Carlo Levi describes a fascinating drinking game called La Passatella. It seems to have been new to him, coming as he did from Turin. But the tradition of drinking games with a nominated arbiter bibendi is attested in ancient sources. Horace mentions a regna vini in his fourth Ode, and Cicero describes in his “On Old Age”: me vero et magisteria delectant a maioribus instituta et is sermo, qui more maiorum a summo adhibetur in poculo. But Levi shows how acrimony and resentment are central to the game in Basilicata.
Passatella is the most popular game in this part of the country, and a particular favorite among the peasants. On long winter evenings and holidays they play it for hours in the taverns. It often ends in violence; if not with drawn knives, as on the occasion I have just described, at least with quarrels and scuffling.
Passatella is not so much a game as it is a peasant tournament of oratory, where interminable speeches reveal in veiled terms a vast amount of repressed rancor, hate, and rivalry. A brief session with the cards determines a winner, who is then the King of the Passaella and his assistant. The King holds sway over the wine, for which all the players have paid their share, and he fills the glasses or leaves them empty according to his fancy. His assistant holds the glasses out to be filled and has veto powers, that is, he can prevent the would-be drinker from downing his wine.
The King and his assistant alike must justify both their choices and their vetoes, and this they do in the form of a cross-examination carried out in long speeches, replete with irony and concealed passion. Sometimes the game has an innocent character and does not extend beyond the pleasantry of piling up all the drinks on one man who is notoriously unable to hold them, or denying them to the keenest drinker at the table. But more often the arguments proffered by the King and his assistant reflect the feuds and conflicting interests of the players, expressed with all the slowness, roundabout ways, astuteness, inistaist, and deep conviction characteristic of the peasants.
Cards and bottles of wine alternate for hours on end, until tempers boil from the effect of drink and heat and the rekindling of smouldering passions, which are in turn sharpened by vindictive words and yet lulled by drunkenness. Even if a fight does not develop, all those present are aware of the bitterness latent in what has been said during the exchange of veiled insults.
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