One of the most interesting aspects to me about Italy is that each region and city has its own unique culture: a different dialect, food specialties, football team, and patron saint holiday. It wasn’t until 1871 that Italy was fully unified as a nation. Prior to that time, Italy was composed of states, each with their own rulers and politics. Even today, there are still noticeable differences and sometimes contention between different regions, but it’s beautiful to see how a city can come together for the celebration of a patron saint holiday, as each city has their own unique traditions. One day a year, stores will close, people are given off work, and the city will celebrate their patron saint. Many include fireworks, music, and parades displaying symbols of their city such as flags.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Pisa during their Patron Saint festival of San Ranieri, a little known festival (also called the Luminara) on June 16th. I had lived in Pisa, but never during the festival, so I was excited to finally see it. I had seen old photographs of it in Museo della Grafica Palazzo Lanfranchi in Pisa when I visited in 2019, but I was curious to see if it was even still celebrated, as I had to seek it out. I find it funny that Pisa is generally only known for the swarm of tourists standing with arms outstretched trying to get their leaning tower photos, because Pisa has a lot more to offer than just the leaning tower: take the fact that it has the world’s oldest botanical garden, or that it was the birthplace of Galileo Galilei.
On June 16, my train pulled up in Pisa Centrale. After checking into the Airbnb, I could see people putting candles around the windows on all the buildings along the Arno river: about 70,000 wax candles in total were placed along the windows. The tradition dates back to 1688, with the death of Ranieri degli Scaccieri who was placed in the chapel of Pisa’s cathedral. It inspired the city to host a festival of “illumination,” now known as the “Luminara.” It was amazing to see all the effort the city still put in centuries later to celebrate the life of their patron saint.
Another one of the Luminara traditions is that for one night of the year they shine light on the leaning tower of Pisa. All other nights of the year the tower remains unlit. Sure enough, when I visited the tower a day later, it was dark.
The night of the festival, around 10 or 11pm there was a magnificent fireworks display. I stood there shocked with amazement, because for 30 minutes straight, fireworks were blossoming in the sky all down the river, perfectly coordinated and dazzling against the water, rivaling the 70,000 flickering candles that hung on the houses.
The day after, I had read that there was a regatta along the Arno that afternoon. At around 5 pm I could see the Pisan flag with a white cross, a symbol that was granted to Pisa by Pope Benedict VIII, hanging over one of the many bridges above the river. Slightly less people were gathered to watch than had been the night before with the fireworks, but it was fun to watch as several boats made their way down the river.
The most amazing part of the experience for me was seeing Pisa in a whole new light, illuminated and sparkling, something that not many tourists or Italians for that matter have the chance to see. The Luminara is Pisa’s well kept secret.
Returning to Rome, a few weeks later the Eternal City had its own patron saint holiday on June 29: Saint Paul and Peter. Many people got off work, and that evening there were festivities. In Ostiense there was a marching band with people walking in a procession carrying the saint’s icon. There was also a large market in the street, and a plan for fireworks (but it ended up being too hot to set them off).
As someone who grew up in a city that looks like most other big cities in the U.S. it was fun to see all the unique ways in which each Italian city shows their customs using history, architecture or geography of the city to celebrate and set it apart from other cities.