Do you want to learn what UNESCO’s intangible heritage means? Then come September 3 to Viterbo to attend the Festival of Santa Rosa, the patron saint of Viterbo.
There are many patronal festivals in Italy that deserve to be seen, those in Sicily that last 9 days or those in Campania with the illuminations that are true artistic expressions, but that of Viterbo goes further.
A ‘carriage’ (canopy), over 30 meters high and weighing 5,100 kg with the statue on the top (the Carriage of Santa Rosa), which is carried around the city by a hundred “Facchini di Santa Rosa” (Porters of Saint Rosa) in a procession that began in 1258.
The cries and incitements of the crowd, the smell of fatigue that spreads in the air and the amazement when you see this carriage barely fitting through some streets of the town with its lights, its art and its mysticism. Dark streets illuminated only by the lights of the carriage.
Santa Rosa was a local saint who died very young (1233-1251). And since she had been a child she had dedicated herself to the relief of the troops of the papacy in her fight against the empire and Frederick II.
She had become a nun in the Franciscan order and had been forced into exile from Viterbo until the death of Frederick II. Her early death was due to a congenital heart malformation, as confirmed by a recent autopsy on the embalmed body.
In reality Rosa is still Blessed and has not been officially declared Holy by the pope, but for the people of Viterbo it is as if she were the most important saint in the world. A saint who is well known in Spain and in the Latin Americas thanks to the stop on the Via Francigena in Viterbo that made her known as the ‘Doncela’ or the ‘Santa Nina’.
Every year the procession of September 3 gives glory to the day when the body of the saint was moved from the cemetery, where it was located, up to the current sanctuary of Santa Croce. It had been a dream that had pushed Pope Alexander IV (born in Jenne) to order the movement of the saint to a more meaningful place.
The transport of the body came with a solemn procession that is repeated every year: the same journey, different people and a crescendo of emotions.
For some years the festival took on a similar character to the others but since in 1657 Viterbo escaped the plague they wanted to thank the saint in particular with a canopy. The first written testimony with a first drawing of a carriage dates back to 1690 and the festival has assumed a crescendo of festivity and splendour until reaching its current magnificence.
On the other hand it was in the period of baroque festivals and could not be otherwise: joy was communicated in an increasingly more flashy way to move people to amazement. A wonder of the world, of life and also of the pope.
It is a wonder renewed every time thanks to art. In fact the carriages are changed every 5 years with an artistic competition in which everyone can compete.
The Santa Rosa procession
It all began with the Facchini dressed in white with a red band going to get the authority and then they performed the ritual of the seven churches in the town centre and then returned to the Capuchin convent. The white of the dress recalls the purity while the red band recalls the cardinals who were present at the moving of the body of the saint.
The procession starts at 8 pm and the city is lit only by the lights of the carriage (some electric but many candles) while the band plays the anthem of Santa Rosa. The Facchini go to the Church of San Sisto where the bishop blesses them with the words ‘in articulo mortis’ with which he protects them from possible accidents.
The carriage is found near the church of San Sisto, where it had been assembled in the previous months under a temporary structure.
The route is 1200 meters long and provides for five stops during which the carriage is placed on trestles. It ends in front of the Sanctuary of Santa Rosa after a final uphill stretch where the Facchini are helped by ropes and levers that push the carriage from behind.
In the previous days, 3 mini-processions have been undertaken for children with mini-carriages, which in this way makes them become familiar with the traditions of their town.
Perhaps the greatest miracle of Santa Rosa is precisely that of having been able to arouse a feeling so strong that it has held up over the centuries and that it still moves people’s emotions.