Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 33,  entry March 2010    

Tequila & General Championnet

There are about 600 species of the agavacae family of plants, a family that gives us both tequila and aloe, one of which figures in the happy chaos of the Radeca Festival at Carnevale in Frosinone.

In The Golden Bough, James George Frazier discusses:

...the spring customs of European which the simulated death of a divine or supernatural being is a conspicuous feature...the being whose death is dramatically represented is a personification of the Carnival...At Frosinone, in Latium, about half-way between Rome and Naples, the dull monotony of life in a provincial Italian town is agreeably broken on the last day of the Carnival by the ancient festival known as the Radica [sic. The correct spelling is radeca, a local dialect term for the agave, or aloe plant. Radeca is a cognate of the English radish, originally meaning root] immense car decked with many-coloured festoons and drawn by four horses. Mounted on the car is a huge chair, on which sits enthroned the majestic figure of the Carnival, a man of stucco about nine feet high with a rubicund and smiling countenance. Enormous boots, a tin helmet like those which grace the heads of officers of the Italian marine, and a coat of many colours embellished with strange devices...His left hand rests on the arm of the chair, while with his right he gracefully salutes the crowd, being moved to this act of civility by a string which is pulled by a man who modestly shrinks from publicity under the mercy-seat. And now the crowd, surging excitedly round the car, gives vent to its feelings in wild cries of joy...and all dancing furiously the Saltarello. A special feature of the festival is that every one must carry in his hand...a huge leaf of the aloe... The hymn of the Carnival is now thundered out... Finally...the effigy of Carnival is...stripped of his finery, laid on a pile of wood, and burnt amid the cries of the multitude, who...fling their 'roots' on the pyre and give themselves up without restraint to the pleasures of the dance...
If Frazier personally saw the Festival of the Radeca in Frosinone —still carried on today in much the same colorful fashion (that is, they still flail each other silly with agave leaves while dancing a saltarello) he didn’t get the whole story. For over 200 years, the effigy, the anonymous "divine or supernatural being," the “man of stucco about nine feet high with a rubicund and smiling countenance...” has been none other than the French general Jean Étienne Championnet, a French Revolutionary champion incorporated through a bit of weirdness into a millennia-old rite-of-spring festival in a town in south-central Italy.

In 1798 Championnet was named commander-in-chief of the "army of Rome" to protect the new “Roman republic.” [The Roman Republic was a client state of the French Directory and comprised much of the former Papal States.] In July, 1798, just before Championnet took over command of the “army of Rome,” his predecessor had brutally put down a tax rebellion by the citizens of Frosinone. The next year, at carnevale, Championnet gets the word that there is another rebellion going on. He shows up in Frosinone, prepared to go toe-to-toe with the frenzied mob and sees that he has been good-naturedly lured in and greeted by a festive crowd; he and his men are invited to join in the Radeca Festival, which they do. Since that time, Championnet has been the centerpiece of the festivities. He as "the majestic figure of the Carnival gets burned in effigy every year, both a compliment and insult, I suppose.

In any event, Championnet’s main job in the Roman Republic was to defend against the British fleet and the armies of Ferdinand IV of Naples, who was about to lead an expedition against Rome. The expedition came, saw and was totally conqured by Championnet, who then followed the fleeing Bourbon forces back to Naples. That led to the setting up of the short-lived Neapolitan Republic (also known as the Parthenopean Republic) in 1799.

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