A History of the Giglio Feast in Williamsburg Brooklyn by I. Sheldon Posen and Joseph Sciorra

A History of the Giglio Feast in Williamsburg Brooklyn by I. Sheldon Posen and Joseph Sciorra

In 1903 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Italian immigrants from NOLA, a small town near Naples, celebrated the feast day of Paulinus, their patron saint, for the first time in America. In his honor they carried a huge tower, the giglio (pronounced JEEL-yo), on their shoulders through the streets of their neighborhood amid festivities and brass band music. They have done so almost every year since.

The feast of St. Paulinus is a religious celebration. Over the years in Brooklyn, dancing the giglio has also become an event that is at once a reenactment of history, an expression of heritage, and a display and renewal of the values cherished by its community.


Immigrants from Southern Italy arrived in Williamsburg in the latter part of the 19th century to work in the factories, warehouses, and docks of Brooklyn’s waterfront. They came from Sicily and Campania region, settling along Roebling and Havemeyer streets and sharing the area with the Irish, Germans, Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, and Russians.

By 1887, the new Italian residents were settled enough to contribute funds and labor to build Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. Made of wood, it stood at North 8th Street and Union Avenue and was the center of the borough’s second Italian parish. In 1930 it was replaced by a new brick church on the same site.

Williamsburg’s Italian community formed mutual aid societies that offered members unemployment and burial insurance. Each society was organized by immigrants from a particular town in Italy. It was the societies, not the local church, that organized and maintained the all important annual feasts honoring the patron saints of their respective hometowns. Each celebrated its day with a religious procession and a street festival complete with musical bands, elaborate decorations, food stands, and fireworks.

In 1903 immigrants from Nola incorporated their association, Societa M.S. San Paulino (“M.S.” stands for Mutuo Soccorso, “mutual aid”). That same year, the Societa held the first giglio feast in the United States. Instead of dancing the customary eight gigli, the Williamsburg Nolani danced only one giglio on Havemeyer Street. For the next four decades, the Societa raised funds to hold the feast.

In subsequent years, giglio feasts took root in other sites in New York area: Astoria, Queens; on 106th and 108th streets in Harlem (now moved to the Bronx); and in Cliffside-Fairview, New Jersey. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Italians from the various neighborhoods regularly visited and participated in each other’s feasts. The rivalry among artisan guilds in the Old World was transformed in America into an informal competition among neighborhoods. As singer Sam Lovino says, they tried “to outdo one another, make a better feast, a better song, better music.” The network and the rivalry persist, although diminished, to this day.

The 1940’s were hard times for Brooklyn’s giglio feast. The celebration was discontinued while neighborhood men fought in the war overseas, and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway divided the neighborhood in two. It was not until 1949 that the feast and the neighborhood began to recover. A new church was erected at the corner of Havemeyer and North 8th streets, and in 1950 the Societa San Paola, a new organization of second generation residents, held a giglio feast on Metropolitan Avenue at the corner of Havemeyer Street.

What happened next is still a hotly debated and sensitive topic in Italian Williamsburg. The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church made overtures to assume control of the feast. Parishioners were divided on the issue. In the end, in 1954, with the help of a social club called the Idle Hour (whose members were thereafter dubbed “The Outlaw”), the parish church was successful in taking over the running of the feast.

Under church auspices the Feast of St. Paulinus, traditionally held on June 22nd, merged with the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, another major neighborhood event which had followed on July 16th. The result was an all encompassing celebration that became know as the “Cooperative Feast.” In 1958 dancing the “boat of St. Paulinus” - part of giglio festivities in Nola for centuries - was incorporated into the Brooklyn feast.


Italian Williamsburg was, and to a great extent still is, a good example of what many New Yorkers nostalgically remember as “the old neighborhood.” Its mostly working class residents live in small, older, single-family homes and walk-ups served by bakeries, grocery stores, and other family-run businesses. Factories and warehouses vie with churches as the neighborhood’s largest buildings. Children play stickball on the streets, men fly pigeons from rooftop coops, and women sit at window sills and keep tabs on everything within view.

A dominant landmark is the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It divides the Italian community in two; the Northside, named after its main residential streets ( North 1st, North 2nd, etc.), which is a multiethnic area Italians share with Poles and Hispanics; and west of the expressway, the section the local people call “Italian Williamsburg,” bordered by Grand Avenue on the South, and Kingsland and Bushwick avenues to the east.

In spite of the migration of a sizeable portion of its population over the past twenty or thirty years, enough people have remained in the neighborhood for it to retain a sense of community. This feeling of neighborhood has been bolstered by the anchoring influence of the church and a significant influx of Italian immigrants since World War II.


The giglio comes to life during the feast, danced through the streets in front of the church on the shoulders of 120 men while the band that rides on it plays special music. Dancing the three-ton giglio is not continuous, as in a parade. It is broken into a series of two- or three minute segments, each called a “lift,” during which the structure is moved thirty or forty yards along a preset route. Sometimes a lift can involve more than rhythmic carrying: some of the fancy maneuvers include a complete rotation (“three-sixty”), a quick drop-and-lift (“number two”), and the “giglio cha-cha.”

Dancing the giglio is a highly ritualized procedure carried out by men organized in a hierarchical structure. Each lift is under the supervision of a different leader or capo and follows a standard program. The giglio band plays the song “O’ Giglio e Paradiso” (“The Giglio of Paradise”). As the first few notes of the tune are played, the lifters take their places under bars that jut out from the giglio platform. At the same time, the capo, with his cane of office, steps out in front of the giglio. The first verse of the tune ends with a high, blasting fanfare of horns; on the very last note, the capo thrusts his cane in the air, the lifters tense and jerk erect, the bystanders cheer, and the giglio is up! The capo signals the band to stop playing and then he shouts “Musica!” A second tune, his trademark, begins. Again, he punches the air with his cane, and the structure is borne along its path.

When the giglio’s appointed destination for that lift is reached, the capo signals a halt, the cry goes through the lifters’ ranks, and everyone stops, still bearing the weight of the structure. The capo approaches the front rank and shouts four commands in Neapolitan dialect into the microphone attached to one of the front carrying bars: “Uaglio!” (Boys!) he cries, calling for everyone’s attention. “Aizate I’ spall!” (Lift your shoulders!). The men lift by rising up on their tiptoes, straining to get as high as possible. “Gungi-Gung!” (Get ready!). And then, “Aggett!” (Drop it!). The lifters suddenly bend their knees, ducking all at once, and the structure comes crashing down on its supports. The crowd cheers and applauds, and another capo prepares for the next lift.

On the day designated “Giglio Sunday,” a huge “boat of St. Paulinus” is danced in tandem with the giglio. Shaped like a medieval galleon, the boat carries its own band, another statue of St. Paulinus, and costumed characters representing a Turkish sultan and two attendants in his entourage. While the band plays and 120 men carry the boat, the turbaned Turk bellows and waves his scimitar as his attendants shower blizzards of confetti upon the crowd below. The climax of the entire feast comes when boat and giglio are brought together before the church at the crossroads of Havemeyer and North 8th streets. For an instant the front ranks of lifters clasp hands and the legend is relived: symbolically, St. Paulinus returns to Nola, greeted by his people.


There have been several giglio builders in America: in Brooklyn, Giuseppe and Pasquale Villani (1903) and Giovanni Spizuocco (1923); in Queens, Vincenzo Tortora. But for artistry and innovation in design, no builder is more highly regarded than Romualdo Martello.

Martello was born in 1903 in Nola and emigrated to Brooklyn at the age of seventeen. He had assisted his father in building gigli in Italy. In 1927 he made his first American giglio. He continued to build gigli until the early 1970’s, not only for Brooklyn but for the giglio feasts throughout the metropolitan area.

Over the years, constraints of time and money led Martello to innovations in giglio construction. Instead of destroying the wooden frame after each feast, as in Nola, Martello devised a system by which the same numbered pieces of wood could be reassembled each year. In 1966 the wooden spars were replaced by aluminum girders still in use today.

For the “face” or panels that form the decorated shell of the giglio, Martello had local sculptors make plaster molds of St. Paulinus, the Virgin Mary, and other religious figures. He also made plaster molds out of discarded objects - broken dolls for angels, pie pans for halos, pieces of demolished buildings for fancy embellishments. He pressed papier mache into the molds and attached the figures to wooden panels that were hoisted up the frame and tied in place.

Martello lived in Queens from the late 1950’s until his death in 1988. Others now build the giglio: Sam Cangiano, Joseph Peluso, Jr., and Anthony “Paste” Vecchiano in Brooklyn; Anthony Coppola in the Bronx. In Brooklyn, pieces made from old giglio or with “old man Martello’s” molds have made their way onto the new faces. Even after he stopped making gigli, Martello made occasional visits to the workshop in the Brooklyn church basement. “It’s good,” he would say. “This way, someone is keeping up my work.


The Feast of St. Paulinas is set to music. Music is as much a part of the environment as the lights and streamers, and as integral to the dancing of the environment as the lights and streamers, and as integral to the dancing of the giglio as the capo and his cane. Bands ride both the giglio and the boat.

Part of the mystique of becoming a capo is being identified with a song for leading the dancing. It really doesn’t matter what the song is, though like a nickname, it may reflect a personal attribute of the capo and so identify its owner. One capo uses the theme song from the movie Rocky because he was once a boxer; another leads with the “Marine March” because he was in the Corps; a former Navy man calls for “Anchors Aweigh.”

What his tune is to the individual capo, the song “O’ Giglio e Paradiso” is to the community at large. The song comes out of a tradition of writing new music for the giglio each year. In 1957 Pasquale Ferrara wrote lyrics for a new feast song, “O’ Giglio do Popolo” (“The Giglio of the People”). It was set to music by trumpeter and band leader Phil Caccavale and clarinetist Antonio Rosalia. Two years later, Ferrara wrote new lyrics, “O’ Giglio e Paradiso,” set to the same tune. The combination found so much favor with the Brooklyn giglio community that it was used as the lifting song from then on.

“O’ Giglio e Paradiso” has traveled far beyond Italian Williamsburg. It has entered into the repertoire of New York area Italian street bands playing anywhere from Staten Island to Long Island. It has been heard as far west as Chicago and, with local references dropped, it was recorded by a popular Neapolitan singer and sold in Italy.

Many who grew up in Italian Williamsburg say that the first notes of “O’ Giglio e Paradiso” release for them a flood of memories of feasts gone by, the old neighborhood, and relatives and friends now passed on who once lifted the giglio or wielded the capo’s cane.


The giglio dominates the Feast of St. Paulinus both visually and symbolically. Reproductions are visible everywhere: scaled-down versions carried by neighborhood children and seniors, small plastic replicas carried by the Turk’s attendants and sold as souvenirs, and images adorning T-shirts, posters, and buttons.

Beyond the feast itself, the giglio has come to represent the community. Replicas, among them miniatures of blown glass, decorate many neighborhood living rooms. Toy giggle are made for children, and one man has built a five-foot giglio that stands near the family Christmas tree every year.

On the day of the dancing, the physical boundaries and personal networks that define the community are mapped upon neighborhood streets by the capo parade. Led by the lifters and the bands, the procession grows from block to block, picking up prominent members of the community as it moves. The whole entourage pauses respectfully outside the doors of those who cannot come downstairs to watch the day’s events and in front of the homes of those who have passed away.

For many who live or grew up in Italian Williamsburg, dancing the giglio embodies the most cherished values of family, neighborhood, and community. Watching the young men straining under the weight of the giglio while the older capos dance lightly and gracefully in front of them, they see a living tableau that depicts individual sacrifice, social order, the passage of time, sanctity of family, admiration for youth, respect for elders, and the rewards that come from belonging to and functioning within society.

As a symbol of the community, the Giglio’s presence is often invoked at the most important junctures in people’s lives. At weddings, the bride and perhaps the groom may be lifted on the shoulders of friends and relatives while a band plays the giglio song. There is a gravestone of a Brooklyn family long associated with the feast that displays a carving of St. Paulinus framed by two images of the giglio incised in the granite. The giglio song was also recently heard at the funeral services for a former capo.

The next generation’s participation in giglio activities is avidly encouraged. Babies born around feast time are referred to as “giglio babies.” Children grow up in a giglio atmosphere. Mike Gaimaro’s ten year old son sang “O’ Giglio e Paradiso” to his baby sister as a lullaby. Whenever Phil and Joanne Manna’s two year old daughter was asked, “How to the lifters go?” She would raise her right shoulder. Rosanne Mirando proudly says of her baby grandson, “He doesn’t know how to say, ‘Grandma’ yet, but he knows the commands.”

The children, of course, play giglio “Soon as we got out of school,” remembers Peter Peluso, “we knew the feast was coming, and we would nail wooden milk boxes together. We’d steal old pictures from my mother of St. Paulinus and Mary and we would staple them to the boxes. We’d get crepe paper and wrap it up, put sticks on the bottom, and lift it up. And we had a kazoo and we used to play the songs.”

Until the 1970’s, children’s participation in giglio activities was informal. During the 1960’s, for instance, Gary Spampanato and capo Thomas “Police” Bello had built little giggle and had the band play as their children danced. In the 1970’s, however, children were given the responsibility of the rope gang, whose job during the dancing is to hold a long rope around the giglio to keep the crowds back. The children also began to dance a scaled-down giglio and boat, guided by the adult capos. The children’s event mirrored that of the adults, down to a meeting of the two small structures under the supervision of pint-sized capos.

The importance of the children’s participation to the community cannot be overestimated. One evening, one of the adult lifters who watched the children’s event from the sidelines went to a young lifter struggling under the small giglio and said, “Is it hard?” Well, get used to it - you’re going to be doing it for the rest of your life!”


Posen, I Sheldon. “Storing Contexts: The Brooklyn Giglio as Folk Art,” in John Michael Vlach and Simon Bronner, EDS., Folk Art and Art Worlds. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986, pp 171-191.

-and Joseph Sciorra. “Brooklyn’s Dancing Tower,” Natural History, June 1983, pp 31-37. And - Daniel Franklin Ward. “Watts Towers and the Giglio Tradition,” in Folklife Annual I. Library of Congress, 1985, pp. 143-157. Sciorra, Joseph. “ ‘O” Giglio e Paradiso’: Celebration and Identity in an Urban Ethnic Community,” Urban Resources 5.3 (Spring 1989), pp 15-20, 44-46. Sciorra, Joseph. “Religious Processions in Italian Williamsburg,” Drama Review 29:3 (Fall 1985), pp. 65-81. Joseph Sciorra and I. Sheldon Posen are collaborating on a book about the giglio and Feast of St. Paulinus in Brooklyn.


St. Paulinus of Nola

The hero celebrated by the giglio is Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus, who was born into a wealthy Roman family in Bordeaux, France, in 354 A.D. As Consul in Nola Italy, in 387, Paulinus came under the influence of Saint Ambrose and Saint Martin of Tours and was baptized in 389. Four years later he was ordained a priest.

Paulinus wrote Christian lyric poetry and corresponded extensively with Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine. He also oversaw an extensive building program in Nola, and is credited with beginning the tradition of ringing bells to call a congregation to church. Paulinus served as Bishop of Nola from 409 until his death in 431.

The major early source for “the sacred legend” underlying the Feast of St. Paulinus is the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, written nearly a century after Paulinus died. Gregory recounts that soon after Paulinus became Bishop of Nola, Vandals attacked the town and kidnapped many of its inhabitants. To save a widow’s only son, Paulinus offered himself as a slave in the young man’s place.

Carried off to Africa, Paulinus was put to work as a gardener. One day, he prophesied the Vandal king’s death and was ordered to appear at court. Upon seeing Paulinus, the terrified king admitted that the night before he had dreamed of Paulinus condemning him to death. Paulinus was freed along with his fellow townsmen, and all returned safely to Nola. So ends the legend according to Gregory.

The Feast of St. Paulinus in Nola

It is not known when the people of Nola began to celebrate the Feast of St. Paulinus. The earliest description comes from 16th century philosopher Ambrosio Leo. On the seventh day of the feast, a grand religious pageant moved through Nola, headed by farmers carrying a “high torch, made like a column, lit and adorned with sprigs of grain.” The farmers and their cereo were followed by other artisan groups and their candles, and finally by the town’s religious and lay dignitaries. A new and bigger structure was built each year.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, pageants featuring huge temporary decorated structures were very popular in civic and religious celebrations throughout Italy. In Nola, the earlier “candles” were replaced by huge wooden “machines” - globes, pyramids, ships and similar other things - lavishly decorated in baroque style with flowers and the emblem of the artisan group that constructed and transported them. They were called giggle, a word meaning “lilies,” thought by Italian scholar Franco Manganelli to be related by sound to cilii, the dialect term in Nola’s neighboring town Salerno for CERI, “candles.” (It is likely that an important detail added to the St. Paulinus legend - the Nolan welcoming the saint at dockside with “lilies” - was a result of the cilii/gigli “candles”/“lilies” word shift.)

By the 1850’s, a new character had appeared in the Paulinus legend - the Turk, a popular figure in Southern Italian folklore. The feast was if anything even more magnificent and ornate than before: papermache; introduced earlier in the century, supplanted all previous giglio building materials.

The feast has changed little since that time. Nowadays in Nola, eight massive, elaborately decorated giggle are danced by competing teams of men hired by the town guilds - the farmers, the bakers, the butchers, the cobblers, the tailors, the pork store owners, the tavern keepers, and the blacksmiths. Amid great rejoicing, the giggle are danced in the town’s piazza and through its narrow streets, along with a giant boat representing St. Paulinus’s returning ship. At the end of the feast the structures are destroyed.