On an August Saturday night, groups of musicians and singers filled the Bolsena piazzas and wandered down the town’s winding medieval alleyways.
With laundry baskets at their feet or on their heads, the singing Lavanandaie della Tuscia (“The Washerwomen of the Tuscia area”) harmonized together in front of Bolsena’s 13th-century San Francesco church.
As we listened, clapping our hands to the music, I remembered the first time I’d seen the lavandaie singing while soaping and rinsing their wash in the Bolsena lavatoio (village washhouse). Chatting afterwards with the group’s founder (and guitar accompanist), Simona Chiaretti, I had been fascinated to learn about the tradition (all over Italy) of women joined in song while scrubbing.
A woman near me clearly reveled in the singing and even joined in with the women. When I asked her how she knew the words, she told me that at the lavatoio in another Latium town, Rieti, she remembered the wash-day harmonizing of the local women:
When our daughter-in-law Francesca heard about our Bolsena evening, she reminisced with me about accompanying her nonna Peppa to the lavatoio near Sugano in the Orvieto countryside during the summers to wash – while Nonna sang.
Francesca described to me her Nonna twisting a rag into a ring for her head to help balance her huge wash basket. That ring was called a “torcolo” as it was shaped like the Umbrian donut-shaped sweet of that name.
Every summer, her nonna washed out the blankets and heavy winter quilts at the lavatoio – carrying them on her head, down and back up (much heavier when wet!)- while little Francesca carried down own her wash basket holding her pajamas and underwear to scrub.
Francesca’s most vivid washing-day memory? “The summer Nonna Peppa (eighty-two years old then) decided to make two mattresses out of a double bed mattress she had.” She opened up the handmade mattress, took out the stuffing of the sheep’s wool (which had been purchased from a local shepherd), and carried the wool down on her head to the lavatoio. Ten-year-old Francesca trotted along behind, her own laundry basket on her head.
The washed wool was carried back up the hill, spread out on the grass to dry and later used to make two twin-bed mattresses, Nonna Peppa cutting up the double-bed mattress lining and sewing up two new smaller mattresses.
Nonna Peppa’s determination and feisty strength was legendary: she and Francesca used to forage for wild greens up until Nonna was one-hundred-three!
(She died just ten days before turning one-hundred-four).
Francesca is seeking photos of her “wash-day” memories with Nonna Peppa. She just sent me a favorite photo: with her proud nonna on the day of Francesca’s graduation (summa cum laude) from the Universita’ di Perugia. Nonna Peppa was ninety-nine…
…..and not scrubbing wash any longer while singing at the local lavatoio. Francesca remembers fondly many of those wash-day tunes.
Read here about the first time I saw the Compagnia delle Lavanandaie della Tuscia
Click here to see and hear the Lavanandaie della Tuscia singing in Bolsena’s 14th-c castello
Read about Trattoria Da Picchietto, a favorite Bolsena eating spot
Read about a favorite Bolsena gelateria
Click here to read Bolsena’s Misteri di Santa Cristina