She is “the rose among roses, the woman among women”, and every year, on a hot July night, she stops the traffic in Palermo.
La Santuzza, as she is affectionately called, is not a curvaceous Italian film star. She is an effigy of a 12th-century hermit, Santa Rosalia, the beloved patron saint of Palermo. Legend has it that her relics stopped the spread of plague in the city in 1624. Every year, in remembrance of this miracle, she is the focus of the city’s most lavish celebration, known as Il Festino, when she is borne from the cathedral to the sea on a decorated chariot, surrounded by her adoring public.
Today, Palermo suffers from plagues that go by other names: debt, poverty, corruption and, of course, mafia. La Santuzza is a symbol of hope and civic unity against these modern-day pestilences. She is pulled by volunteers from Addio Pizzo, an anti-mafia charity, and accompanied by dancers, musicians, and members of the city’s immigrant communities.
I join the procession outside Palermo’s Norman cathedral. The crowds are thick, animated, and fluttering with Spanish hand-held fans. For a month now, Palermo has been suffocating in an unusually hot, humid heat, relieved only by the blast of a scalding sirocco wind.
Gianpiero Cammarata, a plain-clothes policeman, smiles and closes his eyes gratefully as I wave my fan in his direction. What does the Festino mean to him? “Mangiare!” he laughs, before going on to tell me about the traditional delicacies sold by street vendors during the Festino. Babbalucci are tiny local snails cooked with oil, parsley and garlic; anguria is thirst-quenching watermelon, while sfincione is a pizza made with caciocavallo, a tangy cheese. You will also find small wagons selling grattatelle: grated ice flavoured with fruit juice and sugar.
Santa Rosalia rolls along on her colossal painted carriage to loud cheers. Austerity has slashed the festival’s budget to a fifth of what it was in the 1990s, so hundreds of people have given their talents free of charge. The ravishing statue of Rosalia, who stands tall, white, serene and unadorned except for a red rose clasped in her hand, was made by Salvatore Rizzuti, professor of sculpture at Palermo’s art school. Even the director of the Festino, Sandro Tranchina, has come back to his hometown from Brazil, where he runs an events company, to work for two months for no pay. Why? “When you are a Palermitan you can never untie yourself from this city. It’s a second job,” he says.
In the Quattro Canti, the ornate square at the heart of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, recently re-elected mayor of Palermo after an absence of 12 years, climbs on to the saint’s chariot, as tradition dictates, and stands at the feet of Rosalia to make the heartfelt cry the city has been waiting for: “Viva Palermo e Santa Rosalia!” The packed square goes wild with delight.
The finale of the evening is on the Foro Italico, where Santa Rosalia comes to rest by the sea and a magnificent fireworks display takes place. But for me, the long procession along Corso Vittorio Emmanuele is the best part of the Festino, because of the pride and tenderness Palermitans express towards their patron saint, and because it is a rare chance to admire the beautiful, if sooty, baroque buildings that line this road.
Tonight, free from the thunder of traffic, Palermo’s buildings seem to exhale and bloom like sensual nocturnal flowers. The wooden shutters of great palazzi open up; yellow light from ceiling chandeliers spills on to the street, and you are given a glimpse into jewel-box rooms with painted ceilings. Shadowy figures crowd the balconies, calling out to their beloved Santuzza, in the darkness. Tiny alleyways shimmer with thousands of white fairy lights and the doors of sumptuous, rotting, 17th-century churches are open late into the night.
Even with 300,000 people packed into Palermo’s historic centre, this deeply seductive but troubled city feels at peace with herself tonight.
Il Festino takes place annually on July 14