The Feast of St. John, a Public Holiday in Florence
Today, June 24, is The Feast of St. John the Baptist, and therefore a public holiday in Florence. It is a day off for the general population, with schools and most businesses closed.
In Florence, a parade traditionally occurs at the city center, followed by fireworks in the evening.
This year, with social distancing, will be quite different:
On June 24, San Giovanni, the city’s patron saint, is usually remembered by the pomp and circumstance of a parade, the final of bombastic local sport Calcio Storico and a spectacular late-night firework display. For obvious reasons, crowds will not be cramming the streets this year. Instead, an impressive combined celebration is in the making by Florence, Genoa and Turin, who share a patron saint in St John the Baptist [read]. Florence will be illuminated by a light show instead of fireworks, lasting from sunset until midnight. Porta San Gallo, Porta alla Croce, Torre di San Niccolò, Porta Romana, Porta al Prato, Porta San Frediano, San Miniato al Monte and Istituto degli Innocenti will all act as canvases for the illuminations, but the highlight is likely to be three streams of light cast onto the lantern at the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome.
June 24 will be a day of culture for all, with free entrance to the Museum of the Palazzo Vecchio Museum (10am-3pm), the Bardini Museum and Novecento Museum (both 3-8pm). In terms of music, singer-songwriter Irene Grandi will perform in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Salone dei Cinquecento and Zubin Mehta will conduct the orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino opera house in the Duomo.
St. John the Baptist (San Giovanni) is Florence’s patron saint. He was beheaded around the year 30 CE, having been a preacher and religious leader during Jesus’ lifetime. Baptism rituals in the Jordan River were an important part of his ministry. St John’s birthday is celebrated on June 24 in many churches.
Images of St John the Baptist often depict him wearing a camel-skin robe and with a cross and a lamb. He is often shown baptizing people, particularly Jesus. Below is Giotto’s imagining of the event:
It is believed that the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa keeps relics such as John the Baptist’s ashes. Florence’s cathedral also is said to own some of his relics.
On my recent visit to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, I happened upon this interesting fresco which shows the celebration of St. John in the 1500s. I guess this fireworks tradition is truly an old tradition.
So why is St. John the patron saint of Florence?
Well, it happened so long ago we really can’t know for sure, but there are some theories. After their conversion to Christianity (yes, that is how long ago we are talking), the Roman Florentines selected the patron saint that correlated to their original pagan patron, the god Mars.
To make conversion easier, Christians came up with a clever way of associating certain saints with a Roman counterpart.
St. John must have seemed pretty rugged, hanging out in the desert with his hairy undergarment, so maybe that’s why he got matched up with the God of War.
According to tradition, the new Christians then re-founded their main temple to Mars, what we now call the Baptistery, as a church to St. John. The dating is problematic, but we won’t get into that now. Let’s just note that Dante called the building the “beautiful San Giovanni.”
After the mid-13th century, St. John even decorated one half of the new Florentine coin, the florin.
It is understandable, then, that the feast day of Saint John has been celebrated in Florence from the Middle Ages and on. Traditionally, this holiday included festivities that lasted for as many as three days, corresponding to the European celebration of the Summer Solstice, which typically falls on June 21 – June 24th. Contemporary celebrations, however, tend to be condensed into one day.
So, every year on June 24th, –at least prior to Covid 19– the saint’s feast day, Florence (along with a few other pro-John cities) celebrates the feast of this great patron. The now single-day festival begins with a historic parade, which starts at Piazza Signoria and continues to the Baptistery, with an offering of candles for the Saint in his most sacred house. After the parade, there is a mass, which includes a public showing of the Saint’s relics (an event that only occurs on that day and hence is very holy).
June 24th ends with a traditional fireworks display in Piazzale Michelangelo. Crowds gather around the Arno for the best view of the hill and there is a general sense of merriment all around. These fireworks, called fuochi di San Giovanni, are pretty big and visible from quite a few spots along the water. It is a good show and a great end to a gorgeous summer day full of fun, parades, and costumes.
Sometimes I like to talk honestly about my life here in Italy. It is a privilege to live in Florence and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But, it has its downs as well as its ups.
Recently, I’ve had a small issue with my cellphone carrier. It is hard, in Italian, to have a phone call about serious issues with critical information, so I decided to go to the Fastweb office in person. I had another thing to do in the center on Saturday, so after that and before 12:00 noon, I went to the Fastweb office to take care of business. It was closed. I had to wait until Monday morning to find it open.
So, I showed up bright and early at Fastweb on Monday and waited for my turn to be let into the store, what with the Covid 19 rules, and was able to quickly and pretty easily get the information I needed to solve the overall issue I had with my phone service.
Then, I innocently inquired what the balance was on my account that lets me make phone calls and use data. I like to keep a good balance in there, because you never know, right? I found out that I had less than 3 euro on balance.
I asked if I could pay to bring my balance up and the kind clerk said of course. He handed me off to a newer employee to finish this minor procedure. I told her I wanted to put 100 Euro on the account and she got out 2 plastic cards, each worth 50 Euro, to refresh my balance. She did a bunch of procedures with the 2 cards, scraping off the “skin” over the codes and processed them, and I received 2 dings from my phone that my Fastweb account had been recharged for 100 Euro in 2 blocks of 50 Euro.
Good enough. All this time I had my credit card lying on the top of her desk for her to charge the payment(s). At this point, she began to process my card. It was denied. She called her colleague over, he tried, it was denied. So, they are in a pickle. They gave me the credit but didn’t have a way to charge me.
I expected the to tell me that my credit card was faulty, but they didn’t. Then it came out that they had just received a new credit card processor machine and there were problems with it. For the next 1.5 hours, they attempted to call their headquarters and get the thing worked out. They kept me there because they needed my actual card. Finally, 2 hours after I walked in, I told them I had to leave. I happened to have 50 Euro with me in cash, which I left with them, and promised to return tomorrow (since I had appointments all day today) to either bring them another 50 Euro or better, have them try again to run my credit card. BTW, they tried their own credit cards to see if it truly was their new machine, and it was.
My life in Italy. It takes longer to do less. :-))
Postscript, a few days later. I went back to the store. The credit card machine still wasn’t working. How can they do business like this? A major cellphone carrier in the 21st century. It amazes me.
Just outside my apartment door, I am greeted by this lovely view almost daily:
Christ and St. Francis.
The last few nights the full moon has been stunning. I’ve watched it cross part of the sky. Unfortunately, my phone camera can’t capture natural light sources at night very well.
My jasmine is in bloom and it is magnificent! So fragrant!
Easter Monday is a holiday in Italy. Happy lunedi’ di Pasqua or Pasquetta to everyone!