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Italy pits top sleuths against world’s heritage looters

Italy unveiled a 60-strong task force of art detectives and restorers on Tuesday, ready to protect the world's crisis-hit heritage sites for UNESCO in a cultural version of the UN's famous Blue Helmets.

Italy pits top sleuths against world's heritage looters
The 60-strong task force of art detectives and restorers will work for Unesco. Photo: Fillipo Monteforte / AFP

The task force, dubbed “cultural peacekeepers”, will be dispatched – when logistically possible – to assess the damage to globally-prized monuments or works in the wake of conflicts, earthquakes, floods or other disasters.
   
The main aim is to stop the looting and selling of heritage by militants to fund “terrorist activities”, UNESCO said.
   
The task force will “assess risk and quantify damage done to cultural heritage sites, develop action plans and urgent measures, provide technical supervision and training for local national staff,” the Italian ministry said in a statement.
   
It will also help transfer movable objects to safety “and strengthen the fight against looting and illegal trafficking of cultural property,” the ministry said.
   
Thirty police art detectives and 30 archaeologists, restorers and art historians “are already operational and ready to go where UNESCO sends them,” said Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.
   
Italy's art police have an international reputation for tracking down and recovering stolen works.
   
The hope, UNESCO director Irina Bokova said Tuesday, was that other countries would follow Rome's example and join the heritage fight.
   
The idea for an Italian, cultural version of the United Nations peacekeepers – known by their distinctive blue helmets – was voted in by the UN after the destruction of sites including in Syria's Palmyra by the Islamic State group.
   
IS seized control of Palmyra in May and has realized international fears by destroying some of the most prized sites in the UNESCO World Heritage listed ancient city.
   
The militants have carried out a sustained campaign of destruction against heritage sites in areas under their control in Syria and Iraq, including the important Iraqi sites of Hatra, Nimrud and Khorsabad, the ancient Assyrian capital.
   
Islamist militants are also accused of being behind attacks on 10 religious and historic monuments in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Timbuktu in Mali.
 

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CULTURE

Wine, masks and debauchery: How did Italy’s Carnival tradition begin?

Towns across Italy are holding pageants and parades as Carnival season begins, but few people know the true origins of this festivity, writes Silvia Marchetti.

Wine, masks and debauchery: How did Italy’s Carnival tradition begin?

Masks, wild costumes, confetti, fried frappe and castagnole – Carnival’s back. But not everyone knows that these festivities date back to the dawn of time.

“At exactly the same time of the year, now, the Ancient Greeks celebrated the Baccanali, which they likely imported from Mesopotamia. Then the Romans turned the Greek partying into the Saturnali and Lupercali”, says Giorgio Franchetti, an historian of Ancient Rome.

READ ALSO: Beyond Venice: Seven of Italy’s most magical carnivals

During the Baccanali – feasts held in honor of Bacchus, or Dioysius, the god of wine – revelers would dance and get drunk on wine mixed with honey, which allowed them to let loose, free their souls and connect with the divinities and the afterworld. The wine supposedly sent them into a physical and spiritual ecstasy, a sort of purifying trance.

The ancient Romans took these wild events further. The Saturnali celebrations, in honor of Saturno, who was also the god of agriculture, coincided with the sowing of the fields and fertility rites.

“Lumps of earth would be overturned to allow the seeds to sink in, in the same way the Saturnali triggered an overturning of the established order, social roles and hierarchies: women would dress as men, men as women, slaves as masters, masters as slaves, and all partook in extreme acts”, says Franchetti. Wine and lavish meals went on for a week, and nobody, not even the slaves, worked.

Revellers in masks and costumes take part in the Venice Carnival. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

The destruction of the known order of things by allowing people to vent out their desires and instincts once a year was necessary to maintain the establishment of such order. Creating chaos was the only rule; it was a blank cheque to debauchery.

Italians still have a saying: “A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale” (during Carnival any kind of trick goes). Morality and taboos drop, transgression takes over, the boundaries between evil and good, profane and sacred, blur.

READ ALSO: Did Valentine’s Day really originate in Italy?

The Saturnali were the celebration of a topsy-turvy subversive world, where disguises and masks concealed identities and allowed revelers to act with total freedom and commit all sorts of mischief.

Sexuality plays a key part: extreme sexual activity and sex role reversal triggered a strong fertility force believed to regenerate nature ahead of spring.

February was also when the empire honored the Febbris goddess, worshipped by the pre-Roman Etruscans too as a bringer of purification.

“The Ancient Romans had another festival as well during our period of Carnival; it was called Lupercali in honor of the god-wolf Luperco, otherwise known as Caco or Fauno, whose cult hails back to the Etruscans”, says Franchetti.

(Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP)

Luperco represented the most vicious human passions and animal instincts, and in his name a free pass to perversion was granted to the people.

According to Franchetti, who studied ancient sources, during the Lupercali drunk partygoers would wrap themselves in animal skins, before taking them off to run naked across the Roman forum – men, women and slaves alike. Random coupling and animal sacrifices were carried out. 

The nakedness symbolized that, for one moment of the year, all were equal. Wars paused, famine became a momentary abundance of food. It was a break from the harsh reality of authority. During one such Lupercali it is said even Julius Caesar participated and foresaw his future coronation as emperor, as in a vision.

When Christianity came along it overlapped with these pagan celebrations, making the need for social release even stronger.

Catholicism regulated and integrated carnival into the Christian calendar, marking it as a pre-Lent festivity.  And Lent, the 40-days period of reflection and profound soul-cleansing in preparation for Easter with fasting and penance, stopped the wild parties.

READ ALSO: Pagan witches and Mussolini: Why Italy’s Epiphany holiday has a curious history

Franchetti explains that the origin of the term ‘carnival’ stems from the Latin ‘carnem levare’, meaning ‘farewell to meat’, to mark Shrove Tuesday, the last day when eating fat or meat, considered an extravagance, was still allowed before Lent.

The perception and existence of a tyrannical church that terrified sinners with images of hell and punished vices, lust and amorality, only intensified peoples’ desire to have fun during carnival. 

And even the clergy couldn’t resist the party: for two centuries during the middle ages masked priests celebrated “the feast of the crazy” by using sausages instead of sacramental bread for mass. 

“If it wants to survive, society’s structured order needs Carnival as a momentary worship of chaos and disorder, to justify and strengthen such order”, says Franchetti.

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