The Perfect Union
Every year in the coldest weeks of the winter season, strange sculptures begin to appear in the fields all over the island. It is the moment for grafting.
Wild olive trees grow throughout the island and they produce perfectly tiny olives with a thin and bitter skin. However, though the oil from wild olives is supposedly superior to that of domesticated varieties, the yield is much, much lower. And so the grafting game begins. Wild olive trees grow throughout the island and they produce perfectly tiny olives with a thin and bitter skin. However, though the oil from wild olives is supposedly superior to that of domesticated varieties, the yield is much, much lower. And so the grafting game begins.
At seven that morning, the wide flat piazza at San Salvatore was empty. One old woman scolded her husband on the hanging of the red and white bunting, while inside most every house someone was bustling to sweep up the floors and get all in order for the festivities that were already on their way. In fact hours earlier, before daybreak, eight kilometers away, the town of Cabras was already filling with barefoot men and boys dressed in white nightshirts making their way to the church amid gunshots and firecrackers.
Later that morning, in San Salvatore, the same piazza was overwhelmed by sweating, dusty men holding carnations and drinking Ichnusa. Every door was open and each house welcomed strangers and neighbors, all sharing in the drinks and sweets that were offered around. “It’s a shame the procession has gotten so popular,” said one woman. “During the war no one felt like celebrating and it took quite a few years for the town to start up again,” she explained. “At the beginning it was just a handful of devoted Catholics. But now, religious or not, all the boys can’t wait to turn 11 and start running.”
San Salvatore is most often referred to as being an abandoned town. However, the term "abandoned" presumes that it was once inhabited, which it wasn't. At the center of the piazza is a small country church, built on top of a Nuragic well, which was in turn covered by a Roman temple, which preserves some graffiti in Greek as well as an Arabic inscription mentioning Allah. So it is fair to say that the area has been frequented often by varied populations and that it has held some importance throughout the centuries. (Fun fact: San Salvatore was even used as a set for multiple Westerns in the 1960’s, arguably a different type of worship.)
It only became a sort of town during the 17th and 18th century, when farmers with land near the church began to build compact houses side by side so as to have a place to sleep and eat without having to walk the eight kilometers to their homes in Cabras each morning and night. A few times a year, during planting or harvest, their families would migrate to San Salvatore and bring the town to life. These are the same families that still own the houses and, while some still spend a few weeks each summer there, the town's shining moment is now ultimately the first weekend of September when the Corsa degli Scalzi occurs. On this weekend, the wooden statue of Saint Salvatore is carried from the center of Cabras by a group of barefoot runners, paraded through the town, celebrated in multiple masses and taken back the next evening.
This year it was estimated that 800 men and boys participated in the Corsa, whose only rule is that participants must be residents of Cabras. While it began as a religious ceremony - a pilgrimage to honor a group of women that had once (in 1506? 1619?) saved the wooden statue from marauders - it has transformed in the past few years into a sort of cultural marathon. It is not a solemn procession, but rather a joyful claim of belonging.
“We’ve started to worry about identity since people began losing it.” — Margaret Mead
While the list of dedicated Catholics has plummeted in recent years, many similar celebrations have clutched onto the original religious significance. Unfortunately, the end-effect is often that they seem stale or dismal and are often poorly attended. The Corsa, on the other hand, retains a feeling of authenticity and spontaneity even as its meaning and purpose have mutated. It is as if by freeing the runners from the rigidity of faith as prerequisite for participation, the Corsa has been able to focus its energy on what it means to be a community. Considering the fact that identity is so often used not to join together but to keep other people out, the inclusiveness of the Corsa is reinvigorating - old men, fathers, children, hipsters, thugs, farmers and hippies all bonding in one effort, until they arrive together at the end of the track, sweaty, tired and happily united.
Words: Kyre Chenven / Photos Ivano Atzori