On June 24, Florence celebrates one of its most important holidays: its patron saint day, St. John the Baptist. It is on this date, in fact, that the Church celebrates the Nativity of this saint considered the Forerunner of Christ, and the one that introduced baptism in the water as a form of purification.
Many events take place in the city during this day. But: why is St. John the Baptist so important for Florence?
The city’s worship of this saint is clearly visible in many artworks, where the classical iconography depicted him either as a child, the so called “Giovannino” (“Little John”), together with the Virgin Mary and the Child, or as an adult, clothed with camel’s hair, to remember his life as an ascetic in the desert. In Florence, the main monument dedicated to him is, indeed, the Baptistery of St. John, located in the square with the same name, in front of the Cathedral; this has become therefore the center of the festivities dedicated to him.
But: why did this saint become so important for Florence? In the “pagan” era, before the city’s conversion to Christianity, the patron god of Florence was Mars. It was the Bishop Zanobi who, according to the legend, converted the Florentines in the 5th century, and when the Longobards arrived in Italy and in Florence in the 6th century, they carried their saints with them, including their patron St. John the Baptist. This is how the god of war was replaced by a saint, who though, in many aspects, resembled him: he was strong, courageous and, in his own way, “warlike”.
The festivities for this patron started in 1084, but they became particularly solemn in the 14th century, and they lasted for three days. This was a very important event for the city, whose value was not only religious, but also political and civil, and preparations were sumptuous.
Celebrations started on the 23rd of June, in the morning, when a religious procession took place, that ended in the square in front of the Baptistery: this was richly decorated, including the precious Silver Altar, now preserved in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Museum of the Cathedral), produced between the 14th and the 15th centuries by several important artists. In the evening, large candles were offered to the saint.
On the day of the feast, the 24th, more gifts were brought by groups of representatives of the cities belonging to the Florentine territory: these came to the city specifically for the celebrations.
To conclude the feast, there was a Palio in the afternoon (a sort of race) run by the quarters of the city.
Another tradition was that of the Zecca Fiorentina (the Florentine Mint): on June 24, a man who posed as the saint, clothed with camel’s hair, was carried on a tall hay cart from the mint into the city. Due to his sloppy and tramp appearance, as a hermit in fact, the man gained the nickname “brindellone” (a sloppy person): this became thus the name of the famous cart, that is traditionally “exploded” in front of the cathedral on Easter Sunday.
From the 15th century, especially under Lorenzo the Magnificent Medici, celebrations included more events, becoming also more secular: on the 22nd of June, allegorical floats paraded in the streets, staging mythological representations, similar to those of Carnival, a holiday that was dear to the Medici. However, after the death of Lorenzo, and the expulsion of the Medici from Florence, the government was taken over by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, strict punisher of traditions and excesses, and the feast of Saint John was suspended.
In the 16th century, after the return of the Medici, that with Cosimo I started their princedom over the city, the feast was also retrieved, accompanied by various events. It was still Cosimo I to introduce the so called “Palio dei Cocchi”, a race of horses and carriages that took place the day of the eve, on the 23rd, in the square of Santa Maria Novella.
In the 17th century the Grand Duke Ferdinano II commissioned the “chair of Saint John”, a sort of throne decorated with precious materials, on which he sat at the end of the procession: here nobles and representatives of the other cities subject to Florence, offered him their gifts for the feast. This chair, unfortunately, is now lost.
Celebrations today do not take place for three days anymore , but only on the 24th. There are several events during this day. In the morning we start with the so called “Offer of the Candles”: the Corteo della Repubblica Fiorentina (“Parade of the Florentine Republic”) leaves Piazza della Signoria and reaches the Baptistery, bringing the large candles as a gift, to commemorate what was once a tradition entrusted to the nobles of the city. To follow, the High Mass in the Cathedral.
In the afternoon the final of the Calcio Storico (“Historic Football”, see the other article) is played, preceded and followed by the Corteo Storico della Repubblica Fiorentina (“Historic Parade of the Florentine Republic”).
Finally, in the evening we can admire the famous “fochi di San Giovanni” (lit. “flames of San Giovanni”), in other words: fireworks! This is also an ancient tradition that once took place in the Piazza della Signoria: a painting in Palazzo Vecchio depicts the square in the 16th century, on the occasion of the patron saint’s feast, showing the fireworks that were said to be set up by Bernardo Buontalenti, the artist-handyman at the Medici’s court, therefore nicknamed “Bernardo delle Girandole” (“Bernardo of the Pinwheels”). Today the fireworks show illuminates the city from Piazzale Michelangelo, and it is the Società di San Giovanni Battista (Saint John the Baptist Society) that has been taking care of this since 1796.
And now we can only wish you a happy Saint John feast!