The Calm Before the Carnival

Come July, Clerkenwell’s streets will take on a distinctly Italian flavour. Katy Salter meets the man organising the main spectacle.

For one Sunday every summer, Clerkenwell transforms into the capital’s “Little Italy” once again, for the Our Lady of Mount Carmel procession. The important Catholic festival has been held here since the 1880s, when a wave of immigrants first gave the area that nickname, and, being an Italian celebration, it comes as no surprise that food is at its heart.

With the streets closed around St Peter’s Italian church on Clerkenwell Road, the throngs head to Warner Street, where bancarelle (stalls) sell pizza, ciabattas stuffed with salami and prosciutto, Sicilian cannoli pastries, huge slices of watermelon, gelato and Italian beers and wines. It’s a literal “feast day”.

The main draw, however, is the parade, which, for the last “40-odd years”, has been organised by Peter Bertoncini. Bertoncini was first involved with the festival aged just seven, when he walked in the procession after his first communion. Despite living elsewhere in London, his family, like many Londoners of Italian descent, worshipped at St Peter’s.

The ornate church, modelled on a Roman basilica, is still the focal point for the city’s Italian community, although Clerkenwell lost its Little Italy reputation in the middle of the last century, and it’s the start and end point for the procession. Bertoncini, an interior designer, is in charge of co-ordinating it, as well as designing and decorating many of the floats.

“It’s an amazing amount of work,” he says. “We cover the cab and the sides of each truck with fabric panels, and on the back we create religious scenes. It might be the Nativity, and I’ll build a stable, or the Last Supper, and I’ll build a big table. Last year, I recreated the da Vinci painting Madonna of the Rocks. One of my favourites had a huge statue of a Roman general in Pontius Pilate’s courtyard. It’s great coming up with new ideas; it’s creative in a completely different way from my work.”

The procession is on 15 July 2012, and starts, as usual, at 3.30pm at the church, heading west up Clerkenwell Road, up Rosebery Avenue, down Farringdon Road, and then back to the church for a 5pm mass. It’s thanks to Queen Victoria that the roads are closed, he explains – she asked the police to assist with the first parade and the tradition stuck. “People line the route,” he says, “and the mass is always chock-a-block.”

If you’re among the festival-goers this time, spare a thought for Bertoncini. “Last year, I didn’t even make it to the food stalls, I was so busy dismantling the floats and trying to salvage the decorations in the rain.” Fingers crossed for sunshine this year.