St. John the Baptist = Patron Saint of Florence & One Awesome Guy

St. John the Baptist.
What a guy. Am I right?

Sculpture of St. John by Francesco Rustici from the Baptistery in Florence

I don’t think I need to get into it (I mean J to the B was baptizing people, living in the woods, eating berries and bark, and wearing his camel skin cloak way before hipsters were doing it.) Check out his full saintly story here.
For our purposes, we are really interested in the relationship between St. John the Baptist and Florence. Saint John is Florence’s patron saint. This essentially means he protects Florence and acts as a middleman between the citizens of Florence and God. Truth be told, he is the patron saint of several other locations, including Turin, Genoa and Malta, and even some groups like the Knights Hospitaller. (Yeah. He’s a pretty popular guy, so have some respect).
So why did the Florentines choose him?
Well, it happened so long ago we really can’t know for sure, but there are some theories. After their conversion to Christianity (yes, that is how long ago we are talking), the Roman Florentines selected the patron saint that correlated to their original pagan patron, the god Mars. To make conversion easier, Christians came up with a clever way of associating certain saints with a Roman counterpart. I guess St. John must have seemed pretty rugged, hanging out in the desert with his hairy undergarment, because he got matched up with the God of War. Who wouldn’t have been a little irritable wearing that thing? The new Christians then re-founded their main temple to Mars, what we now call the Baptistery, as a church to St. John. Dante called it the “beautiful San Giovanni” (If you have not read my blog post on places to see in Florence, may I just reiterate that while the Duomo could be skipped, the Baptistery is NOT to be missed. Stunning mosaics await you in this seemingly unassuming building). After the mid-13th century, St. John even decorated one half of the Florentine coin, the florin.

That's J to the B on the right. Isn't he adorable?

It is understandable, then, that the feast day of Saint John has been celebrated in Florence from the Middle Ages and on. Traditionally, this holiday included festivities that lasted for as many as three days, corresponding to the European celebration of the Summer Solstice, which typically falls on June 21 – June 24th. Contemporary celebrations, however, tend to be condensed into one day.
So, every year on June 24th, the saint’s feast day, Florence (along with a few other pro-John cities) celebrates the feast of this great patron. The now single-day festival begins with a historic parade (read: COSTUMES!!), which starts at Piazza Signoria and continues to the Baptistery (for obvious reasons) with an offering of candles for the Saint in his most sacred house. After the parade, there is a mass, which includes a public showing of the Saint’s relics (an event that only occurs on that day and hence is very holy).

Need I say more?

In the afternoon comes the main event, the famous Calcio Storico. This is one of the most popular events linked to the Feast of San Giovanni and involves Medieval-style soccer played in typical Renaissance garb. Think rugby meets cage-fighting, with pantaloons. The game (or death match) takes place in Piazza Santa Croce, which is filled with sand and surrounded by arena-style seating for the event. Four teams, representing the four quarters of the city, compete one on one until a victor is declared. As you can imagine, tickets are hard to come by.
However, the game, as it was previously played, has not taken place in a few years. The powers-that-be felt that the games promoted too much violence between the quarters of the city. Serious injuries did occur and some teams were accused of recruiting Florentines recently released from prison (hear-say, no doubt!) They had to make special rules restricting the sale of glass bottles around the area and the stadium was heavily policed, allowing only those with tickets and local residents beyond the barriers (unless you know someone…).

Florence + fireworks = pretty

June 24th ends with a traditional fireworks display in Piazzale Michelangelo. Crowds gather around the Arno for the best view of the hill and there is a general sense of merriment all around. These fireworks, called fuochi di San Giovanni, are pretty big and visible from quite a few spots along the water. It is a good show and a great end to a gorgeous summer day full of fun, parades, and costumes. Get there early for a good spot! Most stores will be closed on the big day, but restaurants will be open since there will be a fair number of people off work and enjoying the day.

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