For millennia, the inhabitants of a tiny village in Abruzzo, Italy, have been celebrating the Festival of the Snake-Catchers each May. Richard Grant joins the writhing throng. Photographs by Micaela Cianci
The snake-catchers of Cocullo were drinking espresso in the village’s only cafe. Photographs on the walls showed famous snakes and snake-catchers from the past, and a few live serpents lay coiled in pillowcases on the foor. It had been a difcult year, the men said. Spring came late to the mountains, and the snakes were slow to emerge from hibernation. Only in the last few days had the catching gone well.
Tomorrow they will drape all the snakes they can muster on a statue of San Domenico di Sora – St Dominic – the patron saint of this hilltop village in the Abruzzo region of southern Italy. Then they will march the statue through the streets, as brass bands play and young women parade with snake-shaped pastries on their heads. It is possibly the oldest festival in Europe, and certainly one of the strangest.
‘If we have too few snakes, it will be taken as a bad omen,’ said Mario Mascioli, a short, sturdy, dignifed man with a large grey moustache. ‘But I’m not too concerned. My son is out catching snakes right now. Yesterday he caught a beautiful cervone. Others will bring in more this afternoon.’
The men were speaking the local dialect of these isolated mountains, which st ill harbour a few wolves and brown bears. I was with a photographer, Micaela Cianci, who spent part of her childhood in Abruzzo and could converse in the dialect. This may have smoothed our passage slightly, but the snake-catchers and the other villagers we met in Cocullo were friendly, welcoming and helpful.
Handsome, ba ld ing Antonio Zinatelli, who described himself as the future mayor of Cocullo, invited us to feel the steely muscles under t he sleeves of his burgundy turtleneck sweater. Then he promised to tell us everything about the ancient art of snake-catching. ‘It is passed down from father
Every year a wooden statue of St Dominic covered in live snakes is paraded through Cocullo – usual population 250 – attended by a crowd of about 30,000