Festival of Santa Rosalia
There are some traditions and customs which transcend time. Traditions which captivate us and transport us to a different world, both charming and fascinating, with their mixture of devotion and theatre. The most famous example in Sicily is probably the Festa di Santa Rosalia, known as u fistinu by the people of Palermo. This takes place in mid-July in the sublime setting of Palermo’s most beautiful locations.
It’s no accident that this festival also attracted the most illustrious travellers visiting the city on the Grand Tour in the 1700s and 1800s.
Santa Rosalia, particularly dear to the people of Palermo for her role in eradicating the plague epidemic of 1624, is the unequivocal protagonist of this great event.
Participating in it is a unique experience. The popular procession sets off from the Cathedral on the night of 14 July going to the Foro Italico via the Cassaro, its route full of references to suffering, and it culminates in a joyous celebration of life with a firework display. It’s headed by the Archbishop and the Mayor of Palermo, who lead the entire city as it comes to life to pay homage to the Saint, joining together in an ever more impressive procession.
At its centre is the lavish float in the shape of a ship which bears the Saint’s statue and which is built year after year. It’s a veritable travelling stage, ten metres high and almost as long, transported by oxen (in the 17th century there were apparently even elephants!) and it’s richly decorated with roses, angels, cherubs and tritons among the pure gold and Baroque colours. Events take place all around the city: dances, balls, daring choreography, light shows and the cry of Viva Palermo e Santa Rosalia!
On 15 July the relics of the Saint are carried in procession in a silver urn and masses are celebrated in her honour. The urn is then brought back to the cathedral and is blessed by the Archbishop of Palermo.
Rosalia Sinibaldi, who lived in the twelfth century, spent her short life as a continual hermit (the Itinerarium Rosaliae, from Santo Stefano Quisquina to Mount Pellegrino) to escape making the marriage of convenience her noble family wanted. According to tradition, four centuries after her disappearance she appeared to a hunter during the great plague of Palermo because he was paying homage to her abandoned remains in a cave. When her rediscovered remains were carried through the infested streets of Palermo, they miraculously cured the disease and the population formed a procession behind her relics.
For anyone who wishes to discover the true soul of Sicily, the extraordinary combination of faith, joy, sacred mystery plays, the victory of life over death and the collective celebration of identity, the u fistinu of Santa Rosalia is an unmissable opportunity!