Processions, regattas, races and fireworks....
St. John the Baptist
Join the locals for Florence’s most important feast day, though celebrations start several days before and culminate on June 24th. Remember that many of the shops will be closed on the day itself to enable everyone to enjoy the festivities.
St. John the Baptist
has been the city’s Patron Saint since the time of the Lombard ruler Theodolinda. After their conversion to Christianity, the Florentines probably chose this particular saint for two reasons. Firstly because the previous protector of the city was the warlike god Mars (his statue stood by the Ponte Vecchio until 1333, when it was swept away by the Arno in flood), and courageous St. John must have seemed a worthy substitute. Secondly because his teachings were short, simple and to the point. After having “imported” St. John, the Lombards also founded or refounded the Baptistery (6th-7th century), “beautiful San Giovanni” (as Dante called it), which, according to legend, was originally a temple
Upright and inflexible, St. John was thus the ideal protector for a comunity whose wealth was based on commerce and to whom reputation was like ready money (proof of this came with the invention of the cheque and bill of exchange). The Saint’s effigy was therefore engraved on one side of the the gold florin (with the Florentine lily on the reverse), minted from 1252 onwards. The patron saint of the city was thus used to guarantee the coin's content of gold, giving rise to the saying: “St. John will have no cheating”.
Huge bonfires were traditionally lit throughout Italy on the evening of the Feast of St. John. In Florence, terracotta pots filled with fat were placed on the rooftops of the churches and when lit their flames could be seen from afar. Farmers prepared propitiary fires in the fields as a protection against the evil eye.
The day opens with the solemn procession of the Cathedral clergy, who come out of the main door of the Cathedral to enter the 6th-7th century Baptistery
, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, through the Door of Paradise, thus linking the two buildings within a symbolically sacred space.
The traditional offering of a candle for the feast of St. John has survived to this day with a procession in period costume that moves from Palazzo Vecchio
to the Baptistery on the morning of June 24th. Accompanied by the city banners, it is composed of the authorities and various prominent personalities. During the service held in honour of St. John, the Archbishop accepts the votive candle from the authorities. This is followed by another Mass in the Cathedral. Other important events include the rowing regattas along the Arno during the week of the festivities and the San Giovanni Nocturnal Race, an International marathon through the city (departure and arrival from Piazza San Giovanni
) on Saturday June 23rd at 9pm.
Preceded by a solemn procession, the final match of the traditional Florentine football in period costume in Piazza Santa Croce is also held on June 24th. The game is more like rugby or American football than its modern counterpart, with rules that appear to be practically non-existent: anything goes from kicking to punching and blows below the belt as long as the players can score a “caccia”, or goal. The atmosphere is explosive, brawls and broken noses abound, but the match is certainly worth going to see.
The traditional fireworks over the Arno date from the 17th century and replace the festive fires that were lit for the summer solstice and later became a feature of St. John’s Day. Originally set off in Piazza della Signoria, they have since been transferred to Piazzale Michelangelo
for security reasons. The magnificent firework display is always very popular among the Florentines, who crowd the bridges and the banks of the Arno on the evening of June 24th to enjoy what they consider their own special event, though afterwards they are quite capable of saying that the fireworks were not as fine as the year before!