Cocullo, Italy: The Ghost Town that Only Flocks for the Snake Festival

Located in the Province of L’Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy, Cocullo is a ghost town with a population of about 200 people. What makes it fascinating is its ability to spring back to life, be it for a day, during the famous Festa dei Serpari, otherwise known as the snake festival. Although it is a relatively small town, Cocullo is rich in religious and political history. It has also been hit with earthquakes multiple times throughout its existence.

The History of Cocullo, Italy

Cocullo is located on the border between the Marsica and the Peligna Valley. It has existed since the pre-Roman period when it was known as “Cuculum.” Due to its strategic position, Cocullo provided a passage between the mountains separating the Marsica from the Peligna Valley.

Cocullo’s significant development happened under the Lombard rule, which fortified it. The counts of Celano later took over and built a castle that was passed down to the hands of Piccolomini. As is the case with many other European regions during the medieval period, Cocullo was once ruled by an evil duke known as Duca Sarchia.

Duca Sarchia was an enthusiastic participant of the jus primae noctis. The tradition allowed the kings, or any of the top leaders, to seduce young brides and sleep with them on the first night of their marriage life. Duca Sarchia was eventually confronted for the behavior and murdered; the girls were avenged.

Cocullo’s Medieval Architecture

In the late 1800s, Cocullo had a population of over 1,600 people; it was at its peak. At the time, the preserved medieval architecture was something to hold. The ancient city gates, Porta di Manno, Porta Ruggeri, and Porta Renovata (recently restored), were works of art. Buildings such as the Discesa San Domenico preserved important tombstones and were crucial to the community.

Other significant architectural works in Cocullo include:

  • Thirteenth-century fountain
  • Casa Marano (the famous philosopher Giambattista Gentile was born here)
  • Casa Squarcia
  • Documentation Center of Popular Traditions
  • Fonte Canale
  • Church of St. Nicholas
  • The Tower of San Nicola
  • Church of Santa Maria in Campo
  • Church of the Madonna delle Grazie
  • Church sanctuary of San Domenico

Why Cocullo Was Abandoned

Even with its fantastic architecture and strategic location, Cocullo (Cuculum at the time) was still abandoned. One of the major reasons why it became a ghost town is young people did not find the region fascinating, so they moved to other areas. Then there is the issue of snowing. Being 900m above sea level, Cocullo can be covered in snow for several months. People abandoned the region for an easier life on the coastal plains.

Cocullo’s Snake Festival

 

Despite having a population of about 200 people, Cocullo is usually one of the busiest regions in Italy during the Festa dei Serpari, otherwise known as the Snake Festival. Every 1st May, Cocullo is usually so thronged with sightseers that the motorway exit backs up for kilometers.

Preparations for the Festa dei Serpari usually start by the end of March, when the snow shows signs of melting. At this time, the serparo, believed to have ascended from the medieval wanderers and ciaralli (snake charmers), go to Mount Catini to catch non-venomous snakes. They often prefer aesculapian, grass, green whip, and four-lined snakes.

After gathering enough snakes, the festival begins with the serpents being placed on the patron saint’s stature (Domenico di Sora) and then transported in procession. Thousands of sightseers marvel at the moment, taking pictures and making memories. After the event, the snakes are released back to the surrounding woods.

It is not clear how the Festa dei Serpari started. Most people agree that it probably evolved in honor of the goddess Angizia, who shielded people from snake bites. Others say it is connected with the cult of Hercules, who strangled two snakes sent to kill him when he was still young.

However, what is clear is that the festival honors San Domenico Abbate, the town’s patron, for the miracle he performed to save a woman who had been bitten by a snake.

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