Every year as the sun sets on June 16, the Pisans light tens of thousands of candles and then the night up with fireworks in celebration of Scaccieri Ranieri, patron saint of Pisa. This is the Luminara or Illumination of San Ranieri.
I had no idea what was about to happen, I had only gone to see the tower – leaning over as though frozen in its moment of disaster – but that evening descended the stairs of my hotel to find the streets clamorous and swaying with people.
All of them surging – by one hundred directions, down streets like spaghetti, sideways from alleyways, overfilling the main streets and spilling over into the side streets, with me carried along – inexorably toward the river Arno.
Earlier in the day an urn containing the saint’s remains had been carried from the Cathedral of Pisa, through the streets in solemn procession.
Since I arrived in Pisa, not two days before, I had been seeing peculiar decorations made from lengths of white wood. Nailed together zigzagged, in cruciform and other shapes, with what were like coat hooks dug into them. I had seen them stacked against cafe walls, over the windows of old buildings and when I walked the Arno last sunset were many of the buildings so adorned.
Tonight their design became apparent, as dusk fell, and all the old buildings were illuminate in the light of a countless many candles. – On each hook one lumini, as they are called, hung. – Lighted in a little cup of oil and the lampposts were strung similarly with cups dangled.
And the crowds along the riverbank were silhouette in their glow. I saw a gaggle of nuns go by hand in hand in hand and so on like a daisy chain, around the queues for the candy floss stalls. Then an orchestral piece was playing over loud speakers. I could see through the dancing mass were people crammed all along the river’s wall, dangling their legs over the side. – These were the front row seats, it seemed, for everyone was watching the water and they were really crammed and craning too, stood up and wrapped around the lampposts.
Around 11, the first explosion blew high into the night, like a geezer of smoke and flashing light, dripping back into the river. Then flames of bright colours shot up one after the other, lighting up the dumbfound crowds, on around the river’s meander. As lightning streaked the rockets from the residual clouds – lighted by the explosions above – until the plumes rose to fill the Arno from side to side. Then the fireworks ceased and the candlelight pervaded the smoke and as a great ghostly form it hovered amidst and above. Then a voice by the loud speakers – in Italian – accompanied by the long wavering notes of the melody. – The effect was really spiritual. – And then the voice begun to tell the story of the San Ranieri:
He was born 1118 into wealth and spent his youth in frivolity until 19 when he met Alberto, a hermit living at the at the Monastery of San Vito. The hermit led him to follow an ascetic life of poverty and religious contemplation, travelling to the Holy Land, and committing to the mortification of body and substance. – That is, denying himself the fruits of sinful impulse. – Returning to Pisa, in 1154, he lived out his days in the same monastery where the hermit, Alberto, had stayed.
In life, word spread of the miracles of Ranieri and upon his death, 17 June 1161, they say the bells of Pisa tolled alone and all together, without anyone touching them. – There remain such legends in the collective imagination of the city.
At the end of the narration came the fireworks again in great storms of fire and light, and then the whole city turned into one big shindig. Everywhere were lights and music playing, and every way was thronged.
Then came the storm of San Ranieri, another legend. It is a test of devotion. – The summer rain falls because the saint has made it rain to see who will stay out in it.
But bands struck up all over the city, on street corners singing old Italian folk songs to accordions and violins, and, in the next square, was pop music and jumping and dancing. There was a party around every corner until upon the corners were people sat and strewn, and everyone was going home again, kicking beer cans down the streets.
The Luminara is followed, on June 17, by the patron saint’s feast day and the Regatta of San Ranieri. – A 1,500m boat race, up-current, between ancient boats in the style of the frigates of the Medicean Order of the Knights of St. Stephen.
You can read more about the Regatta and things to do in Tuscany here, http://www.discovertuscany.com/pisa/regata-san-ranieri.html.
By Harrison Drury