By Benedict Gardener
The 3rd September is arguably the most important night for the Viterbese. The streets are lined with the city’s inhabitants, some of whom have been waiting there since midday, drinking beer outside of open shop fronts. Even more stoical are the picnic chairs, padlocked to the railings days prior, reserving the best spots for those not lucky enough to have a shopkeeper friend. There is a festival feel in the air, and the whole city seems to hold its breath. Even if not directly involved, everyone is involved in spirit and all work has been put on pause. ‘Dopo Santa Rosa’ is the mantra one hears over again, as all other commitments are put aside until after tonight.
The night is that of La Transporta della Macchina Di Santa Rosa, and it commemorates each year the movement of the body of Saint Rose of Viterbo through the city. It has it’s roots in the 13th century, when Pope Alexander IV, upon finding the Saint’s body still intact seven years after her death, ordered her to be moved about a kilometre to her own dedicated church. Ever since, on the anniversary of the original movement, the transportation is recreated, following the same route, ending outside Monastero Di Santa Rosa. Here, the Macchina stands for seven days, allowing the holy and the curious to inspect it more closely in the daylight. Metres away, in the Monastery itself, the body of Santa Rosa still lies-in-state, testament to her miraculous preservation.
Each year, the scale of the event has grown. At first, it was recreated by carrying on shoulder what represented a bell tower through the streets, standing only ten metres. However, in the 20th century, it grew into its massive proportions, proportions, which grow incrementally each year, swelling, pushing against the limits of the narrow streets, and reaching to heaven above. It was recently given UNESCO Heritage status, under the peculiar category of Celebrations of big shoulder-borne processional structures. The current Machine stands at a huge 30m, weighing 5,100 kilograms and carried by around one hundred porters. Preparations start two months before, with the construction of the tower. Every five years, a new Macchina is designed by a different artist, each interpreting the tower in their own way. However, strict rules determine the dimensions and weight of the Macchina in order to ensure it can fit through the streets, and complete its course. The most important coordination happens on the night itself. One of the most technical parts of the transportation involves reversing the formation of the porters, who are arranged in height order. The uphill slope of the final ascent requires the tallest porters, who were previously at the front, to be sent to the back, and the attachment of ropes to further aid its ascent.
Arguably, it is the massive proportions that still succeed to draw such numbers of people; it is not just people’s sense of piety that draws them to this event, but the awe-inspiring experience of watching the machine pass metres before your face, lit by hundreds of candles in the dark night. This is commemoration on massive proportions, religious piety rarefied in such massive proportions that the spectacle perhaps becomes larger than that which it represents. Although much of the crowd is not religious, or not Catholic, they are drawn to watch not by the story, but by the human feat that is the transportation. To see the porters struggling under the weight of the Macchina is to experience a now rarely seen, and very visceral show of individuals struggling for their faith. The whole crowd becomes involved, filled with enthusiasm: shouts of “Evviva Santa Rosa!”, long live Santa Rosa, fill the air, and no-one. To see the size of the Macchina rising up before you, one is sure to leave feeling more lofty than when you arrived.