Handled by specialist handlers called serpari, the snakes are draped around the statue of San Domenico di Sora, the patron saint of Cocullo and protecter against tooth ache – and, handily enough, snake bites.
But the festival is thought to date back further, to before the time of Christianity. Historians believe that the Marsi people who lived in central Italy in ancient times used to worship a serpent goddess, Angitia, who possessed magical powers to control snakes and protect from poison or sickness.
San Domenico, an Umbrian abbot who lived in Cocullo for around seven years around the end of the 10th century, became associated with the rite when he left the town one of his teeth, which is kept as a holy relic to this day in the local church.
Ever since, the faithful have believed in the saint's powers to protect teeth and heal bites. On the morning of the festival, his devotees pull the church's bell rope with their teeth to seek his blessing for their dental health.
The serpari begin preparing for the festival more than a month earlier, catching wild snakes as the winter snow melts and animals begin to venture out. Four types are the most commonly caught: four-lined, Aesculapian, grass and green whip snakes, all of them non-venomous.
The snakes were traditionally kept in clay pots and fattened up on a diet of boiled eggs and mice while they awaited the ritual.
Their handlers bring them to the central square on the day of the festival – traditionally the first Thursday of May, but nowadays every May 1st public holiday – and proudly display them to the public.
Then, at midday, the procession begins: four people carry the statue of San Domenico from the church and the serpari place their snakes on it.
After a procession through the narrow streets, the serpari retrieve their snakes and release them back into the wild – until next year.
All photos by Tiziana Fabi and Vincenzo Pinto for AFP.