Place, Culture and Identity: an historical and ethnographical study of Pizzica and Tarantism in Salento. Completion of a monograph for Peter Lang.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Drama


This research project is an historical and ethnographical study of pizzica music and dance, and the related ritual of tarantism, found in Salento, southern Italy. The research questions examine the relationship between place/site, cultural production, and personal and regional identity. This will be framed through theories from a number of disciplines including performance and cultural studies; anthropology and ethnography; medical history and cultural geography.

Tarantism is a therapeutic dance ritual, with written records dating back to the 15th Century. In tarantism, the 'victim', or tarantata, is supposedly bitten by a spider, most commonly the tarantula, and falls into a state of lethargic trance. They are 'cured' from this by dancing in response to an indigenous form of music, the pizzica, which helps to 'sweat' the poison from their bodies. It is usually acknowledged that the spider is not necessarily 'real', but its bite and subsequent illness become a metaphor for and somatic expression of coping with socio-economic pressures of life in rural southern Italy. It is also a collective therapeutic experience for the community, who come together to share in the 'cure' of the dance, which can last for three days. There is a continuity of extensive written records about the ritual from the 15th Century to today, by a rich array of historians, medical practitioners, philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists. A research of these historical views offers a fascinating insight into the changing scientific and philosophical paradigms of each period.

Although performance of the ritual is now rare, pizzica music and dance have been revived in Salento, which has resulted in the invention of a new tradition, neo-tarantism. This was developed in part by the influence of researchers in the region in response to Ernesto de Martino's seminal anthropological study (1961). Neo-tarantism is now used by Salentines as a form of regional identity and cultural resistance through a mythologized link to the past, as well as instigating a socio-economic shift through the introduction of new music and dance festivals, recording labels, and a fusion of pizzica music with contemporary forms including rap, reggae, and hip-hop.

This research project involves an examination of historical records of the ritual by historians, medical practitioners, ecclesiastical figures and anthropologists, as well as inclusion of material from my field trips to Salento, from 2001 to 2007, namely interviews, documentation of festivals, and my own experience of studying and practicing the music and dance. This will allow for both an historical overview of ways in which the ritual has been appropriated by the writers, as well as an investigation into the creation of the new tradition of neo-tarantism within Salento, examining how the increase in tourism is affecting cultural production, and personal and regional identity, through interest in the music and dance. Thus my own position and responsibility as a researcher is also under interrogation within the study.

This research will culminate in a monograph under contract with Peter Lang, entitled 'Ritual, Rapture and Remorse: the dance of the spider in Salento', and an article to be submitted to New Theatre Quarterly, focusing on the pizzica scherma, a martial form of the dance which has not been written about in English. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the project, these outputs will appeal to a broad range of scholars across a number of disciplines. My own academic and professional training and work has been within the fields of performance, cultural studies, anthropology and ethnology, thus I am in a good position to undertake interdisciplinary work of this kind. I have also trained in both music and dance, and can offer a detailed analysis of both within the monograph, which is unusual in a study of this nature, but important in terms of the relationship between them within the ritual.


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Description The research has provided information on a fascinating historical and contemporary phenomenon. The history of tarantism dates back over 700 years, and shows changing attitudes towards the body, as well as ritual practice involving music and dance. The contemporary context demonstrates the ways in which a identity of locality can be constructed through a revival of traditional forms of music and dance.
Exploitation Route The published book offers the most comprehensive study in English of this history and contemporary revival of the ritual. Its interdisciplinary nature based in performance studies and anthropology is also of use to those from both disciplines.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description The findings have been used by scholars and practitioners in the UK, US and Italy, as the book resulting from the project is one of the few sources in English about the topic.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal