As summer begins its slow wane, it offers a particularly poignant stage for the pulse of the city to reset and reflect. On September 7, Florentines usually flood into piazza della Santissima Annunziata to celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary. The feast day, which became popular in the Latin Church in the seventh century, is not specific to Florence, but it is celebrated uniquely here.
The Feast of the Nativity of Mary mirrors local traditions wherever it is. Held at the end of the summer, the celebrations often include a focus on the harvest in the context of Mary as a bringer of life. In France, thanks are given for the grape harvest. In Goa, India, a festival includes dishes of many flavors to highlight Mary’s availability to the faithful in all circumstances. In the Philippines, sweets are offered to representations of Mary as a baby (a rarity in the Christian iconography of the saints). Florence has the Rificolona, or the festival of the paper lanterns. The tradition dates with certainty to at least the sixteenth century when lanterns, with a protective covering over the flame, were used by farmers to light their long walk into the city the night before the feast day. Not only were these contadini coming into Florence to pray, but also to sell products after the summer harvest. In Normal Times, piazza della Santissima Annunziata filled with children wielding store-bought or handmade lanterns.
To our modern sensibilities the lanterns are no longer utilitarian but visually impactful. With a deeper look into secular and sacred spaces, the Rificolona draws attention to complex themes in Florence’s historical relationship with the veneration of Mary and within its rural population.
Like so many holidays with religious foundations, the Rificolona has increasingly become a secular holiday. Following the tradition of peasants selling goods in the city to earn extra money for the winter months ahead, a large farmers market has joined the festivities. Today, it is the city council, not the Church, that organizes Rificolona as a civic event. But this celebration certainly has its roots in the Marian doctrine that dominated medieval Christianity. While Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence, Mary is equally beloved. Saintly influencers because of their immediate proximity to Jesus, both of these religious figures have feast days in honor of their birth (while almost all saints are commemorated on the date of their death). It seems a fitting humanistic celebration of the commencement of life on this earth, more so than the promise of eternal life after death.
Mary’s presence in Florence runs much deeper than this annual organized display of devotion. Since the Middle Ages, Mary had become an increasingly central element of Christian theology. This was due in part to the Crusades instigating the collection of relics and icons from the East. Florence is a mirror of Mary’s popularity, which pushed the Church to develop doctrine that elevated her as a queen on earth and in heaven. The popular Franciscan preacher San Bernardino of Siena held Mary up as a model for all women. Mary, he argued, had done more for humanity and the world than anyone else. When considering the adoration of Mary, it is unsurprising that not only is Florence’s cathedral dedicated to Saint Mary of the Flower, but that there are other churches devoted to the female figure too. Santa Maria Maggiore, first documented in the early tenth century, is one of the oldest churches in the city and clearly connected to this beloved saint. Mary exists in Florence in the longue durée; there are countless images of Mary all over the city designed to encourage popular devotion. It’s impossible to escape her gaze across the centuries.
And what of Florence’s relationship with those who lived in the surrounding countryside? Before the relative security and ease of modern travel, pilgrimages were a big deal. They certainly weren’t unheard of, but it was rare to leave the security of one’s village.
In the late Middle Ages, following the agricultural revolution, the rapid growth of urban centers like Florence was only possible because there was a surplus of food to feed those whose hands were not fingering the soil. The survival of merchants, bankers and artisans depended on the farmers who fed them. This deep distinction between urban and rural citizens was highlighted by the Rificolona: Florentines would mock the peasants as they made their way to the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata. Children’s lanterns are still targets of destruction and verbal jeering is commonplace. That might all be now in good fun, but Tuscan dialect has held onto the derogatory notion that an overly made-up woman is a rificolona. Mary’s extreme humility does not make her an easy role model in any age.
Perhaps more poignant than asking where else we can find Mary in Florence is to ask where we do not. Beyond the chaotically undulating crowds of the Rificolona, she is omnipresent across the city in namesake, image and influence. Devotion to Mary is complex and, like any cultural construct, changes to reflect the contemporary worldview. Our shifting way of seeing Mary is as ephemeral as the lanterns that fill the streets of Florence on a warm September night.
Where to celebrate Rificolona in 2020
Expect fewer celebrations for this year’s Rificolona, but all the same 200 artists and actors will hold impromptu performances under the Teatro di città banner from 7 to 11pm. See them perform in the following places:
- Via Vacchereccia – Vicolo dell’oro – Piazza San Firenze
- Loggia del Porcellino – via Pellicceria – Via Roma
- Piazza Santissima Annunziata – Via Tornabuoni
- Piazzetta Antinori – Piazza Santa Trinità
- Piazza San Lorenzo – Piazza Strozzi – Piazza de’ Cerchi
- Via dell’Arte della Lana – Via Lambertesca
- Piazza delle Belle Arti – Pazza del capitolo
- Piazza dei Maccheroni – Piazza san Martino
- Piazza dei Tre Re – Piazza del Limbo – Volta dei Mercanti
- Piazza di Parte Guelfa – Via del Brunelleschi
- Piazza di Santo Stefano al Ponte – Volta dei Girolami