Federico Borella & Michela Balboni Photographing rural Italy’s “tree men”

Cover Image - Federico Borella & Michela Balboni
WordsJoe Zadeh

Traditions are often kept around by older generations, keen to keep a connection to the old ways of doing things. In the rural Italian village of Satriana di Lucania, though, it’s the younger locals driving the age-old tradition of the “rumiti,” or “tree men,” which sees 131 men don costumes made from ivy branches and wander the streets. When photographers Federico Borella and Michela Balboni heard about this curious annual festival, they immediately made their way there to document it. They tell Joe Zadeh about the experience, and about how young people are using the tradition to send an urgent environmental message.

In a small village called Satriano, in the heart of Italy’s picturesque Basilicata region, an ancient ritual has been rekindled by the local people. Every February, on the weekend before Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), 131 men go into the forest. When they emerge, they are dressed from head to toe in branches of ivy. Almost unrecognizable, besides their arms and feet, they become a procession of moving trees. Followed by a throng of carnival-goers, the rumiti (tree men) wander through the village, knocking on doors and accepting gifts of money and food, while blessing everyone they meet with their long wooden staffs. This unique spectacle is known as the “walking forest.”

This past February, the carnival was documented by Italian photographers Federico Borella and Michela Balboni and became their joint project, “Rumita.” “We were looking for a carnival story, but one that was small and unusual,” says Balboni, when I spoke to them both over Zoom. “Then our friend told us about the men covered in ivy walking through a village. We booked our trains the same day.”

Basilicata is a forested, mountainous and underpopulated region in the south of Italy, the instep to the country’s geographical boot. Most people know the area for its most populous city, Matera, where houses are carved into the mountain and Mel Gibson filmed some of his 2004 biblical epic, “Passion of the Christ.” But Satriano is two hours west from there, even deeper into green rural idyll. When Borella and Balboni arrived they were surprised to discover that the tradition was being driven largely by the younger generations, a group of locals in their 20s. “They remembered their grandparents dressing as rumiti,” says Balboni. “It was important for them to keep it going forward.”

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Costume-making begins after the Epiphany, the Christian feast day of January 6. Branches are continually collected from the forest and kept in storage up until the carnival. A metal structure which can be worn like a vest is constructed, and the branches are attached to it. “One of the most interesting people we met was a 19-year-old who made his costume the traditional way his grandfather did, without the metal grid,” said Borella. “His costume was huge, bigger than the others. It touched the ground and weighed around 20 kilos. Usually, thanks to the metal vest, the weight of the costume is on the shoulders. But the weight of his was on his head. It made it very difficult for him to move during the procession, which lasted almost three hours. But it was beautiful to see.”

In their photos, Balboni and Borella captured the rumiti as individuals; stood outside houses or infront of pastel walls, or back in the woodlands among the trees. They spent the day before the procession scouting locations throughout the village that would create the best backgrounds, and then chose willing participants to shoot. “The style of the project is inspired by the posed portraits of the early 20th century,” says Borella, “a minimalist style that recontextualizes figures within their environment.” Balboni adds: “Our favorite picture is the one of the rumita standing like he’s coming out of the alley. The surroundings are typical of the place: pastel walls and electric wires descending from above.”

Sometimes rituals become untethered from the myths they are enacting. Nobody knows exactly when or why the rumita tradition began, but it dates back to the Middle Ages at least. Perhaps it was a way for neighbours to ask for charity from one another during times of hardship, without the shame of revealing themselves. Perhaps it was a way to memorialize a Franciscan hermit who once lived in the forest. But for the people of Satriano who have chosen to bring back this once forgotten tradition, it now symbolizes an urgent ecological message: the eternal oneness of humans and nature, and the need to protect our planet. Across the carnival’s website and communications one slogan is always front and center: “Environmental revolution is the revolution of our generation.”