Sa Die de Me'uris de Lessia

Ash Wednesday

Sardinia, Italy. March 2014.

Ash Wednesday: for Roman Catholics the world over, a day of fasting and penance. However, in Ovodda, a town in the Barbagia region of Sardinia, the entire town takes to the streets this day, their faces painted black, ready to celebrate as loudly and wildly as possible the end of Carnival. Dancing and shouting to the deafening sound of music mixed with the braying of donkeys and mules, the townspeople commemorate the last day of the pre-Lenten carnival season.

Atypical, insofar as it is held on Ash Wednesday, the festivities are of enormous symbolic significance to the people of Ovodda. It is a moment in which the norms of daily life are overturned. By throwing off the prejudices and strictures that govern community life, a renewed sense of unity is forged; an agreed upon day of transgression, an institutionally sanctioned release of collective tensions that reinforces the ties binding society, strengthening each individual’s sense of belonging. The final act of this cathartic experience is the execution and burning of don Conte, the symbolic scapegoat who represents the ultimate antithesis to all the moral and ethical values espoused by the community; his downfall, a triumph of good over evil, a ritualistic cleansing of all the “sins” of the townspeople. In fact, it is as if this one day of total transgression, grotesque and outrageous in its manifestations, freely chosen by common accord, makes everyday life the rest of the year more tolerably.

The figure of Death plays an important role in the celebration, as can be seen in the many related costumes, in the skulls and bones of various animals, and in the don Conte’s violent execution, a puppet set aflame and thrown into a ravine. By inviting and including Death in their Ash Wednesday celebration and dancing, the population of Ovodda finds new energy as they emerge even more alive.