La Festa dei Gigli, or The Festival of Lilies, is held every year in the Italian town of Nola. In celebration of St. Paulinus, who in 410 AD saved his people from the invading Visigoths, local man carry heavy wooden obelisks on their shoulders through the streets of Nola, which in time causes them to develop giant calluses.
Artistic photos of men sporting different-size growths on the back of their necks and shoulders have been making the rounds online for a few days now. It turns out they are the works of Italian photographer Antonio Busiello, who recently won first prize at The Royal Photographic Society’s International Print Exhibition. The men in his photos are known as “cullatori” or cradle rockers, and they are responsible with carrying large wooden obelisks on their shoulders during the annual Festa dei Gigli, in Nola, southern Italy.
These decorative structures are 25-meters high and weigh around 2,500 kilograms. The cullatori carry them through the narrow streets of Nola for a day and a night without stopping, which leaves them with huge calluses on their backs and shoulders. But the most fascinating thing about these keepers of an ancient tradition is that instead of hiding their physical deformities, they display them with pride as symbols of their sacrifice and devotion to Saint Paulinus, who once gave up himself and all his possessions to save the citizens of Nola during the Visigoth invasion.
The Festival of Lilies starts on the last Sunday before June 22nd and lasts seven days. Eight large obelisks known as “Gigli” are handcrafted out of wood and decorated by local artisans with papier mâché. These elaborate structures represent the eight local trade unions which welcomed Saint Paulinus back from slavery in 410 AD, with armfuls of lilies picked from the fields. The highlight of the festival is the last day, when each of the 2,5-ton-heavy obelisks is carried by 120 cullatori through the city’s historical center, along a route that has been repeated for more than a thousand years, to the sounds of religious as well as Neapolitan music and the cheers of the crowd. Carrying this huge weight year after year leaves the cullatori with large calluses on their backs.
You’d think that after seeing what years of cullatore duty does to your body, young men would think twice about literally carrying this ancient tradition on their shoulders, but statistics show otherwise. La Festa dei Gigli is one of the few festivals in Italy that manage to keep the younger generation interested, and the young men of Nola are apparently eager to become cullatori and show their calluses with pride. Unlike other cultural events, this festival has kept on growing year after year, attracting tourists from all around the world.