When I visited Viterbo in northern Lazio for the first time in January, several locals told me about the special festival the town holds for its patron Saint Rose on September 3. I heard stories and saw pictures of the “Machine of Saint Rose”– a lantern-like tower that is carried around town on the shoulders of 100 strong men. It all sounded fascinating so I was determined to come back to see it.
This year’s festival was the first since it was included in UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list, along with other shoulder-borne processions in Nola, Palmi and Sassari. The route through Viterbo was extended to celebrate the inclusion on the list, which raises “awareness of intangible heritage” and provides “recognition to communities’ traditions and know-how that reflect their cultural diversity”.
I want to write about this festival, and others like it, on my blog because I think people should consider timing their Italian holidays around this sort of celebration, due to the cultural interest and element of fun.
I took a train to Viterbo from Rome in the late afternoon of September 3, arriving at about six. Luckily some of my Viterbo friends where about, so they picked me up and took me for my first glimpse of the tower, which was getting prepared by the Porta Romana entrance to the town. When I saw it I was amazed by its height- it’s about 30 metres tall!
The festival of Saint Rose dates back to the 13th century, when her body was exhumed and moved across the town to the Monastery of Saint Damian, which she had hoped to enter as a pious young girl (it was later named after her). The use of “machines” to retrace that route began in the 17th century.
This year’s tower was called “Fiore del Cielo” (flower of the sky) and aimed to merge the old tradition with modern design. On the bottom of this tower you can see symbols of Viterbo, such as the lion, palm tree and fountains. Further up there is a helix structure mounted by nine angels.
At this point people were busy lighting candles on the tower, which was also illuminated by small electric lights and topped by a statue of Saint Rose. This was the fifth and last time Fiore del Cielo was used, so next year there will be a new design.
After seeing the tower getting ready we strolled around some of the food stands in the town and had a warm pork (porchetta) roll and a beer- a traditional choice on this evening, according to my Viterbo friends. The centre of town was already really packed so we chose to stand along the extra part of the route they had set up. A video screen nearby showed the procession beginning at around nine, and I heard the first encouraging rally cries for the 100 “facchini”- the men who have to lift this 5-tonne structure and carry it around town on their shoulders. Per Santa Rosa, avanti! was my favourite, meaning roughly, Go forward, for Saint Rose!
There are quite a few breaks on the way to let the men have a rest, and a lot of suspense. There is also time for a vino or beer or two. When the tower finally turned the corner in front of where I was standing, the crowds around me started cheering and I stood in awe at its brightness, which is accentuated by the fact that all other lights in the city are turned off.
Below the tower, you can see the men who are carrying it along with all their force. They have to go through a grueling weight-lifting test to become one of the bandana-wearing facchini who have the honour of transporting it roughly 1 km around the streets of the town. Before they perform this feat, they salute the town authorities, visit several churches in the centre and receive a blessing. I was struck by the sense of a combined, shared and coordinated effort. At a time of economic crisis in Italy, it was a strong symbol of the need to work together to successfully carry the burdens of life.
Once they had gone up and back down the extra bit of route, they rested the machine in the Piazza del Teatro, giving onlookers the perfect photo opportunity. Here you can see the red pulsing sphere in the middle of the tower representing Saint Rose’s heart.
The final part of the journey seems the hardest, because the men have to carry the machine quickly up hill to the Church of Saint Rose. Here it is disappearing among the houses on its way:
The tower is then left at the top of the hill, and later on at night there is a firework display to celebrate Saint Rose. The following day there is also a big fair in the town, with market stalls selling everything from spices and sweets to jewellery and ornaments.
If you can organise your holiday around the same time as this festival, it is an interesting insight into this unique tradition. There are many things to do in and around Viterbo too. For more on Saint Rose and her town see my post here.