Even locals turned up in their thousands to watch as Catholic fundamentalist flagellants chanted hymns and used thorny plants to make themselves bleed, some re-enacting scenes from the Bible or quoting sacred texts.
  
Held once every seven years, the religious procession just east of Naples originates from the 17th century as an exercise in seeking forgiveness and warding off wars and famine.
  
The ritual has its roots in the extremist and heretical Flagellant sect that flourished even earlier, but today’s pilgrims do not even begin to compare to their predecessors when it comes to inflicting a really good self-whipping.
  
Going soft

In the early days of flagellation, come rain or shine, the ritual entailed a 33-day leather-thong bloody round of beatings, with pilgrims prostrating themselves before the altars of churches at night. 
  

"The procession is a rite of collective identification"

Antonio Bassolini,
local official

But another group of penitents called disciplines forego the leather and use iron chains to beat their shoulders while clutching crucifixes or images of the Virgin Mary.

Senior local official Antonio Bassolini announced a grant of $436,000 to establish a museum devoted to the ritual.

Philosophy

He said the "procession is a rite of collective identification" as much as it was a unique and ancient religious custom.

About 150,000 people watched this year's procession start at four different bell towers and wind its way through the town's narrow cobbled streets, Bassolini said.

The only contentious issue this year was the filming of the events as tourists failed to heed the Flagellants pleas not to be photographed.