Palermo’s big night: the festival of Saint Rosalia

During an English lesson in Rome, a student of mine from Palermo was the first to tell me about the patron saint of his town: Saint Rosalia. He explained the story of the “Santuzza” or “Little Saint”, who went to live as a hermit in a cave on Mount Pellegrino, near to the Sicilian capital. He described the big festival his city holds every year around July 14 to venerate her, including the cart of Saint Rosalia’s procession through the centre of town, and all the interesting food prepared for the occasion, such as boiled octopus and pasta with sardines.

I had already taken part in a few patron saint festivals around Italy, but by how my student described this one, I knew it was going to be one of the best, and I was also intrigued by Rosalia herself, and her sweet story.

Saint Rosalia was the daughter of Count Sinibald, who claimed to be a descendant of Charlemagne. She was born in Palermo in the Middle Ages, around 1130.  According to local legends, her coming was announced by a figure who appeared before Roger II of Hauteville, the future king of Sicily, saying that soon “a rose without thorns” would be born in the house of Sinibald, his relative. The girl grew up surrounded by riches in her wealthy Norman family.

One day, the Count Baldovino saved King Roger from a wild animal. The king wanted to repay him with a favour and Baldovino asked for Rosalia’s hand in marriage. A day before her wedding, Rosalia was looking in the mirror when she saw an apparition of Jesus. The next day, she told her family she did not want to marry and instead wanted to dedicate herself to her faith. At first she went to live in a monastery in Palermo, but her family came to visit her too much to try and dissuade her so she went to live in a cave. When that cave developed into a pilgrimage site, she moved again, to the grotto on Monte Pellegrino, which contained an ancient altar to the Phoenician Mother Goddess Tanit. Rosalia died alone on September 4, 1170.

Around 1624, Palermo was hit by a plague. According to local tales which vary slightly, an apparition of Saint Rosalia appeared before several people, including a sick woman, and a soap vendor. She told them where her bones were, and said they should be brought to the town and carried around in a procession. Her instructions were carried out and shortly after, Palermo was cured of the plague. From then on, Saint Rosalia was venerated in the city. Several celebrations are organised to honour her, including a pilgrimage in September and the festival in July.

I decided to pay a visit to Palermo around the time of the festival of Saint Rosalia. A few days before, I went up to Monte Pellegrino to visit the grotto where legends say she lived. The buses at the time were unfortunately not very regular, but the owner of the bed and breakfast I was staying in agreed to drive me up there. At the top there are beautiful panoramas of the coast near Palermo.

When I reached the grotto, I came to this chapel marking the entrance to the cave. There are information boards outside, explaining Rosalia’s life and story.

Passing through the chapel doors, I stepped into the grotto. Near a pretty statue to Rosalia people had left flowers and votive offerings, including scarves for supporters of the Palermo football team. She is portrayed here with her traditional symbols: she is holding a cross, a book, and a skull.

Further in the grotto, water trickled down the walls of a peaceful sanctuary, which contained a holy font and shrines to the saint.

The German writer Goethe visited Palermo and Rosalia’s sanctuary in the eighteenth century. Here is how he described coming across a statue of her in the cave:

“By the quiet light of the lamps I saw a beautiful woman who seemed to be reclining in a kind of ecstasy; her eyes were half closed and head rested on her right hand, which was heavily adorned with rings. Her garment of gilded tinfoil was a perfect imitation of a cloth richly woven with gold thread. Her head and hands, made of white marble, were perhaps not in the best style, but had been carved so naturally that one expected her to start breathing and moving at any moment. At her side a cherub seemed to be fanning her with a lily. I could not take my eyes off this picture, which seemed to me to possess a quite extraordinary charm.”

Based on Goethe’s account of his visit, he seemed to have been mesmirised by the place, and he described it as more suited to her humility than the big festival held in her honor every year. I was also charmed by the peaceful sanctuary, in a similar way. There were several other people there on the day I visited who were obviously deeply devoted to their saint.

After seeing Rosalia’s grotto, it was time to take part in her festival. On the night, I went out early to see what was happening in town. I arrived at the Vucciria market area in Palermo, and was amazed at the array of food on offer, and the liveliness of the place. The octopus was still boiling in the pot when I arrived so I opted for something from the barbeque.

I then returned to the Quattro Canti, a crossroads at the centre of the town, where I had read that one of the main ceremonies takes place. I noticed all the girls around me were wearing headbands adorned with roses, like the way Rosalia is portrayed. I now regret not buying a headband from a street seller, though I did leave Palermo with a souvenir T-shirt. I liked the way the festival felt like a big celebration of girls, as a young girl was the centre of attention. A young lady who had stuck to her own will, and followed her on heart.

I waited for several hours and it was really filling up and I started to become a little fearful because it was so confined, being a crossroads, and I wanted to feel like I could escape if I needed to. So when it got too full for me I moved slightly backwards, to a point where I felt I could retreat if I felt like it.

Finally Rosalia arrived on top of her big cart, stopping in the middle of the crossroads…everyone cheered and took photos, and then the mayor of the town greeted us and shouted: “Viva Palermo e Santa Rosalia!

At the point, the show began. I had actually expected a shower of rose petals, but instead a huge contraption swung over the crowd, and acrobatic angels descended from it, flying around to dramatic music and showering us with confetti glitter. It was quite spectacular.

The procession then slowly moved down to the water front, where there was a firework display later on. By this stage I had headed over for a nightcap with friends elsewhere in the town.

Earlier on in the day, I went to see a portrayal of the life of Santa Rosalia recounted through a Sicilian puppet show at Mimmio Cuticchio’s theatre. It was intriguing to learn more about her story through this local tradition. Later I visited the nearby Palazzo Branciforte to see an exhibition of the Cuticchio family’s puppet collection, which had this display of puppets from the story of Saint Rosalia on show, including Rosalia herself, an angel, and the man that she appears to in an apparition:

A few days later, I also went to see an art installation inspired by Rosalia, which was among several displays linked to the festival. It was obvious that the saint had a profound meaning for many of the people in Palermo. The artist, Antonio Giannusa, had used this deep love to comment on Europe’s migration crisis, which Sicily is on the front line of. He set up his art display in the crypt of Saint Orsola, a Palermo church. He had lined the crypt with dozens of paper boats. Each of them represented a person striving for a fixed goal, which is the coast of Europe for many migrants and refugees, though he portrayed it as the red heart of Saint Rosalia, to show that each person is striving for their dreams and beliefs.

I remember being in this crypt, surrounded by all those boats, quite vividly. After staying in Palermo for these days, I could feel the local people’s devotion to their patron saint, who had followed her own heart fervently. And I also found it fascinating that this artist connected those deep, embedded feelings, with each migrant or refugee trying to reach Europe, showing how one person’s dreams and ambitions are just as valid as the next person’s.

In a corner of the crypt, the artist had also set up this skull covered in the foil wrapping of the Italian praline “Bacio” chocolates that contain little quotes, usually about love. Below it he had written out the words of a note left on Monte Pellegrino addressed to a mother figure, which translate as roughly the following:

“Mother, make it so the Italian people always care for us, like our people, and like how it was before, but it seems to me that everything has changed here. We have no time for relaxing, and if we have this relax, we do not have work. My daughter who goes to the Italian school, I do not know why but they do not respect her. My daughter comes to me and cries all the time. Do something so that my daughter’s problem is resolved. With affection, the person that You know.”

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