We are endlessly obsessed with beauty, and the beauty of Sardinia is inextricably tinged with roughness. Impossible dirt roads lead to stunning, craggy-rocked beaches. In summer, the punishing heat of the sun fades slowly into a golden hue over the fields and hillsides. Cannonau wine and pecorino cheese, spiny artichokes and lamb, radiantly green olive oil - the foods of the island are strong and intense, as if they each contain a small slice of the sacrifice needed for their creation. Everything is twice as beautiful because it hurts to get there.
Every May 1st since 1657, the procession for Sant'Efisio begins in the center of Cagliari, continues along the road to the ancient Roman city of Nora and ends three days and 65 km later when the saint is brought back to his city home. Towns from all over the island participate in the procession, singing Sardinian hymns, playing traditional instruments, riding horses and reciting the rosary - with each participant wearing a traditional, handmade dress from their town.
Traditionally, Sardinian women had very few clothes; what they did have was rigorously made by hand. Your dress, as a Sardinian woman, said many things about you. It was something that was worked on at night after all other duties were finished and was made according to the traditions of the area you were from. Someone in town would lend you the pattern, made from newspaper, of your town's dress and slowly but surely, piece by piece, the dress would be created by you, for yourself. Most people had one or two outfits which they would wash each night and wear the next day. And then they would have their special dress, which would be worn for the first time when they were married and then for every special occasion thereafter.
In most areas the dress includes a lace undershirt, which would be tatted and sewn by hand. Then came the petticoats, the skirt, the apron, the jacket, the veil. In the 1800's, when fabric became more readily available (and the women no longer wove their own), many towns began to integrate elaborate embroidery into their dress. In other words, the arrival of ready-made fabrics on the island didn't allow the Sardinians to use their scant free time for something else, it allowed them to concentrate on how to further decorate the same dress in new ways. In the end, how lovely you looked in your handmade dress was not a sign of your outward beauty, but of your refinement, your skill and your dedication.
It is hard to comprehend the idea that every young woman in town could be convinced to work many nights sewing a dress that would in the end look exactly the same as her sister's, her cousin's, her neighbor's. Our modern idea of style is that our way of dressing distinguishes our true character - mohawks make sense to us, homogeneity doesn’t. But in Sardinia your dress was a piece of your social identity - where you were from, your social class, your marital status - not your individual identity.
Last week, Ivano’s grandmother was very ill. She was having trouble breathing and her heartbeat was weak and irregular. The nurses called her children and asked them to prepare for the end. They began by bringing her dress to the hospital. It was the same one she had worn to the weddings of each of her grandchildren, including ours. Inside the box were small variations: a black apron if she died in wintertime, a white apron if she died in summer.
Many times throughout the years, we had fought with her to leave the dress to the family - with that particularly harsh brand of Sardinian humor, the family would joke that they would keep it and she could be buried in rags. “You’ll be dead anyway; you won’t know the difference!” But she was firm and staunch in her answer - “When I see my husband again for the first time, I want to be dressed for a celebration.” Now that the time is truly near, no one opposes her taking it with her. It belongs to her inextricably. This particular beauty is something she worked very hard for.