Northern Italy Has a Tradition of Dunking One Politician in the River Every Year

In the northern Italian city of Trento, an annual tradition leaves local politicians shaking in their boots. The Tonca is a comical reenacting of an ancient punishment used from the 14th to 17th century in which one person is placed in a cage and dunked in the freezing waters of the Adige, the second-longest river in Italy. The tradition is part of the Feste Vigiliane, a weeklong celebration of the town's patron saint that takes place in late June.

While many could probably name a few politicians who could use a refreshing dunk, there is a traditional ritual in selecting who deserves this “honor.” Prior to the event, the Tribunale di Penitenza (Court of Penance) is held publicly. This spectacle is a comedic satire in which members of the “court” nominate people and state their cases for doing so. There is a judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, and even someone who plays the role of the accused.

While those who are nominated aren't blasphemers, which is whom the original punishment was reserved for, they have done something over the course of the year that was scandalous or newsworthy. Very often, politicians are nominated, but that's not always the case. For example, last year the nominees included the last four presidents of the province for their role in delaying a new hospital, as well as a nurse who was charged with falsifying the results of COVID tests.

And people aren't always put up for punishment due to serious offenses. Two other politicians were nominated last year for their opposition to a concert by popular Italian singer-songwriter Vasco Rossi.

The official verdict of the court is announced a few days later and, at that time, whoever was deemed the worst of the worst must take their place inside the cage. They're then ceremoniously dunked in the Adige three times, just as in the past.

But don't worry, the ritual is all in good fun. Through humor, locals honor their past while also holding accountable those who have done something not in keeping with how locals from Trento should act.

La Tonca is a comical ritual that happens in northern Italy during the celebration of Trento's patron saint.

First, a satirical “court” nominates those—both politicians and non—who have caused controversy or dishonor throughout the year and debates who should be punished.

The court's verdict is then read aloud, and the “winner” is then dunked in the Adige river several times.

This comedic ritual is based on an ancient punishment for blasphemers that was practiced from the 14th to 17th centuries.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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