get in the way of an excellent tale!
The bell tower, the tallest church tower in Naples at 75 metres high, first gets a mention in the archives in 1439 during power struggles between the Angevins and the Aragonese. What we see now outside is largely baroque; inside are 5 bells, each named for a saint. It is the tower that draws the crowds at 10 p.m. on 15th July each year, on the eve of celebrations for the Mary of Mount Carmel. To the great satisfaction of locals and the utter astonishment of visitors, Neapolitans proceed to burn down the tower. Well, that’s certainly what it looks like, as all 75 metres of the structure are elaborately strung about with fireworks which explode, cascade and breathe smoke around it while flickering lights increase the Gothic horror effect in the windows.
It begins as the crowds assemble, the Mayor and VIPs in their special seating area, fire crews at the ready, band playing, sweetcorn sales in full swing.
Suddenly the lights are dimmed and a line of fire shoots from a nearby building. Soon there are burning letters in front of the church ‘Napoli devota alla Madonna Bruna’. Then the tower and the sky seem to explode.
After a glorious 25 minutes or so, all is darkness. And a star of lights moves to ‘collect’ a picture frame shape, representing La Madonna Bruna, before they climb back to the tower. Thus Mary extinguishes the fire.
No-one is sure how this tradition began, though it is known that both squares, Mercato and Del Carmine, have seen some violent times. In 1268 Conrad of Sweden was executed here by order of the Angevin king Charles I and his body buried in the church.
At the time of Masaniello’s revolt in 1647 there was already a practice of setting up a pretend wooden fort in Piazza Mercato and staging an attack upon it before burning it down. Certainly that revolt began in early July as preparations for church celebrations were under way. So perhaps these elements were stitched together resulting in the extraordinarily thrilling firework display we see today. However it came about we can join the locals in exclaiming Mamma d’o Carmene! with enthusiasm!