Beautiful and Dangerous
The city is crackling with anticipation and excitement. An air of tension, and a mounting sense of celebration, fills the alleys, corridors and piazzas where thousands of people begin to amass. This is Viterbo’s tribute to Santa Rosa, their patron saint. This annual event is celebrated by the transportation of the Macchina by the Facchini through the city’s medieval streets. Don’t worry, I’ll explain in a minute. Combining religious and civil tradition with pure jubilation, it is a dramatic sight that brings together the beautiful and the dangerous – and all that comes with both.
The 23 km drive from Tuscania to Viterbo took us past wheat fields and hills of craggy, upturned soil in the farmland of northern Lazio. We arrived in the early afternoon, hours before the big show was to officially kick-off, but Viterbo was already buzzing with energy. Matteo took us around the ancient area of his hometown, showing us his part of the world that he knows so well.
Santa Rosa was a poor, reclusive figure during her life, already devoted to a life penances by the age of seven. She is believed to have risen her aunt from the dead when she was only three, foretold visions of the future, received communications from the Virgin Mary and even defied human vulnerabilities by emerging unharmed after three hours in the flames of a pyre. A native of this city, she died in 1251, at the age of 17, from a heart condition. In 1257, by orders from the Pope, her body was exhumed from it’s original, humble burial plot and transported to the Monastery of St. Damian in Viterbo. It was this act that is remember by the transportation of the Macchina through the same streets.
The Macchina is a beaming, 90 foot high tower that is carried by about 100 local men, called Facchini. To be counted among this crew is a highly contested civil honor that brings adoration and an exhausting burden. Dressed in identical, all-white garb from head-to-toe, with a red sash around their waist, these proud men literally carry the Macchina on their backs for nearly a mile through the narrow cobblestone roads, teetering inches away from rooftops and balconies. The procession made four stops along it’s route, allowing throngs of spectators to admire the glowing tribute, while the Facchini catch their breath, pose for photos with admiring citizens and pop their backs back into alignment.
The sun was setting as marching bands and teams of flag twirlers strutted through town, rousing the crowds and ushering in the evening. Nightfall signalled the final countdown for the real action to begin. Bleachers, barrier gates, scaffolding for television crews and a plethora of security forces all contested for space as we wound our way through the anxious crowds to our vantage point for the evening. Matteo called in a favor and arranged for us to watch the festivities from a fourth floor apartment directly along the route. It’s good know people who know people.
From our perch in the middle of the block, I could see two large piazzas; on the left where the Macchinia would make it’s first stop, and to my right, the next resting place. But something wasn’t right. I felt a separation from the hecticness,the electricity on the street. I grabbed Matteo, and we scurried down the staircase, onto the cobblestones and into the masses. This was more like it. We shuffled past riot police and stationary bystanders for a look at the jumbotron in the first piazza. The transportation, and all the formalities of the evening, could be seen here in their entirety. Watching the live feed on the huge screen, the crowd breaks out in roaring applause as the Facchini ceremoniously took their positions under the tower only a few blocks away. Even I, the rookie Americano, felt pride and sympathy for these hardy men. It felt like they were going into an imminent, grueling battle in honor of their town and fellow inhabitants. They were the rockstars of the night no doubt.
It all came down to this. The men were ready. The Macchina, waiting for it’s elevation, loomed in stoic silence with a bright white statue of Saint Rose on the pinnacle, surveying her city and her people. And with a bellyroar bark from their captain, the Facchini hoist the Macchina onto their bones and muscle. Every pound of this idol is now on their shoulder blades and stiff ankles. A growling cheer erupts from everyone in attendance. The Macchina was moving! The Facchini captain kept the men in step with his cadence call, “Un, Un, Un, Un.” The men’s stride was strained but sure. The tower’s peak swaying with each step. All the street lights were extinguished and deep shadows blanketed everything. We couldn’t see it yet, but we knew it was coming. From around the corner an orange glow began to creep, getting brighter and higher on the stone walls with every passing moment. And then, in all of it’s blazing glory, the Macchina appeared. In the warm light, all eyes turned up to Santa Rosa. It was a breathtaking moment. I pretty much just shook my head in awe for about a minute before raising the camera to my face.
After a well deserved break, the Facchini resumed what they came to do, and the Macchina was off again, lumbering onto the next congregation. I could hear the grunts of the Facchini, and feel the enormity of the Macchina as it passed me by in the tight streets. People huddled together against the walls to make way for the procession. The night’s festivities culminated with a fireworks show that probably registered on the Richter scale. This was way more than a parade, or a religious celebration, or a street party. This was a city coming to life.
The Macchina of Santa Rosa is a truly passionate tribute, a testament to Viterbo’s love for their patron saint, as well as the city itself and it’s people. There was an undeniable sense of pride and honor that infused the entire day, and in the end it was clear that the Facchini carried not only the Macchina through the streets, but the heart of the city and the pride of it’s people.