The Festival of Saint John the Baptist (Festa di San Giovanni) is celebrated every 24th of June in Florence, Italy. It is a major holiday for the Florentines and a great occasion to witness if you are visiting the city. The day is observed in honour of Florence’s patron saint, considered by the city as the symbol of moral and political integrity.
According to historical records, celebrations pertaining to Saint John as the city’s patron saint go back to as early as the 14th century. The Baptistery of San Giovanni was then both the religious and political center of Florence. Just as Christians believed Saint John to be the herald of the coming of Christ, the Messiah, he was also considered by the Florentine people a symbol of cultural renaissance back in the medieval times.
The main part of the Festa di San Giovanni tradition is the procession that starts from the Duomo and ends at the entrance of the Baptistery, also called the “door to Paradise”. With this procession, men aged 15 years or older carry burning wax into the Baptistery as an offering to the saint. Some of it is left there, while the rest was sold to raise funds for the church. The wax that is offered usually comes from the Republic’s Magistrate, the Lordships, as well as from both lay and religious groups.
The Festival of Saint John is an all-day, sometimes even all-night affair that colors the whole city in a festive atmosphere. Houses are decorated, food stalls and various shops are set up, boutiques and museums stay open until midnight, and various live musical performances can be seen and heard. You can go watch either the boat races or the exclusively Florentine sport called Calcio Storico (historical football), an amazing combination of football (soccer), wrestling and plain fisticuffs, all done in period costume at the Piazza Santa Croce. You are also likely to see more people in costume beyond Santa Croce?the Festival of Saint John is really the carnival event of Florence. If there is one thing you can expect, it is whole-day entertainment.
Aside from the religious procession and the Calcio Storico match, another highlight of the festival is the grand fireworks display during the evening. This is usually organized by city officials and the San Giovanni Battista Society. The spectacle boasts of hundreds of fireworks shot over Piazza Michelangelo and sometimes lasting for nearly a whole hour. This is quite a sight to see, especially with the fireworks exploding over the Arno River, which creates a reflection of the hundreds of multi-colored flying sparks. The fireworks symbolize the bonfire that used to be lit in celebration of the summer solstice.
After the fireworks, you will see a lot of Florentines enjoying cones of ‘gelato’ as a sort of unofficial tradition that has become part of the holiday in recent years. Because of this, the occasion has earned the more humorous nickname, ‘Festa del gelato’.