lunedì 24 agosto 2009

The “Machine” of Saint Rose of Viterbo.

The Facchini marching through town.

Asterix was right, these Romans are crazy! Well, they’re not really Romans. They’re from Viterbo, a city about 50 miles north of Rome. For on the 3rd of September, the eve of the festa of Saint Rose, the people of Viterbo are getting ready to follow the transportation of the”Machine.” La macchina as they call it, (i.e. “the Machine of St. Rose” ) is a massive 28 metre high tower, weighing over 5 metric tonnes, illuminated with 3000 tiny electric lights and 880 candles, and topped off with a statue of Viterbo’s patron saint, Saint Rose, and is carried for 1200 metres through the darkened streets of the old medieval town on the backs of around 100 volunteers called “facchini.”

The tradition goes all the way back to 4th September 1258 when the body of the saint was exhumed by Pope Alexander IV after a series of dreams which led him to her unmarked tomb, and found to be extremely well preserved, the body was transported to the monastery of Saint Damian. With a few exceptions the procession has been repeated each year since; but it wasn’t until 1664, following seven years of plague in the city, that a “machine” first appeared. In gratitude for having survived such a terrible pestilence the citizens voted to renew the veneration of their saint with a machine that would be bigger and and more beautiful every year. Succesive machines have also reflected architectural influences and tastes of the times with Baroque and Rococo, Byzantine, Gothic and even Arabic style constructions, and grown ever taller with each new version, eventually reaching the tops of the houses until the present macchina, built in 2003, towers a good two storeys above the houses and even pokes above the churches along the route, Nowadays a new machine is built every five years but cannot exceed the height and weight limit of 28 metres and 5,000 kilos.

The “facchini” are selected in June. Selection depends on being able to carry 150kgs over 80 metres. For twelve newcomers the transportation of 2007 (when these photos were taken) is their first time, but most of the facchini are veterans from many years, and ages range from 20 to over 60. The present longest serving veteran is Guido Politini with 44 years experience: literally, as they say in Italian, sulle spalle “on his shoulders.”

No, not Guido Politini, but no doubt with several
years experience of transporting the "machine."

At midday on the 3rd September the town is already buzzing in anticipation. Residents of the town centrre have reserved their places by leaving chairs at the end of sideroads and alleyways leading onto the machine’s route. At 3 pm the facchini, dressed all in white, including white bandanas on their heads, and red sashes round their waists, gather to march in procession through the town. Crowds are already gathered to applaud them as they march in ranks, shouting “Vivi i facchini” and the facchini replying with “Viva Santa Rosa!” Another chant is "E' viva Santa Rosa?" (Does Saint Rose live still?) to which the facchini reply "E' viva!" (She lives!) Led by the town band, who will be playing their hearts out to the same tune for about the next nine hours, and accompanied by the mayor and local dignitaries they stop off at the cathedral and six other churches along the way to render prayers and songs to Saint Rose.

After all this marching the facchini take a break to eat in the grounds of a local monastery, along with their families who bring along plenty of home made pasta dishes and bottles of wine. Fortified they get their final instructions from the chief (capo facchino) who rouses them with an eve of Agincourt type speech.

Receiving the last rites in the church of San Sisto
just before the transportation of the macchina begins.

Transportation of the machine starts at 9pm. At about a quarter to nine the facchini enter the church of Saint Sisto to recieve the last rites from the bishop of Viterbo, A reminder of the real danger that the task ahead holds. In fact past processions have not been without incident, the most tragic in 1801 when 22 spectators died in the panic caused when some of the crowd mistakenly thought the machine was toppling over. Sometimes it really has: in 1814 killing two facchini. Though no serious incidents have occured in modern times.

Last minute encouragement. A moment of solidarity and nerves.

The facchini are tense, limbering up and giving last minute encouragement to each other, many puffing away at a cigarette, ignoring the fact that they’re about to put their hearts into overdrive. Under instructions from the capo facchino and his four deputies, one hundred and nine facchini take their places under the machine, which has been assembled under a scaffolding tower, it hums, like a silver monster from the “War of the Worlds." It really is a machine, even if the motor is the muscles of the men who, with leather pouches on their heads or shoulders to spare their vertebrae and shoulder bones, lift the towering ensemble and march off in step down hill, still preceeded by the town’s band, to the first of five resting points. Three thousand eight hundred and eighty points of light flicker and dance as the machine wobbles on its way, the crowd are in ecstasy, cheering and screaming encouragement at the facchini.

Facchini rush to take their places under the macchina.
These are the ciuffi, there are 63 of them and they
carry the weight on both shoulders and
wear padded leather headgear called a ciuffo.
Others, called spallette, bear the weight on just one shoulder.

At the first stop in the piazza of the town hall other facchini rush to place giant trestles on which the facchini underneath gently bring the behemoth to rest. Its a tricky and dangerous operation and emotions are running high. A cameraman gets too close and the capo facchino gives him a verbal lashing to remember. Meanwhile, like an exotic bird showing off its plumage, with a whirring noise wing like arches open out on the side of the machine, from which the present incarnation takes its name; the Wings of Light (l’ali di luce.) This year, 2009, will see a new machine being transported.

Taking the strain.

A ten minute breather and the machine is taken up again. This time there are only about 90 facchini lifting it, as the street narrows considerably at this point, but we’re also going uphill here. With a lack of pavements on the street people crowd balconies and windows, shop doorways, sideroads and all over any handy fountain. Everything is pitch dark, until, towering over the houses, the machine hoves into view, a rocking, throbbing pillar of light illuminating everything on either side before passing on. The crowd fall in behind as if drawn by a magnet.

A delicate moment as the macchina is lowered onto trestles at one of the resting points.

Negotiating the narrow streets.

The streets are plunged into darkness.
The machine passes like a beacon in the night.

Slowly the machine makes its way through the streets. An hour or so later, after three more stops, it emerges into Piazza Verdi where the biggest crowds are. The facchini turn it around 360 degrees to to line it up ready for the last and most demanding leg. The end is in sight. The final destination is in front of the church of Santa Rosa, where the body of the saint now rests.

Arriving in Piazza Verdi.

The road to the church is only around 180 metres long, but rises considerably. To tackle this part extra facchini join in to help, making 149 all told, twenty pulling on ropes and others on levers at the back, the tallest to the rear and shortest to the front in order to keep everything as level as possible. After the capo facchino deems all is ready, the order is given, and they take it at at a trot. They reach their goal in a muscle bursting minute. Once the glittering tower is finally resting on its trestles the tension and the strain leaves the faces of the facchini: they have done it again this year. Now tears of joy and relief take over as they celebrate and hug each other and their families.

The city shares in their triumph. The machine will now remain on display for several days in front of the church while several thousand devotees visit and pay homage to their saint.

Saint Rose.
Saint Rose of Viterbo was born in 1233. Various miracles are attributed to her. Legend has it that the crumbs that fell from pieces of bread she gave to the poor turned into roses. When Frederick II, Holy Roman emperor, besieged the city of Viterbo in 1243, during the wars against the papacy, the 10 year old Rose was to be seen exhorting the citizens to hold out against the enemy and attending to the wounded. Vatican documents tell of a young girl who, while carrying a stone on her head to the defenders on the city walls, had her arm pierced by an arrow, and without removing the stone, “extracted the arrow with her teeth from the wound and delivered the stone to the nearest combatants.”
An examination of her body has revealed a wound to the arm which could have in fact been caused by an arrow.
She died at the age of 17 on 6th March 1251.

Viterbo (The city of the popes) was the site of the first papal conclave (1270) where after two years the 17 cardinals assembled in the Papal palace had still not elected a new pope. To encourage them to reach a decision the citizens sealed the palace, removed the roof and reduced their diet to bread and water. Quite soon they elected Gregory X as the new pope.

4 commenti:

  1. this is so amazing -thank you for sharing the story and for your fantastic photos

  2. Hey,thanks Stewie. This year saw the debut of a new macchina and it was absolutely fantastic. Lit with LEDs of all things and much more organic in form. Called the "Fiori del Cielo" (flower of heaven {or sky}). At one stop it shoots out 60,000 paper red-rose petals. The Viterbese slightly apprehensive at first, "new fangled stuff, can't beat the old one," sort of thing, were completely won over. Got some great shots which I'll be putting up in due course.

  3. Very interesting article, great detail and great photos. I had never heard of this. Just discovered your blog, love it!
    Madeline Jhawar (

  4. Quite interesting. As today(Sept. 3) is the feast of St. Rose of Viterbo, I was looking for info on her and came across your blog. This must be quite interesting to see.