Being a cuckold is not a good thing, no matter where in the world you are – with one exception. There’s a village in Puglia, in Italy’s deep south, where people see things a little differently.
Welcome to Putignano, a maze of winding cobbled alleys and white-washed stone dwellings. The first time I visited was during the Carnival celebrations in February – it was crazy.
Men dressed in black robes with red scarves walked around with huge, real bull horns sticking out of their black hats. The procession involved beating drums, playing guitars and whistling.
One of the participants shouted: “Cuckolds of all ages, dump your wives and come and join us”. As they stepped inside a small chapel to chant and perform the traditional tarantola dance in front of the altar, they stuffed themselves with horn-shaped croissants called cornetti.
Seeing this, I forgot all about the traditional Carnival parades taking place elsewhere, with their confetti showers, bright chariots, masks and puppets. This was something I had never seen before, and I was hell bent on understanding what was going on.
In Italy a man betrayed by his wife is dubbed a cornuto, which translated into English literally means “the one with horns on his head”. “Over here, the bigger the horns, the greater the prestige”, says Alberto, an old man walking near me along the main promenade. On top of his shiny white hair sat a small pair of horns. I took it he was just a beginner.
Alberto, while munching fried dough sticks coated in sugar, told me that being called a “cuckold” in Putignano was considered a compliment.
“We live in Cuckolds’ Village and we’re proud of it. Because you see, my dear, you might think it odd and funny – but for us, it is a deadly serious matter. Being granted the privilege of wearing horns is a social status. And over here, being a cuckold takes on a whole new meaning,” says Alberto, a painter.
But these men are not really all the victims of cheating spouses. Locals who are blessed with the title of cornuto are people of exceptional skill who have excelled in poetry, literature and the arts, or are simply deemed people of character, such as comedians. They wear bull horns as a kind of in-joke – to send up the negativity of the idea of being a cuckold.
In Italy, the word cornuto is probably the most common insult for a man. We even have a hand sign for it – you hold the index and little finger up, the other fingers shut tight in the palm, mimicking the shape of two horns. In the middle of traffic jams, it’s frequent to see drivers stick horn-shaped hands out of car windows to vent their anger at other drivers.
But in a strange reversal, here in Putignano these cuckolds are worshipped as demi-gods. There’s even a Cuckolds’ Academy that works year-round to crown the “Master Cuckold”, who holds that title until the following Carnival. One year, a female comedian was crowned.
The procession stopped in front of a little stone house just behind the same piazza. It was where the “Cuckold of the Year” lived. The local writer had no idea he had been picked. The other cuckolds called out his name from the alley, he popped his head out of the window and the crowd started cheering “Cornuto, cornuto, you are now the Master Cuckold”.
I could see the man starting to cry for joy behind the glass windows, startled by the great news. He rushed outside and joined the parade, holding on tight to his horned hat.
The highlight was the horn-cutting ceremony, when dozens of dancing “cuckolds” lined up to have their bull horns chopped off with a huge saw, in a symbolic gesture of purification.
“This way, we definitely exorcise jinx and the risk of really being betrayed by our beloved wives,” joked Alberto, as he wolfed down his eighth cornetto filled with Nutella.
These cornuti sure have a sweet tooth.
Silvia Marchetti is a Roman journalist specialising in culture