If you are wondering when is the best time to visit Viterbo, there is a very good reason to choose September: the procession of the Macchina di Santa Rosa. This celebration – famous for its spectacular beauty – takes place every year on September 3rd and it is dedicated to Santa Rosa (Saint Rose of Viterbo), a young woman who lived in Viterbo in the 13th century and who is still very much loved by the locals because of the miracles she made during her life.
The name Macchina (car or machine, in Italian) could be misleading: it actually refers to a triumphal canopy carried in procession by a hundred men called Facchini di Santa Rosa (Saint Rose’s Porters): they lift up the structure – so that it is visible above the rooftops of Viterbo – and march throughout Viterbo’s city centre along a 2 kilometres route. The origin of this tradition dates back to the mid-13th century: in 1258 Pope Alexander IV ordered Santa Rosa’s corpse to be moved from the church of Santa Maria in Poggio to the monastery she had desired to enter during her life, which was eventually renamed in her honour (today, Chiesa di Santa Rosa).
In the following years, this exceptional event was remembered with a procession during which a statue of St. Rose on a canopy was carried: the canopy then underwent many transformations and it eventually took the shape – and size! – that can be admired nowadays. Its current, majestic dimensions were first used towards the end of the 1960s when – with the Macchina called “Volo d’Angeli” – the structure became more than 30 metres tall.
The design of the Macchina gets changed every five years, taking different shapes and different names: “Gloria” is the most recent one, as it was designed by a former Facchino, in 2015.
The procession of the Macchina di Santa Rosa, an emotional experience
The procession of the Macchina di Santa Rosa has been included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since December 2013.
This recognition officially marks the importance of such an event which has always been very much loved and cherished by Viterbo’s entire population: from mid-August the city begins to prepare for the procession and when it actually starts – to the cry of “Sollevate e fermi!” (“Lift it up and halt!”) given by the Head Facchino – the emotion is almost tangible. The event is so popular that people start gathering along the route of the procession since the early hours of the morning in order to choose the best spot from where they will then admire this extraordinary show.
A few minutes before the beginning of the procession, all the lights in Viterbo’s city centre get switched off so that the only thing that shines in the darkness of the night is the Macchina. Everybody looks up in awe, silent. The only sound is “Viva Santa Rosa!”, shouted by the Facchini as they proceed along the route and echoed by the people as the Macchina appears before them.
Many are the photos and videos that document this event but nothing compares to the incredible experience that this is when lived firsthand: simply breathtaking.