The cruel "Festa della Cuccagna" in Piazza del Plebiscito

by Federico Quagliuolo

The feast of "greasy tree"Was the moment in which Neapolitan citizens reached their lowest moral point in front of the rich who laughed at the desperate people, a cruel story of 1600 which took place in ancient times Largo di Palazzo, now known as Piazza del Plebiscito. The historical era was that of Spanish viceroyalty, with a people devastated by the poverty, from the hunger and misrule of the viceroy.

On the occasion of public celebrations such as the birth of the heir to the Spanish throne or during the Carnival, was ordered and financed by the nobles the construction of magnificent and gigantic machines and sets, to be placed in the center of the Plebiscite. It was a tradition also known in other Italian courts, such as a Bologna, Rome and Tuscany, but in Naples it became a real art of massacre in extraordinary settings.

Festa della Cuccagna
French lithograph that tells the feast of the Cuccagna

The Cuccagna tree

Inside towers even twenty meters high goods of all kinds were placed, come on jewels to the livestock still alive, they were then exposed outside crucified ducks and pigs, who moaned for hours in pain and dripped blood from their torn bodies. Everything available to a people of beggars that, at the sight of such a show of money and blood, he exalted himself with one diabolical ferocity, trying in every way to participate, so much so that the facilities had to be monitored 24 hours a day by armed guards before the event.

The term "good luck" it comes from medieval Latincocania”And it is a term that the French authors jokingly used to indicate a imaginary place where even the scoundrels live like kings, surrounded by food and all sorts of goodness. It was an organized attraction during the Neapolitan Carnival of the viceroyalty and initially consisted of a banquet offered by the nobles to the less wealthy Neapolitans, which they struggled to obtain an "upscale" meal for a day.
Then the affair began to take over increasingly grotesque forms, with the spread in all Italian courts of the "game of the Cuccagna“, Or rather of obstacle courses, more or less difficult, in which the people challenged themselves to obtain rewards in terms of food or money at the end of the challenge. And it was in a rapid escalation that it came to maxi-structures of the XVIII century protagonists of this story. They were initially organized in wagons that paraded along the city, then concentrated between Market Square e Largo di Castello (now Piazza Municipio). And finally they were bound to the Royal Palace.

Albero della cuccagna
Cuccagna tree set up in front of the Royal Palace

Violence and blood

The day of the show was even announced with decrees of the viceroy: thus, after having kicked off the celebrations with a cannon shot, the Plebiscite became a colosseum of modern times: the viceroy and the nobles, looking out from their balconies, grinned to see the miserable people who stabbed, fought, dismembered alive the animals that, maddened, fled and kicked in the hope of to survive to ten thousand and more hungry and violent beggars.
Often, then, due to the overweight that they were forced to hold, the mausoleums of the greasy collapsed on themselves, killing dozens of people under the rotten wooden beams.

“Unfortunately, a carnival entertainment that was so suitable for the Neapolitan people has gone out of fashion: I mean the Monte di Cuccagna, called Coccagna. This one, like another Vesuvius, threw macaroni, sausages, focaccia and other foods that slid down its slope, meeting the open mouths of the people "

 Karl August Mayer, an Austrian professor who wrote "Neapolitan popular life" in 1816

But it did not end there: often, among the crowd that, in the crowd, yielded to every form of moral baseness, armed men hid, ready to avenge personal matters in blood, rather than to participate in the game of the Cuccagna.
Thus the game, already perverse by its nature, became the secret theater of settling of accounts and private violence, a war of the poor for the laughter of the rich. 
And, from the balcony of the Royal Palace, sadistically the rich witnessed one infernal symphony of screams, blood, knives and sobs. The horrified also tells it Marquis De Sade in the chronicle of his trip to Naples.

La crudele "festa della Cuccagna" a Piazza del Plebiscito
The Cuccagna tree in a painting by Antonio Joli that tells a storyCarnival custom

The end of the Cuccagna under the Bourbons

These gruesome spectacles continued until Francis I. of Bourbon he did not order the end, disgusted by such violent and primitive traditions. Already below Ferdinand IV the feasts of the Cuccagna began to be celebrate more and more infrequently, as the queen, Maria Carolina, she said she was disgusted to see such a bloody spectacle, which instead historically cheered nobles and rulers.

The Church, which condemned the games of the people, called instead "Cuccagna" the banquets for the less well-off prepared for the holidays.

The people did not welcome the news of the end of the games well: there were numerous throughout Naples demonstrations from beggars they wanted continue that horrible game.

Two hundred years after the last gossamer, the silent Plebiscite pretends to have forgotten its violent past, with a people who first bite each other, then rebels to the same powerful that used to starve him.

When you look at Piazza del Plebiscito, you shouldn't just be dazzled by its magnificence: like every great monument, in fact, it hides tears, despair and blood of a people who, in these ancient rituals, paradoxically celebrated.

-Federico Quagliuolo

References:
Domenico Scafoglio, The Game of the Cuccagna, Avagliano Editore, 2001
Atlas Obscura (English)
https://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/cuccagna/
Franco Mancini, Parties and civil and religious apparatuses in Naples from the Viceroyalty to the Capital, Italian Scientific Editions, Naples, 1997

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