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.