In the 17th century, northern Italy was going through a black period, due to severe famine; at the same time, the Duchy of Milan was suffering a crisis due to scarce exportation of textile products – one of its major industries. As if all this wasn’t enough, another terrible beast raised its ugly head, in the disguise of the horrific plague which spread like wildfire during the period between 1629 and 1633, reaching down as far as the Gran-duchy of Tuscany, and up towards Switzerland. It culminated in a deathly peak in 1630, and the Duchy of Milan – the capital at the time, was one of the most fiercely stricken states, with 64.000 victims. The epidemic is referred to as the “Manzonian plague”, since Alessandro Manzoni described it in great detail in his famous novel “I Promessi Sposi”.
The ugly beast unfortunately made its way towards Parma, which, with a population of approximately 30.000, was reduced to half that number. At that point, the Taro and Ceno Valleys were practically around the corner, and the plague was upon our people. According to antique documents, the deaths in the area amounted to 3742, which was a drastic blow to the mountain population of the time. But Compiano – the little hamlet spread around the 9th century castle, and Isola, just across the river – were miraculously spared. It was at this moment in history, precisely on the 2nd of July 1630, that the grateful inhabitants of Compiano and Isola felt the need to give thanks for having escaped the terrible curse, and to pray in order to remain safe. They therefore gave life to a pledge between worshippers and the river, a holy ritual which was to continue without interruption right up to current day; this year saw its 388th anniversary.
On the first Sunday of July, the christian celebration “Festa della Madonna e di San Rocco al Taro” took place, in the presence of hundreds of participants from all over. With every passing year, more and more locals, tourists and emigrants come to witness this tradition, attracted by the evocative atmosphere created by the rites. In the morning, worshippers began to flow into the two parish churches to attend mass, which lasted until midday, after which the processions formed; one from Isola, accompanied by the statue of the Madonna carried on shoulder by Isola parishioners, attired in the traditional religious blue and white costume. The other from Compiano, accompanied by the statue of San Rocco, carried on shoulder by the Confraternity of Compiano in their red and white costume. Along with sacred banners, they all reached the banks of the river Taro at the foot of the Compiano rock, each group on their respective shore. Prayers were recited, hymns were chanted, and ultimately, invocations were made whilst all priests blessed and therefore purified the waters from their side of the river.
At this point many waded in, and religiously dabbed at their eyes, ears and mouths, praying for protection. Some dipped hankies, or filled bottles to preserve as jealously guarded keepsakes, or as a precious gift. Parents trickled a little water onto their children in the hope of keeping them safe. Since the effect of the blessing lasts all day, some collected water in containers to take home to their sick or elderly folk, who were unable to personally attend the function. Once the rites were finished, rolls which had received a blessing were distributed to all participants, provided by the Fraternity of San Rocco. The whole event has something very spiritual about it, which reminds us of just how much traditions and religious beliefs are a fundamental part of these mountain communities. Beliefs which stand the toll of time.
There is more evidence of the peoples’ pledge for safety in Bedonia; the “Cappelletta di San Rocco”, a very tiny chapel on the main road, was erected in order to fulfil a promise made to the saint, if only he would spare the local people from the plague. Apparently the saint listened, and the small chapel came to be. It is lovingly tended by locals who have the key, and opened only once a year, on the 16th of August in honour of San Rocco, when a short mass is recited inside it. Another testimony to the history of our Valleys.