I’ve stumbled upon a religious street procession in Bologna, Italy, with all the usual accompaniments: thick incense in the air, a marching band, men shouldering gilded floats adorned with a cosmology of religious iconography. Only, this isn’t an Italian procession per se.
Italy isn’t exactly known for its multiculturalism, but every October, Peruvians in Bologna celebrate the Festa del Señor de los Milagros (Lord of Miracles): a solemn street procession in honor of a venerated painting of a crucified Jesus that miraculously survived a powerful earthquake in Lima in 1655. The earthquake reduced hundreds of churches and homes to rubble and left thousands dead and homeless. And yet, the painting remained intact. According to Catholics, the icon's survival was an act of divine intervention.
I can’t say I’m surprised by this supernatural explanation. But I am surprised to find this imported procession being so freely expressed through the historic center of Bologna, in a country with a proud national identity and in love with its own culture. To be fair, Peruvians all around the world celebrate the survival of this mystical canvas at the same time each year — wherever they’ve congregated in communities. I just didn’t expect to find it here in Italy.
It makes sense, though, when you think about it. Italy and Peru have long been united by a Catholic brotherhood that extends far beyond international borders. Since the time of the Spanish conquests and the introduction of Catholicism around 500 years ago, the Catholic Church has wielded considerable power and influence over the political, economic, and cultural institutions of Peru.
Peru and Italy share a long history of migration, too. Italians have been emigrating to Peru since the 16th century, and between 500,000 and 900,000 Peruvians claim Italian descent. The flourishing of sizeable Peruvian communities in Italy, however, is fairly recent, dating back to the 1980s. Although Bologna is home to a dynamic Peruvian community, the biggest are found in Milan, Rome, and Turin.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time. Before stepping off the plane in Rome and traveling around the country for three months, I’d always associated Italy with ethnic Italians and Italian culture – a rich, fine culture, to be sure, but seemingly lacking in diversity. However, this street procession, and a recent trip to Naples, where I was again surprised to uncover a small yet vibrant Sri Lankan community on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, are changing my mind.
The procession's acceptance may have a lot to do with Italy and Peru's Catholic alliance – two countries united by faith. But what I’m learning on this trip is that Italy is far more multicultural than I had initially given it credit for. True, Bologna is no New York, or London, or Melbourne, but it is home to diverse communities that, every once in a while, take over its historic center, demonstrating that everyone loves a street parade, no matter where you come from.
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Shaun is a freelance travel writer and photographer. Originally from Australia, he’s been location independent since 2013. He loves writing about adventure, culture and the human condition – or at least getting all philosophical about it.
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Listen to Episode 11 of The World Nomads Podcast. We explore Italy beyond the obvious, the sandwich that's a real tear jerker and advice for taking a good Instagram shot.