|Title still-shot of documentary, credits and link|
The peculiarity of the tarantella is that its origins are associated with a psychic disorder, or a form of hysteria, known as tarantism that was recognized in Italy as early as the 15th C. But Tarantism has lingered on in isolated rural areas through the 20th C., as noted in a documentary clip from nearby Galatina the 1950's and aired on TV by another off-beat traveller, Anthony Bourdin. You can click here to see the original Italian documentary, La Taranta, which filmed incidents of tarantism occurring in the nearby countryside. Filmed in the 1950's, it looks much earlier in time and is quite different in its rawness from the holiday tarantellas celebrated in festivals now.
Said to be caused by the bite of a tarantula spider (a form of wolf-spider or black-widow), its victims (mostly women) display distressed and feverish symptoms that include vomiting and sweating, fear and delirium, depression and paranoia. They are seemingly cured by a rite that involves feverish 'dancing' that can last for days. It's not so much dancing as it is impulsive, pulsing movement: jumping, hopping, gyrating upright or on the floor. The frenetic movements are accompanied by music played fast, in 6/8 time, with the pace of both music and movements reciprocally urging each other onward, all in the company of family and neighbors who attend the seized woman. The often delirious victim, with attendant crowd, eventually is guided to the local church where, still trance-like and tired-out, she is finally 'danced-out 'of her throes with religious help.
|Dancing Maenad on Vase by Python, 330 B.C. credits|
The tarantella has a fascinating history. It is thought that Taranto, in particular, gave its name to the dance because a particular variety of wolf-spider popularly believed to be venomous was common to this region, and thus was named the tarantula. The origins of the dance, however, may lie much deeper in history and cult, speculated to be a surviving remnant from ancient rites of Diana or of Dionysius. We know that all of Puglia was originally more Greek than Latin/Roman. By early Roman times, Bacchanalian rites were suppressed, which may have driven them underground ... where they lingered and were transformed into another collective ritual in the cult of Tarantism. What is known for certain is that Tarantism dates back centuries in this region, appearing in early manuscripts.
The music, originally played on whatever local instruments were available (tambourine, drums, fiddle, accordion, guitar) developed into folk dance forms, popular in several regions of southern Italy. In the Salento region, the dance is also known as the pizzica. The tarantella also made its way to the more formal dance-floor... for nimble-footed. partners. And the marvellous choreographer, George Balanchine, adapted it to ballet. Remarkable in its journey from dirt floors to concert halls, the tarantella also appears in the work of such dignified composers as Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. But the original forms of the dance, very obscurely caused by a spider's bite, were inspired by each individual's almost hypnotically frenzied, trance-like movements in response to the dancer's delirium set to music's beat.
We visited Taranto, the city etymologically linked to this curious dance,. crossing from east to west on the narrow heel of Italy's boot, travelling from the Adriatic to the Ionian Sea. We were unlikely to see this the tarentalla today. Our motivation for visiting was to see Taranta's well-recommended archaeological museum.
|MARTA describes this as a navigation scene with myth figure, carved on cup, 2,000 BC|
One of the reasons I love museums, like MARTA, that focus upon what we call "prehistory" and "protohistory" is that they show as well as inspire a special blend of skillfully investigative research+imagination (an Einsteinian combination) in order to unearth (literally) what the displayed objects likely meant when they were fully alive.
The museum is arranged chronologically as you walk through its levels. Here are some of the many intriguing and beautiful objects in the museum -- a random and nonchronological sampling from photos I took. They include 20,000 year-old figurines of a female/goddess, a polychromed head with its colors intact, anthropomorphic pots from the 6th century B.C., one of the most intricate gold earrings I've seen (4th century B.C., used as an iconic poster for the museum), a nutcracker in the shape of black hands, representations of African faces (at this 3rd-4th century B.C. cross-roads of many cultures), wonderfully designed functional pots from different epochs, and Medusa as she looked across ancient time.
It's a gift to us that a focus of the MARTA is to illuminate the earliest forms communication within this region of multiple cultures. This goal also helps to communicate to us the intents and meanings behind the many quotidian, functional, ceremonial, religious and just plain beautiful objects displayed.
Given that there are no extant traces of language itself that is as old as many of the objects we're shown, we're left with marvellous clues to decipher: technological artifacts of the time, items relating to food production/consumption, houses and settlements, burial remains, ritual or ceremonial objects, human adornments, decorative motifs and representations (animal, human, gods), aesthetic styles, art. Almost any human act can have both functional and symbolic or ideological meaning, and these can change across generations and different communities. All this remains a living story precisely because it remains open to be deciphered, by us now... as it was then.
Quite a time-travel adventure when we visited Taranto.