For almost 120 years, the Dance of The Giglio has been a tradition in many Italian American neighborhoods in the United States. Today, as Italians have become more assimilated into American society, the tradition has been narrowed to only four “lifts.” In Brooklyn, for instance, over the last 118 years, 120 men have endured the physical sacrifice of lifting a five-story man-made tower weighing close to four tons in honor of their patron saint, San Paolino, who is the Patron Saint of their ancestors’ town in Nola, Italy. This magnificent tower is called The Giglio, which means Lily in Italian, and it sits upon a platform along with a full band and chaplain. In Nola, there are still many Gigli that are carried through the town in complex routes sometimes lasting an entire day of back-breaking dedication. There are currently four Giglio Dances that still take place in America: Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Harlem in Manhattan, Belmont in the Bronx and Franklin Square in Long Island.
On the day before Giglio Sunday in Williamsburg there is a Questua procession in which Questua committee members, musicians, police and children distribute blessed bread to the people of the neighborhood. The members go as early as 5am to get the bread from local Italian bakeries. Thousands of loaves are gathered as everyone congregates before the procession to see the bread blessed right outside of Our Lady Of Mt. Carmel Church. Once the bread is blessed, the crowd breaks up into “distribution crews.” Each crew consists of a chairman, money managers, children who bag the bread, a band and the police who graciously escort the procession. The procession moves through the streets collecting donations and handing out the bread until all the bread has been distributed. This is usually completed by 4pm. The entire Questua procession takes about six hours.
On Giglio Sunday before the lift, the pastor blesses the structure and the lifters and says the invocation to Our Lady of mount Carmel and San Paolino. The Paranza reply with “pray for us.” Then, the national anthems of America and Italy are played. The lifters begin shouting “Musica!” to spark the band to play the Giglio Song, O’ Giglio’e Paradiso. The band serenades thousands in crowded streets with tantalizing tunes that grace the ears of Italian Americans and all those fortunate enough to experience the electrifying event.
The Giglio is a huge platform that stands upon the shoulders of The Paranza, or lifters. The Paranza are broken into four “crews” of 30 men. Each crew has a capo and lieutenants who direct the men and keep things organized during the Dance of the Giglio, which is a complicated feat of lifting the Giglio tower up and down and moving it around narrow streets in full 360 degree turns. Below the Capos are Lieutenants who also work to unify and synchronize The Paranza. The capo shouts four commands in the dialect of the Nolani: “Uaglio! (Boys!), “Aizati i spalli” (lift your shoulders), “Acconge i cosce”(tighten your legs), “Aggiet! (Throw it!). After the last command, the Giglio is dropped to the ground in a thundering crash as the Giglio shakes and jirates and the crowd cheers. The fluidity of these men moving in unison is simply poetic. The Capo Paranza leads the men and conducts the Dance like a maestro conducts an orchestra, hence the name Maestro Di Festa. To see this synchronization at work is a true gift and is one of the oldest Italian traditions still taking place in America that will transport anyone who witnesses “the lift” back in time and across the ocean to another world. As the Giglio Dances, La barca, which is a huge boat that is constructed in the same fashion as the Giglio and is lifted by the same principle, is danced towards the Giglio . Riding in the boat is a band and singer, the Turk, and young boys, dressed in Arabian costumes that shower the audience with confetti symbolizing San Paolino’s glorious return to Nola after a grueling sacrifice .
The Giglio stands upwards like the flower it is named after, stretching towards the Heavens. The Giglio is handmade by master carpenters and sculptors who painstakingly sculpt figurines of Saints and religious scenes for different sections of the Giglio before it is painted. This process takes months, and shortly before the feast begins, the pieces are slowly put together on top of the platform which is essentially a deck on top of metal beams that are carried on the shoulders of The Paranza with a small piece of foam between their shoulders and the hard edges of the beams underneath the dancing megalith.
The Giglio in Williamsburg is a very special event just like its counterparts in Harlem, the Bronx, and Long Island, but is generally more popular because there are still many Italians living in the neighborhood and those who have moved, return in full force. This feast honors San Paolino who stands all the way at the top of the Giglio overlooking his devotees while his figurine is animated in Dance by the Paranza. As legend has it: a poor widow came to San Paolino, who was then the Bishop, for help when her only son had been carried off by the son-in-law of the dreaded Vandal King in a twisted campaign that plagued Italy. Having exhausted his resources in ransoming other captives, Paulino said: “such as I have I give thee,” and went to Africa to exchange places with the widow’s son and other town folk who were enslaved by the Vandal King. There, Paolino was accepted in place of the widow’s son, and employed as a gardener. After some time, the king found out that his son-in-law’s slave was the Great Bishop of Nola. He at once set him free, granting him also the freedom of all the townsfolk of Nola. Upon his return to Nola, Bishop Paolino was welcomed with gifts of Lily’s by all the grateful constituents of Nola. For this great sacrifice put forth by San Paolino, devotees and descendants of Nola continue to endure the excruciatingly difficult lift of the Giglio.
There is an incredible film about the lifting of the Giglio entitled “Heaven Touches Brooklyn” which was produced and directed by Tony DeNonno. Tony spent years researching the Dancing of the Giglio in America and Nola, Italy with authentic footage that he shot himself while creating one of the most enchanting documentaries ever made about Italian American traditions. His video can be found and purchased at: http://www.denonnoprodinc.com/ItalianGallery.html.
Useful links to Giglio society websites that also served as a bibliography for this piece: