Italy’s Intangible Cultural Heritage

September 25, 2017 Updated: September 25, 2017

UNESCO lists seven cultural practices still playing a part in today’s Italy, including falconry and the Mediterranean Diet, both of which have been discussed in previous articles. The ones quintessentially Italian featured below form part of the country’s living history. They are important not only historically, but form a legacy well worth preserving for future generations.

Cultivating the ‘vite ad alberello’ of Pantelleria

The traditional practice of cultivating the “vite ad alberello,” or head-trained bush vines of the community of Pantelleria (an Italian island in the Mediterranean), is a sustainable way about 5,000 farmers and growers cultivate vines. Both growers and other islanders strive to preserve the practice. Those who own a plot of land cultivate vines in a technique that involves several phases. The climate on the island is harsh. The ground is prepared by leveling the soil, then digging a hollow to plant each vine. The main stem of the vine is pruned to produce six branches, forming a bush with a radial arrangement. The hollow is reshaped constantly to make sure the vine grows in the right microclimate. Grapes are harvested by hand during a ritual event beginning at the end of July. Men and women take part and the skills are handed down in families through oral and practical instruction in the local dialect. The rituals and festivals between July and September allow the local community to share this social practice.

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Processions featuring large shoulder-borne structures take place commemorating the return of various saints. (Paolo Peluso)

Celebrations of shoulder-borne processional structures

In four historic Italian cities, as well as throughout Catholic Italy, processions featuring large shoulder-borne structures take place commemorating the return of various saints. The city centres of Nola (part of Naples), Palmi (a municipality in Reggio Calabria), Sassari (in Sardinia), and Viterbo (ancient capital of the Etruscans), are especially noted for their processions.

In Nola, a procession of eight wood and papier mache obelisks commemorates the return of St. Paolino; in Palmi, bearers carry a complex processional structure to honour Our Lady of the Holy Letter; in Sassari, the Diocesa dei Candelieri involves the votive transportation of wooden obelisks; and in Viterbo, the Macchina de Santa Rosa (Tower of Santa Rosa) remembers the town’s ancient patron saint.

It is “the coordinated and equitable sharing of tasks in a common project” that is a “fundamental part of the celebrations, which bind the communities together,” according to UNESCO. Mutual respect, cooperation, and joint effort are a result, and the “dialogue among the bearers who share this cultural heritage” brings about “an exchange network.” Musicians and singers are involved along with skilled artisans who make the structures as well as the ceremonial clothes and artifacts. This process is a yearly event and helps to reinforce a strong sense of identity.

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Violin craftsmanship in Cremona. (Terra d’Ombria Productions)

Traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona

Making violins in Cremona is a highly renowned traditional process. Violas, cellos, and contrabasses are also a Cremonese craft of high repute. There is a specialized school for violin-makers, one based on a close teacher-pupil relationship. The student is then apprenticed in a local workshop where students master and perfect their techniques. This is a never-ending process, according to UNESCO notes.

Each violin-maker in Cremona makes from three to six instruments a year, shaping and assembling more than 70 pieces of wood around an inner mould by hand according to the different acoustic response of each piece. No two violins are alike as every part of the instrument is made with a specific wood, “carefully seasoned and naturally well seasoned.” Semi-industrial and industrial materials are not used and craftsmanship requires a high degree of creativity.

The violin makers are convinced that sharing knowledge is fundamental both to the growth of their industry and dialoguing with musicians. There are two violin-makers’ associations: the Consorzio Liutai Antonio Stradivari and the Associazione Liutaria Italiana. They are fundamental to Cremona’s identity and play a major role in its social and cultural life.

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Sicilian puppets. (Giacomo Cuticchio/UNESCO)

Sicilian puppet theatre

The Opera dei Pupi began at the start of the 19th century in Sicily and was popular with the island’s working classes. Puppeteers told stories based on “medieval chivalric literature and other sources,” such as Italian Renaissance poems, lives of saints, and tales of “notorious bandits.” Dialogues were usually improvised.

Two main schools, one in Palermo and one in Catania, were distinguished by the size and shape of the puppets, operating techniques, and backdrops. The theatres were family-run. Carving, painting, and making the puppets was carried out using traditional methods. The shows had a great influence on the audience.

In the past, performances took place over several evenings and provided opportunities for social gatherings. The boom of the 1950s altered this tradition. These days the Opera dei Pupi is the only example “of an uninterrupted tradition of this kind of theatre.” But puppeteers cannot live by theatre alone and must seek other forms of work. Tourism has also reduced the quality of performances, formerly seen only by locals.

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Vocalists perform Sardinian pastoral songs. (Franco Stefano Ruiu)

Sardinian pastoral songs

Canto a tenore or Sardinian pastoral songs developed as a form of polyphonic singing in Sardinia with groups of four men. They used different voices called “bassu, contra, boche and mesu boche.” The deep and almost guttural timbre of the bassu and contra voices is a distinguishing factor.

The men perform standing in a close circle. The soloist chants a piece of prose or a poem while the others form an accompaniment. Most singers live in and around Barbagia and other parts of central Sardinia and their singing is embedded in the daily life of their communities. Often, they perform spontaneously in local bars as well as at weddings, sheep shearings, religious festivities, or carnivals.

The most usual melodies are the “serenade boche e notte” or voice of the night and dance songs. Lyrics are ancient or contemporary poems, often about emigration, unemployment or politics. This form of singing is vulnerable to socio-economic changes, according to UNESCO notes, and as pastoral culture declines and tourism grows, the singing is in jeopardy as performances on stage for tourists affect the repertoire and intimacy of this music.

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings, and Doctor’s Review, among others. She is currently the European editor of Taste & Travel International. Email: