The Sacred And Profane In Italian Popular Culture

About the line between the sacred and the profane in Italian popular culture

A feature of life in Europe and North America over the past fifty years or so has been an attempt to blur the lines that separate opposite sides of long-established binaries: man-woman (gender roles and identities), culture-nature (anthropogenic climate change), and right-left (bipartisan populist politics) are just some examples of the binary struggles that currently command public attention. The line between the sacred and the profane in Italian popular culture is another example, but one with such a longstanding and naturalized status that I think the project would be less about blurring an already established border but about demarcating it more clearly, if anyone would even see a need for such a clarification, which I think would be a mistake.

When sex and violence intersect with religion: Italy vs America

I notice it, however, because I approach the topic as an American living in Italy and so approach it with American sensibilities. In the United States currently it is difficult to make a joke about a large swath of topics without being accused of offending someone, typically a member of a group that sees itself as an oppressed minority, often for valid reasons. The hosts of late night television shows have the most leeway, but even they must choose their targets carefully lest they put their ratings and livelihoods at risk. One politically incorrect joke, even one wrong word, can end a career.

Related to this sensitivity around humor is a desire to cleanse historic landscapes of any offending reference. Statues of Confederate war generals are routinely taken down, as are those of former slave owners. The names of senators, governors, mayors and business leaders who evinced discriminatory behavior during their lives are regularly erased from buildings, streets and bridges and then replaced with those of people whose actions support contemporary cultural values and political ideologies. I have no problem with some of these changes in principle, but it is problematic the way that the names of some violators are erased while others remain in place, and the argument that the erasure of history creates ignorance has at least some merit. It can be a messy and imperfect approach to resolving the problem because sometimes the decision to remove the name of a particular person relies on a reduced understanding his or her role in the history of a place.

In Italy where such attitudes and activities are less common, my Anglophone friends and I are sometimes left standing with our mouths agape at some of the things we see.  Being American, I am fairly inured to acts of violence, but my colleagues from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are more easily shocked by violent aggression, incidents of which are still much lower in Italy than they are in the United States. Around sexual matters, however, especially those that involve women, Americans are still fairly puritanical. And when sex and violence intersect with religion, Americans have a particularly difficult time understanding some of the things we see in Italy, even though the United States has more than its fair share of unpleasant contradictions.

Priest chokers, nun’s thighs and Saint Agatha’s breasts

To examine this phenomenon, I will talk about food, specifically three items that are likely to throw many Americans into various degrees of turmoil: strozzapreti, cosce di monaca, and minne di Sant’Agata.

Strozzapreti are in the form of a short pasta that somewhat resembles short lengths of rope or string that have been doubled up. The name translates as either priest stranglers or priest chokers, the difference being important because the first seems to reference a garrote that one would use to strangle a priest while the second calls to mind a piece of pasta that is so large and chewy that it would choke the priest to whom it is served, an act that would be as equally deleterious as the first but also a bit more stealthy and deceptive. Most Americans would be mildly shocked to hear that a form of pasta bears such a name and they would feel uneasy using it around their children at the dinner table. And it is not because priests, especially Catholic ones, are popular in the US these days, quite the contrary, but because the name refers to a brutal and particularly intimate form of violence.

Cosce di monaca, or nun’s thighs, present another problem, sexual this time rather than violent. A kind of plum, cosce di monaca raises hackles on two fronts: one from a feminist perspective that critiques the objectification of women’s bodies and another from a secular perspective that regards nuns as exotic and antiquated. The discourse that many American observers would have, if only in their subconscious, would be a tangle of concerns over respect for women versus critique for a religious institution that they feel oppresses women, and yet who were nevertheless integral parts of its power structure. Better to avoid this Freudian nightmare and simply call the plum something else, something safe, an American would conclude, always more attuned to market viability than to historical meaning.

Minne di Sant’Agata, Saint Agatha’s Breasts, are a form of fancy pastry that is integral to the celebration of Sant’Agata’s feastday in the first week of February. If you think the name is problematic on sexual grounds, you will be shocked once you learn the history of Saint Agatha, the patron saint of the Sicilian city of Catania, and of what happened to her there at the hands of Roman soldiers. Essentially, they tortured Agata, a fifteen-year-old girl, for resisting their sexual advances, by gouging her breasts with a sharp weapon. Is the commemoration of this event in the form of a fancy pastry that can be found in any quality pasticceria sacred or profane? Or does it need to be understood in a non-binary way, as being sacrilegious and profane, or neither, perhaps in a different context? And would Americans do well to take this as a model for accommodating the contradictory binaries present in their own culture?

A kind of secular sacredness

These may seem like whimsical examples, but the problem of how to navigate the relation between the sacred and the profane, or the religious and secular, to relate this piece to one of the three core themes, is a persistent and universal one. Think, for example, about Unesco World Heritage sites and the difficulties they present in their need to be understood in multiple contexts that involve the negotiation of multiple binaries such as past-present and authoritarian-democratic. That will make a good topic for a future piece, one that will require the contemplation of the nature a kind of secular sacredness, if such a thing exists.