The feast of St. John, Patron Saint of Florence
Proof of the fact that many religious holidays have a pagan origin, also comes from the history of the patron saint of Florence, St. John the Baptist. Before his conversion to Christianity, the citys patron was the god Mars, of which a statue has held out in the city on Ponte Vecchio until the flood of 1333, when the ferocity of the Arno River knocked it down.
The conversion to the new religion took place in the Langobard period, between the VI and VII centuries AD: St. John was already the Patron Saint of that people because of his fighting spirit. From the God of War to the combative Saint, the step was short enough, and this really helped people to get used to the new character with no problems.
So the first celebration of Saint John the Baptist as the patron saint of Florence dates back to the Langobard domination: in the same period St. John Baptistery was built in Piazza del Duomo, there where once stood the temple of Mars. However, only starting from the XIII century the feast of the patron started to be celebrated on the date June 24th.
In the past, the feast of the Patron ended in front of the Baptistery and the nobles of the city were required to bring a big candle richly decorated as a tribute. Nowadays, the highlight of the day is in the evening, with the fireworks show in Piazzale Michelangelo that set the night sky of Florence in vibrant colors.
Throughout June 24, both citizens and tourists spend their day through a closely spaced succession of events in the city. During the morning, there’s a flag bearers procession and a parade in Renaissance costumes. In the afternoon, attendees split their time between the traditional rowing race on the Arno and Florence “Calcio Storico” (i.e. Florentine kick game) matches in Piazza Santa Croce.
The Calcio Fiorentino, also known as Calcio in Costume, is regarded as the very first version of football, but it actually has more affinities with rugby. The two teams of 27 calcianti compete on a rectangular red sand pitch. The goal of the game is to score more points, or cacce, than the opposite team in 50 minutes. This sport can also be pretty violent at some points. In 2006, shortly after the opening whistle, a huge brawl broke out in the field (and not only): the authorities then decided to put an end to this tradition and for a couple of years the Calcio in Costume was suspended. In 2008, after a detailed behavior compliance agreement between the administration and the teams, the kick game matches have been resumed to the great satisfaction of all.
However, the most awaited moment of the day is in the evening, at 10:00 pm, when the Patron Saint of Florence is greeted by a beautiful fireworks display. The fireworks, called fochi (read ‘fokee’) in Florence, are fired from Piazzale Michelangelo: the best place to go and watch the show is on the Bridge of Santa Trinita. Between the bridge and Piazzale Michelangelo stands the unmistakable figure of Ponte Vecchio, which stands proud and frames the show from behind.
Starting from late afternoon, people crowd along the Lungarno not to miss the fireworks show, bringing sandwiches and drinks to avoid having to leave the seat in the front row because of hunger pangs. The Feast of Saint John in Florence does not end on June 24.