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Italian streetlife, London EC1, Time Out

‘Drinkers by The Betsey Trotwood pub heckle as Marco Manzi nails Christ to the cross, “Oi! No more!” “Stop, now!”’

At lunchtime on Saturday, 16 July 2011, Santa Lucia, Santa Rita, San Michele and Sant’ Antonio already wait on the marbled altar of St. Peter’s Italian Church, Clerkenwell Road.

The next day these statues and more will be carried in the Procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, spaced among parading Italian Associations, children in first communion finery, flags, banners, and floats and walking tableaux of biblical scenes, like Moses receiving the Commandments and Christ being nailed to the cross.

They will follow a cordoned triangle – Clerkenwell Road, Rosebery Avenue, Farringdon Road. Inside it, on Warner Street, will be an Italian fete, a Sagra.

The elegant St. Peter’s opened in 1863, in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy. The Procession, a recreation of homeland rituals, probably started in 1883 (no one is sure). Clerkenwell’s Little Italy has gone but Italian expats and Anglo-Italians crowd St. Peter’s for Sunday mass. More return for landmarks like Christmas and Easter, christenings and weddings, and the Procession. (15 July, this year.)

Round the corner from St. Peter’s on Back Hill’s cobbled slope, kagooled volunteers from across London work in the rain. A dull Citroen van disappears under panels. Eight big, flat-bed vans are being turned with planks and poles into floats.

The parish priest Fr Carmelo, white haired in a black hoddie, encourages the workers. Many, including Luciano Manzi, who is sparing time from running his City coffee shops, are 40-year Procession veterans. “I met my wife doing this procession. The Italian church, it’s like going to Italy and feeling you are part of something.”

Giuseppe Ditanna, a stocky, pony-tailed expat regular at St. Peter’s for 30 years, breaks from work. “Tomorrow they put more flowers, more decoration and painting. It’s going to be fantastic.”

Volunteers nip in and out of Back Hill’s labyrinthine parish offices. Inside, past a dining room loaded with coffee and sponge fingers, past Fr. Carmelo’s small office, down a wide corridor, in a make up room of costume rails and prop boxes, stands Peter Bertoncini, the Procession’s designer/costumier/beloved maestro.

Around him, his band of aproned assistants, like Lizzie Evans (nee Giacon), Paula Bolognini and Sylvia Rapacioli. Peter is calmly brisk, “Got silver wings…three rosaries for the children…where’s the drape?” They work from blue-biroed lists of props and parishioner-actors for the floats and tableaux: ‘Angel = Emma/Lily’ ‘Christ carrying the cross = Mario’.

What, I ask Sylvia as she sews, keeps them returning for the Procession? It is the coupling of homeland and religion: “It can be very, very powerful. You can’t touch it. You can’t get hold of it. But that’s human nature, isn’t it?”

The band move to the corridor. Peter noisily staple-guns fabric to a backdrop. There is a problem: the Christ to lead the first communicants is injured. “I wouldn’t mind (THWOCK!) but I’ve made him a new costume because he’s so (THWOCK!) tall. It’s finding a guy.” He picks Marco, Lizzie’s 6’1”son, who passes through in float-building overalls.

Lizzie: You’re going to be Christ. Have you got any flip flops or sandals?

Marco (non plussed): I’m an Evangelist.

Lizzie: Christ has hurt his foot. Have you got any flip flops?

Sunday morning is bright; the afternoon torrential. Plastic sheets shroud finished floats on Back Hill. Still, the Procession starts at 3.30, always, and the corridor throngs with Roman soldiers, tinselled angels and Magi.

Down in the Sagra, rain comes and goes but the crowd stays: suited old men, bella figura youth, children with Italy-shaped balloons. Bouncy Italian dance tunes from the PA fight with old friends reuniting loudly.

Beneath Rosebery Avenue bridge, veterans of the Alpini regiment in feathered caps run a coconut shy. Family teams man stripy-awninged stalls, selling wine from Emilia Romagna, polenta from Veneto, Calabrian aubergines, Sicilian cannoli, all proceeds to St. Peter’s. Giuseppe serves belly of pork at Sardinia’s stall.

In the make up room Peter waits. “The main characters apart from one are done.” Marco Evans walks in to a cheer.  In the corridor St. Peter and God watch the British Open on a big television. In the dining room a biblical crowd tuck into chicken legs and biscuits.

The jollity is deceptive. The Procession is both cultural celebration and act of religious devotion. Mario Zeppetelli sits quietly by the dining room door. He would, for the eighth year, play Christ carrying the Cross. “It is quite heavy. Once you start carrying it, and I’m out there on my own, dragging this thing, you get a feel of what [Christ’s Passion] might have been like.”

At 3.00 the actors start climbing onto floats or line up in side streets. Spectators fill the pavements outside St. Peter’s. At 3.10 thunder and lightening crack the sky. A boy shepherd shields his head with a toy lamb. Undaunted, as 3.30 approaches, floats trundle down Back Hill to line up on Clerkenwell Road.

Bishop Alan Hopes and Fr. Carmelo release doves. The crowd cheer. Peter fires a glitter gun, Vivaldi’s Gloria plays and the Procession rolls past the church: God, tunic sodden, staring Moses in the eye; the tiny, immaculate matriarchs of the Consorelle del Sacro Cuore; the Virgin Mary balancing bravely up ten steps on the Queen of Heaven float; the red waistcoated ladies of the Enfield Italian Association; Marco Evans leading the first communicants, lime green flip flops barely visible.

The sun is out as the statue of Our Lady of Fatima tilts precariously through a red light onto Rosebery Avenue. Here the crowd thins. Mario stares ahead as he carries his cross uphill under the Avenue’s dripping trees, Giuseppe behind in Judaic robes. San Calogero’s statue rides on a red Fiat 500 past the watching firemen of Clerkenwell Station.

Farringdon Road has more spectators, including Sylvia, outside the old Guardian building. A first communicant drops her little Italian flag and covers her face in embarrassment. Anglo-Italian drinkers by The Betsey Trotwood pub heckle as Marco Manzi (Luciano’s son) nails Christ to the cross, “Oi! No more!” “Stop, now!”

The last float is the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, gliding on a royal blue float (the dull Citroen van). Behind walk 200 parishioners, all ages, reciting the rosary unwaveringly as they pass the Chatterbox Topless Bar.

They turn into Clerkenwell Road, halt outside St. Peter’s. More doves are freed. Ave Maria is sung. The Procession ends.

Giuseppe feels the weather thinned the crowds this year but still, “It’s fantastic!” He heads to help at the Sagra. Marco Evans, back in work clothes, helps dismantles the floats.

A man and a woman walk down the corridor, carrying Mario’s cross between them. Standing by storage alcoves, Peter calls “Right they can start bringing the floats in now”. Does he give the actors advice before the Procession? “They are all told – is that a backdrop? Right, goes here  – if it rains, carry on, keep in character. That’s all I ask. And they did. They did very good.”

The Sagra is still jumping, wine and cappuccino flow, the Alpine veterans sing, arms around each other, voices echoing round Rosebery Avenue bridge.

On Back Hill, the floats have been dismantled. Once again, they are just rented vans.

A shortened version of this article ran in Time Out, July 2012

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