San Giovani Day, June 24, 2020

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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

Carnevale a Firenze

In ancient times, the Carnevale of Florence was among the most brilliant and noisy on the Italian peninsula.  From the Medici times forward, members of the same noble families wore the same kind of masks and went through the city until all hours, singing and carrying so many torches it was “as if it were full day.”

The carriages courses had not yet been invented, but the revelry and the noise that was made in the streets in those days made Florence the most carefree and gay city in the world.

Carnival goers would go to the Mercato Nuovo (where the silk merchants and drapery shops were located) with flasks, and also to the Mercato Vecchio, between ferrivecchi and pannilani sellers. The young of all the leading families all took part in this gazzarra of the ball, going around disguised in creative ways and playing pranks on the unsuspecting.

More than anything, however, they tried to throw big balls into the shops so that the merchants were forced to close and send their workers out to have fun too. As long as the matter remained within these limits, people enjoyed at it, especially when in the Old Market they were throwing a ball into the workshop of a iron smith, bringing down pans, tripods and jugs, with a deafening noise.

But, over time, the revelry became excessive and caused riots. When the young nobles threw out balloons that had been soaked in mota, they ruined the fabrics and drapes of the merchants, creating great economic damages.

Hence, quarrels arose and the people objected. If the nobles were creating such problems, the plebs wanted to give them a taste of their own medicine. The commoners  used bunches of rags that were drenched in pools and rivulets. These filthy bundles dirtied everything. Violence ensued in retribution.

After hundreds of arrests, the Eight of Guardia and Balìa issued a ban ordering, with the threat of severe penalties, that no one could get out with the ball before 10 pm and before the trumpets of the City had gone on the streets playing the trumpets to warn the merchants.

(Taken from Old Florence by Giuseppe Conti).

Milan, random beauty shots, December 2019

I got to enjoy a few days in Milan this week and here are some random pictures of things that caught my eye.  Some are just fun, some are quite lovely!


Milan has a lot of stunning architecture:




Italy has an endless kaleidoscope of decorative iron work:


I was happy to learn that Santa really exists!










Aww….Merry Christmas!




Hello, Leo!  Everyone is celebrating the 500th anniversary of your death this year! Gone but not forgotten.


In Milan, college graduates wear the corona too. Auguri, young scholar!



Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, you are ever so lovely:






My vote for prettiest antique bakery goes to Pasticceria Marchesi, founded in 1824. I love anything from this shop (and I think there is a little something something from here under my tree at home?).





Piazza del Duomo:




Other places:





T’is the season:




From the grand train station, one of the most impressive in the world:

Christmas time in Milan

On a recent trip to Milan to visit some museums (I avoid them during the high season, as I like to enjoy my art without crowds), I enjoyed many random bits of holiday time throughout the city.

Milan is apparently planning on having a super Christmas this year:



I enjoyed the following billboard that reassures us that Father Christmas is real (at least if you have an iPhone 11 with Iliad):






The famous pastry shop, Marchesi, founded in 1824,  has wonderful windows:







The Marchesi building is a quaint affair on a major thoroughfare.



Scenes like the one below are fun to spot throughout the city:



And the warm glow from an old-style paper store on a cold winter evening is a lovely sight:


I visit a lot of churches (looking for art), and while most have a creche scene, very few are decorated like this one in Milan.  It is Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church attached to the convent rectory with that famous scene of a last supper….


And, on the train ride home from Milan, I saw snow! The first I’ve seen this year!