When manna does not fall from the sky

The Manna Museum

“In the morning there was a layer of dew all over the camp. When the layer of dew had lifted, there on the wilderness ground was a fine flaky something, fine as frost on the ground. The Israelites took one look and said to one another, “Man hu: what is it?” They had no idea what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.

The Bible tells how the manna was miraculously sent as dew by God to feed the Israelites in the desert until they reached the land of Canaan. Greek and Latin writings also mention rainfall of manna, while according to the Arabs it has spiritual properties and is blessed as the heavenly dew mentioned in the Koran. A divine gift, as recounted in biblical and classical texts, or a simple product of Mother Nature, manna is the sap obtained from certain varieties of Fraxinus, an Oleaceae plant whose properties are celebrated in the Manna Museum, one of the precious little-known Italian museums that are worth a visit. It is located in Pollina, one of the Greek origin picturesque villages locatedin the Madonie Regional Natural Park, in the province of Palermo.

The village of Pollina

Manna ash cultivation, whose origins lie in the Arab world, has been present in Sicily since at least the 11th century. Today, manna ash is only grown between Castelbuono and Pollina, where the latest generation of ash growers cultivates an area of 200 hectares. One of these is Giulio Gelardi, the guardian of the ‘Pollina manna cycle’, who is committed to preserving and disseminating this ancient crop, which is at risk of extinction and for this reason has been listed since 2012 in the book of Living Human Treasures in the REIL Local Intangible Heritage Register.

Set up by the Region of Sicily, in accordance with the dictates of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the register is essential for protecting the practices recognized by the community as part of their heritage. There are about 150 manna gatherers, the ‘ntaccaluori’, almost all of whom are elderly and use ancient techniques handed down from generation to generation, thus differing from one person to another. As explained by Gelardi the art of carving the tree is a ritual that requires skill; the plant is ripe and ready for carving when the spring rush of new branches ends; as the plant stops its growth there is a large bud; the leaves open up, that is the appropriate time to extract the substance. The sap from the incisions gushes out the juice, which crystallizes as it descends towards the ground. The substance is collected and sundried. The juice works like blood, forming a patina on the wounds of the trees and causing them to heal.

There are different qualities of manna: the most valuable is the “cannolo” manna, because of the absence of impurities; looking like a stalactite, it is formed by the dripping of sap along the bark of the tree, while the “scrap” manna identifies the residues attached to the ash tree and the “in sorte” (by chance) manna is collected inside containers placed at the base of the tree. Recognized as a Slow Food Presidium, with a view to safeguarding biodiversity, manna, as well as being a typical ingredient in the island cooking, is used in a number of fields, including food industry, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

The Manna Museum

The museum is part of MUSEA, the Madonie-Himera Network of Museums, which links twenty-one small local realities aimed to sustainable development and respect for the identity features that identify and characterize the landscape. In 2015 ICOM, International Council of Museums, with its census of Museums and Cultural Landscapes, selected it as one of the 10 practices worthy of a Special Mention, as an excellent practice in the relationship between museum and landscape.

A museum responsible for the landscape, as recalled by the Charter of Siena, is at the same time a center of interpretation of the heritage and its territory and has the duty to promote the knowledge of its constitutive features and values, as well as to foster awareness among its inhabitants and visitors regarding the importance of its protection and enhancement. The museums are located within the approximately 40,000 hectares of the Madonie Regional Nature Park in the north-central part of Sicily. A landscape of such lush vegetation that it has been described as a botanical garden in the center of the Mediterranean basin.

Hundreds of endemic species survive here, such as the Nebrodi fir, together with plants that have come from different geographical regions, such as the beech, together with olive groves, vineyards, chestnut and hazelnut trees, pastures and ash groves, especially manna ash. Although it has been put under protection since 1989 – to safeguard it from exploitation and vandalism – this summer it was not spared the devastating fires started by arsonists which destroyed about a third of its surface area, causing incalculable damage to heritage, farmers and stockbreeders.

Serious measures are needed to punish those accountable for such damages and to educate people to respect the common good so to keep preserving such invaluable landscape.

The Madonie Park

Barbara Tagliolini

Art historian and anthropologist (DEA at EHESS Paris), has a background in international cooperation. She works in sustainable tourism design in Chile for multinational companies, municipalities and indigenous communities and in Italy as a consultant in the field of tourism, communication and cultural development of the territory. From 2003 to 2009 she taught Cultural Mediation Techniques and Museum Education for Tourism at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. Author of various essays and publications, she is also a licensed tourist guide in Rome.