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8 Special things in Italy that happen only once a year
🗓️ Get out your calendar and start planning
Do you remember that scene in The Talented Mr. Ripley where the islanders emerge from the sea with the statue of Mary singing a haunting dirge? (If you don’t remember, a warning before you click, it is a dark moment in a dark film)
Long before I ever moved to Italy I thought about that scene and the ritual and ceremony a lot. Then we did move here and we spent the better part of our summers in Positano. But, I kept missing the festivities that were advertised on colorful posters on every shopfront and noticeboard. I eventually figured it out and now I plan days and trips around these sweet and solemn and festive events. These are some of my favorites that happen in Rome and Venice and Ponza. Only once a year.
March 9 Rome-Feast day of Santa Francesca Romana
Italians in general and Romans in particular get a bad rap when it comes to driving. In my opinion, they are actually far more skilled than the average American driver, there is just a little more flair and emotion involved. Did you know there is a patron saint that looks out for all those Roman drivers? Her name is Santa Francesca Romana. In 1925 Pope Pius XI declared her the saint of drivers because she was said to have an accompanying angel that always lit her path when she traveled. The monastic order of Oblates (which means they do not take religious vows, but still live a life of prayer and service) she founded in 1433 still operates. The doors to her home, the Torre de'Specchi, are open only one day a year on her feast day, March 9. The frescoes inside are breathtaking and the relics downstairs are that mix of creepy and beautiful that I love. There is usually a mass near the Colosseum where one of each of Rome's public services brings a vehicle to be blessed in a ceremony on the Sunday closest to March 9. Check the Automobile Club Roma Facebook page for up-to-date details. The church dedicated to Santa Francesca Romana near the Colosseum and the Roman Forum is open year-round. Look for the stairs near the main altar and head downstairs to see where her body is displayed in a glass shrine.
April 21 Rome - Natale di Roma
Romans love a good story and none more than the city’s beginnings. Legend says that April 21, 753 BCE was the day that the city was founded by Romulus. 2776 years later the city marks her birthday with days of historical recreations in the Circo Massimo and a parade along the via Fori Imperiali. It is wonderful. I haven’t been the Circo Massino part of the celebrations for years but when I lived in Monti I usually caught part of the parade. Around 11:30, I like to get a spot across the street from the Curia Iulia, the seat of the ancient Roman Senate and watch flower-crowned Vestal Virgins, Bear skin clad centurions, scowling battalions, and Julius Cesares and Cleopatras march and twirl and stroll towards the Colosseum.
June 2 Rome - Frecce Tricolore Flyover
OK, this one happens more than once a year but the June 2nd flyover is the big one. June 2nd is the day that Italy celebrates the Festa della Repubblica, the day that Italy became a republic. In the morning there is a military parade along the via Fort Imperiali between the Vittoriano monument at Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum. The end of the parade is marked by an impressive flyover of ten Aermacchi MB-339 jets in formation trailing red, white, and green smoke behind them to create an Italian flag. For years I famously missed the spectacle despite it happening just meters above my front door. If you want to get a good view away from the crowds and security (lots of heads of state attend the parade) you can go to the Circo Massimo or along the via del Corso or Piazza del Popolo around 9 am.
June 20 Ponza - Festa di San Silverio
This is my favorite day on the island of Ponza. It reminds me of Thanksgiving and July 4th rolled up into one sweet celebration. People come home to the island for the festivities. There are long family lunches and fireworks at dawn and midday and at midnight. The main street in the port is decorated by local fishermen and boat captains with myrtle branches. In the morning there is a procession of the well-decorated statue of the saint through town and then he is put on a boat and sailed out to bless the sea and the island. Before he is returned to the church, red carnations are thrown from the steps to the crowd watching below. Sometimes there is a concert and there is always a market that sells the most delicious fire-roasted sugar caramelized peanuts. San Silverio was appointed Pope in June 536. His reign was short-lived. He was exiled by the Byzantine general Belisarius to the island of Palmarola where he starved to death in March 537. A few centuries later rescued fishermen claim that it was Silverio that saved them and he was canonized as a saint.
Mid-July Trastevere - Festa de Noantri
There are not many neighborhood festivals in Rome anymore. We used to have a fall festival in Monti with live music and street performances. I think there is still a small one in San Giovanni in June. But the neighborhood of Trastevere has held onto theirs. The Festa de Noatri happens on the first Saturday after the 16th of July. There is a procession of the statue of the Madonna del Carmine, known as "Madonna dé Noantri" on a boat down the Tevere at sunset and when it is finally dark, there are fireworks. You can stand along the Garibaldi bridge to watch the boat procession and then go have a drink and then find a spot in between the Chiesa di Sant'Agata in Trastevere and the Basilica di San Crisogono for the fireworks.
Third Sunday in July Venice - Festa del Redentore
Venice suffered many plagues through the centuries. The city has two important festivals that mark the end of two of them. The Festa del Redentore is one of Venice’s most beloved celebrations. We have only been once and that was in July 2021, in what we now know was the middle and not anywhere close to the end of a plague. This year we hope to get the keys to our new home in time to celebrate as Venetian residents. A votive bridge is built across the Guidecca canal to connect the Zattere to the Basilica del Redentore. Yellow lanterns are strung and families set up tables along the Fondamente in Guidecca and in Venice. The Bacina San Marco fills with boats hours before midnight when the almost hour-long firework show happens. These are some of the best viewing spots.
November 2 Rome - Procession of the Sacconi Rossi
It took me more than a decade of living in Rome to finally see this event. It is an event that is worth that kind of wait. It is also not for everyone. If a crypt full of skeletons is not your thing then you can cross this off your list. November 2 is All Souls Day, a day of religious observance that is for remembering and praying for the dead. Established in 1760, the Sacconi Rossi is a Roman confraternity that buries any unclaimed bodies found in the Tevere River. Their name comes from the red hooded robes that they wear when carrying out their duties. At sunset on November 2, there is a mass in the church of S. Giovanni Calibita on the Isola Tiberina. This church is part of the Fatebenefratelli Hospital. After the mass, there is a candlelit, incense-scented procession, and more prayers along the river. Then the doors of the crypt located underneath the Basilica di San Bartolomeo all'Isola are opened and for a few hours you can visit the bones and skeletons of the unnamed departed. They are thoughtfully and elaborately arranged. Photographs are absolutely forbidden which only adds to the solemn but reverent atmosphere.
21 November Venice - Festa della Salute
Where Festa del Redentore is summery and carefree, Festa della Salute is solemn and heartfelt. The day commemorates a promise made in 1630 by the Doge Nicolò Contarini. He asked the Virgin Mary to protect Venetians from the plague that was devasting the city and publicly declared that he would have a magnificent church built in return. Baldassare Longhena started work right away and deaths did indeed abate. The pandemic was eventually declared over in November 1631. A votive bridge is built that connects the Salute church to the campo in front of the Hotel Gritti. All around the church, there are stalls set up selling long candles and carnival treats like helium balloons and sweets from Sicily. It gets VERY crowded as the day goes on. My advice is to get up early and light your candle first thing. You will miss the carnival part, but you won’t get caught in the one-way traffic crush. The traditional dish to eat is Castradina. You will see it on almost every menu. Late November in Venice is chilly and usually foggy and bereft of tourist crowds. It is one of the few times in the year that Venetians have their city almost to themselves.
Bonus procession: Late April Rome - Madonna dei Monti procession
If you are in Monti on the Sunday evening that falls after April 26th you might catch the neighborhood church taking its beloved icon of the Virgin Mary on a procession through the streets.