On August 16th we celebrate one of the most beloved saints in Italy, San Rocco, who died in Voghera on 16th August in 1379.
Virtually every Italian town has a church or a chapel dedicated to him and there are more than 263 towns that have him as a patron saint because he was certainly one of the most revered saints in the Middle Ages. Initially he was worshiped as a protector from the plague but slowly his ‘duties’ expanded for protection against major catastrophes.
Rocco was a Frenchman from Montpellier, a gracious town in the south of France, born of elderly and well-to-do parents and was educated to a profound religiousness especially towards the virgin Mary.
When his parents died, Rocco gave everything to the poor and decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome through Italy that in those years experienced many plague epidemics. The stories of the saint narrate that when he reached Acquapendente, Rocco managed to heal people from the plague by touching them with his hand and making the sign of the cross.
In a short time San Rocco managed to stop the plague epidemic. The same incidents occurred in many other cities until he arrived in Rome and there he met a cardinal, perhaps the brother of Pope Urban V.
Then, in Piacenza the inevitable happened frail body of Rocco was attacked by the plague and Rocco took refuge in a cave near the river Trebbia in Sarmato in Emilia Romagna. The story of the plague experienced by San Rocco is shown in every portrait and statue: a small dog helped Rocco bringing him a slice of bread every day taken from his master’s table.
The dog belonged to the owner of the castle of Sarmato who was moved by the story of the dog and Rocco and decided to follow the example of the saint giving away all his goods and taking refuge in the cave.
After his recovery, the plague returned with a vengeance in Italy and San Rocco helped to save the city of Piacenza before starting his return to France, but his journey stopped in Voghera where he was arrested on charges of espionage. He died in prison and next to his body was found a tablet with the words “Anyone who invokes me against the plague will be freed from this scourge”.
It is said that he was appointed saint during the Council of Constance of 1414 when the city had been hit by a plague and the cardinals, to save themselves, entrusted themselves to San Rocco.
But perhaps the most interesting story of San Rocco begins after his death when his fame reached every city in Europe and a competition began to have some relics of his body.
Certainly in 1485 his remains were transported from Voghera to Venice, both of which he is patron, apart from a part of the bones of an arm. Perhaps the rich Venetian merchants bought the body in 1483 to ensure protection from any future illness!
Over a century later. In 1595, Pope Clement VIII wanted a relic of an arm and the church of Montpellier, where Saint Rocco was born, asked for a tibia. But over the years, other pieces were sent to Genoa, Voghera, Penta, Locorotondo, Grisolia, San Cesario di Lecce, Alezio, Pignola, Satriano di Lucania, San Giovanni la Punta and Troina.
Practically every church in Italy has a statue or a portrait of the saint that portrays him in pilgrim’s clothes, with a wound to his leg due to the plague and with a dog at his side.
A real peculiarity is the European Iconographic Museum of San Rocco in Capriati in Volturno in the province of Caserta where images, paintings and many furnishings and vestments related to the worship of the saint are collected.
But even in the big cities there are churches dedicated to San Rocco as in Paris, Lisbon and New York.
In any case, on 16th August, in almost all of Italy, processions, parties and fireworks are held with the cry “Evviva San Rocco!”