A photojournalist on assignment dives headlong into the guts and glory of Carnevale in Italy’s Sardinia. All photos (C) B.A. Van Sise
There’s a moment, I think, when one has to stop and think sincerely about whether or not they’re making good choices.
The story starts here: I’m driving down a bumpy, cobbled road. Blood is rolling, slowly, down my arms, and legs, one thick gash above my brow loosening what seems to be an alarming amount of blood. I should, I suppose, be worried about where the blood is coming from, but all I can think about is where it’s going. A drop spills into my eye. It burns.
I am beginning to wonder, sincerely, about whether or not I’m making good choices.
This is Sardinia. It’s February of 2020. The world’s about to end in a couple of weeks, at least for a while, but for right now Lent can’t wait: it is Carnevale. We are here to celebrate. Every region of Italy has its own ways of marking this time, the runup to the somber abstinence of the weeks to come: in Venice, the crowd runs ribald, with prosecco and gleaming masks. In Sicily, children will wear fanciful, storybook costumes. In the Alps, mountaineers are already preparing goat-belt costumes.
Here in Sardinia, though, there’s a different agenda, simpler to explain, easier to see: everybody’s just gonna get real drunk and beat the ever-loving shit out of each other.
Sardinia, especially this wild, untamed central part of it I’m in, is an odd place, where a courtesy beyond the normative behaviors of society has evolved through millennia of separation and no shortage of heartache. Their flag depicts the severed heads of four Black men, and there are posters all over demanding the island’s urgent, perhaps terrorist secession from Italy.
Manners maketh man, and man maketh his home. Most towns, at least in this rugged interior, have the usual businesses one expects of Italianate life: three small coffee bars, one or two restaurants, a tobacconist or two selling small, smelly cigars. Here, too, there is a specialty: murder.
All the villages seem to have stores that sell elegant knives, designed purposefully for vendetta. They are hand-carved affairs, curved and gorgeous, designed to slip up under ribs or across intestines, spilling the contents of one’s enemy onto ochre soil and ryegrass. They are crafted to be handed from father to son, and again, and again, that families might do murder across the generations. They are expensive, unbelievably expensive, but they’re marketed the way Americans advertise fine watches: you’re not buying one for your own assassinations, so much as safeguarding it for the killing your grandsons and theirs plan to do, in an ever-blossoming history of silence in violence.
However, there are rewards, here, too: many towns plaster poems on their abandoned buildings, and the land itself, roaring dramatically up out of the even-tempered, tideless Mediterranean, is undeniably beautiful.
It feels like everywhere you’ve never been: the light rolls and saunters and plays through mountains and valleys, little glints of light bouncing off this distant rock or that deep-sit rill running through little leas dotted with prickly pears and wild fennel and faraway orange groves that all come together to make every hint of air smell sweet and herbal. It is neither beautiful nor ugly. It just is.
The valleys and mountains are punctuated with crumbling, rotting villages, laundry spread on lines over alleys, tended by old women and guarded by young men, dark-skinned and mustachioed, not so much a people as the avatar of a people, living in the sort of places that have given breath to the daydreams of three generations of Brooklyn Italians.
Most of the Sardinian year is defined by nothing, the sort of deep, existential nothing that permeates all impoverished towns, everywhere: lives defined by the squalor of monotony, the durance-vile of small town existence where one life bleeds into the next, where the only village intrigue amounts to the shopkeeper’s longing for his clerk, for the gamin who pinches a soft pack of cigarettes from the corner bar. But — once a year — they get to come together, one big family, and beat each other bloody. It is the highlight of their year.
I’d arrived several days earlier on assignment, my editor wants me to photograph this Sardinian carnevale — not the brawling row of sex and color of Rio de Janeiro, but something older, darker, a touch more menacing. On the island of Sardinia — a few hundred miles off Italy’s coast, but a few thousand years removed from its culture — Carnevale means covering themselves in soot, and bloody organs, and walking through the streets hitting each other with bullwhips.
They are living other peoples’ lives, the ancestors who looked like them, or didn’t. Everywhere, we do this. The world is full of such traditions, and folks will do anything just to keep going the memories of people they never met, to hold on to stories they don’t believe in, to carry forward a faith not in any particular god or goddess or prophet but rather the one that lasts longest: the faith that whatever one is doing makes any sense at all, especially when it doesn’t.
I’m here to photograph it, write up a longform story for a travel magazine, make a little money, go somewhere I wouldn’t otherwise. It’s not sacred, but it’s a living.
Every town in the Sardinian interior celebrates their carnevale differently, but there’s usually a bovine flair: carnival is the last hurrah for the carnivore before entering into solemn, meatless lent, and it shows. In Maimonides, men in wooden masks and fleece clang coats of cowbells as they stomp around the village. Here in Lula, in a small hilltop square, a gaggle of shouting, drunken men are covering their heads and arms in a somber, eerie blackface made from the soot of burnt cork mixed with water. They grab, physically and seriously grab, any watching bystander — of which there are hundreds — to slather their faces with the same, until the entire town looks like a European minstrel show. It feels racial, though they swear it isn’t, on an island whose flag features the severed heads of four Black men.
Sardinia’s carnevale is, perhaps, not 2020-approved, but then again 2020 does not seem to be Sardinia-approved, either.
The town is preparing: women are mixing burnt cork into thick water; they’re using their oily fingers, making a paste, letting it form. I’m not there yet. After meeting the mayor — who was as excited as a lad on Christmas morning to find out that a reporter, an honest-to-goodness reporter, had shown up in his town — I’ve learned about the day’s great victim: in a butcher shop down the hill, a small bull has been brought into the backyard.
He is killed the old way, the way of a people who buy knives to pass down through a century of dross; after a nice life eating grass in an idyllic beige village, the bull is surprised when a small man with curly hair digs his long, curved blade up into his belly. He screams in agony, bellowing up to the sky, confused and scared. He takes a full five minutes to die as several men — the founders of the feast, I’m later told — reach in and pull out with no tenderness his intestines, his liver, his heart, which they carry to the square.
The crowd cheers as the festival’s hero, a man in his 40s with a severe look in his eyes, mounts bullhorns to his head, drapes the fresh, steaming organs around his waist, and takes a bite of the heart as hot blood drips down his chin and tunic. The rest of the participants have assembled: men covered in blackface, wearing coal-colored cloaks, drinking red wine out of casks drawn into the piazza on antique carts. Seeing my plain face, one of the revelers asks if I’d like to take part. After I decline, two fellows grab me while a third slaps me in the face with a handful of cold, wet gunk, smearing it messily across the top half of my face. They let me go, as other revelers pass around the bull’s heart — as big as a man’s head — several of them taking a bite.
Blood in their mouths, it’s off to the races, as they unfurl their bull whips. They begin to give chase to our hero, the ritual “bull” to be slaughtered, whose legs and arms are banded and bound with heavy leather. They whip him for show, each snap making a loud crack that echoes through the little gullies between rows of 17th century stone homes. The few foreigners who’ve turned up learn quickly what all of the village school children know: that witnessing, in a land of sharp knives, is a dangerous profession. The festival’s whippers zip around through the crowd, draped in animal organs, like ghosts in the larder, flaying the onlookers who are as surprised as the dispatched beef in the butchershop to find that it’s all real.
A young boy lashes my arm with his long leather strap, opening it immediately in a bloody mess. I’m so shocked I can’t process it, do not feel the pain, stare at the boy in disbelief as he smiles. “That’s what you get for coming here, Lying Press,” he declares in a stage whisper. He can be not one day over eight years old, but it’s clear that he’s been carefully taught.
I leave as soon as I’m convinced that my editor will be sated with the quantity, or quality, or both, of the work, which is to say when there’s burning blood in my eyes and I’m sure I’ve done enough. Seeing me leave the still cheering crowd, the mayor catches sight of me and runs up. He grabs my shoulder happily and asks did you have a good time?
I bounce down the cobbled roads out of town, watching myself in the mirror, trying to gather up the building blocks of myself, put them back together into something useful. It’s a stunning sight: they’ve covered me in cork soot, my skin is cracked open in three places, my rental car is full of blood, and I am hungry. The light is growing long. It is nearly dinnertime.
I stop in the little village — they’re all little, they’re all villages — two mountains down. It has two restaurants, both on its one main street. It is the Sunday before Lent, a dire time for any wounded gourmand: one restaurant is closed, and the other, a coffee bar with a small kitchen, is packed, mostly with people drinking bitters and smoking indoors.
When I walk in — a man carrying two cameras, lacerations on my arms and covered in wet soot — the bartender does not blink. “Ah, you came from Lula,” he says. I tell him I’m hungry, ask if there’s a free table. He dispatches the waitress — who clearly does double duty as his daughter — to find a place for me.
An older couple is sitting at the table next to me, foreign but calm, with no blackface, no lacerations, no fear in their eyes, and I can’t help but wonder how they’ve wasted their day, what in the world could have brought them here, to this place, at this time, if not to be ritually assaulted by the locals.
Their eyes turn, their necks turn, their entire bodies turn to watch and follow in horror as the young waitress carries a platter past them.
It’s an octopus, one can tell even with the waitress’ arm holding the plate high like a cartoon French server. She waltzes out of the back parlor with it held aloft, a nest of tentacles flopping out lazily over each side, like a horror film hors d’oeuvre, a sea monster on toast.
She delivers it and walks over to me, asks me what I’d like. I ask for a bottle of water, and tell her I’ll have the octopus.
“I’m sorry,” she tells me with great sympathy. “We’ve been swamped today. All we’ve got left are donkey sandwiches.”
I laugh out loud: a huge, embarrassing honk that caused everyone in the place to swivel in their chairs to catch sight of me.
“Yes, it’s a local specialty. We take the donkey meat and stew it all day in its own juices.”
“I’m sorry, the… donkey juice?”
“Yes, you know, the umido, the blood and the water from the donkey, all the liquids.”
Remember those moments? Those moments when one has to stop and think sincerely about whether or not they’re making good choices? There I am, at the crossroads of my life: I am a thirty-six year old man, alone in a restaurant, bleeding and sooty, waiting for a donkey sandwich.
Every new customer is greeted at the door by the bartender who informs them, immediately, of the developing donkey situation.
I am drinking heavily.
“So,” I ask, “what exactly is on the donkey sandwich?”
“Lettuce, tomato, onion, lemon,” the waitress tells me. “Oh, and donkey, of course.”
“Of course.” Normally, I am the sort for adventure, but I’ve had enough adventure today. “Can I do this,” I ask her in Italian, “can I get a donkey sandwich, but no donkey? Just the salad?”
“You don’t want the meat?”
“No, just the lettuce and the salad, you know.”
The waitress looks at me like I’ve just proudly purchased a car without wheels, but agrees.
About ten minutes later, my assless sandwich comes out of the back room, shuffled in swiftly by the waitress.
It’s not what I wanted, but perhaps what I deserved:
Two small ciabatta loaves, stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, sliced onions.
I thank the waitress.
“Oh, one thing,” she points at it. “It’s such a no-flavored sandwich, it was not a good sandwich.” It looks fresh. It looks fine.
She gestures vaguely at my entire face and body. “You look like you are having a hard day. So just for you, we still put on a little donkey juice.”