The Feast of San Lorenzo

Drummers in livery, with the Florentine crest of a red Fleur de Lys on their white drums

Florence is always having festivals, partly because every day is some saint’s day by now, but also because when the Republic of Florence decrees in 1397 that thenceforth they will provide a feast for all the people in honor of San Lorenzo on his feast day of August the 10th, they mean it, and however many successive regimes may rule said republic, the custom remains.  These are what one might call real Renaissance festivals, and the banners and livery that many of us are used to seeing at reenactments have an infinitely more organic feel when, instead of play, the feeling is of habit and obligation, and that this tired old tunic has been dug out and brushed off every year since tunics were a new thing.

Of course such festivals do feed the tourist trade, so the pageant is in part display for outsiders, but as the city standard and guild banners are borne proudly past crowds who haven’t the foggiest sense of their significance, there is a distinct sense of reality and continuity which contrasts with the (however faithful) nostalgic feeling of a reenactment.

Each flag and crest represents some part of the old government, which is, of course, still there

There is no nostalgia in this pageant, since everything involved: the church, the people, the city officials with their boring speeches, the saint’s cult, and the promised feast, are still normal, no more nor less serious now than they were when a youthful Machiavelli waited in the same line for a free meal.

The official city standard makes a universal appearance at these things, proudly displaying the city’s crest.  The title Gonfaloniere di Giustizia or Standard-Bearer of Justice was the title of the most prestigious and important position in the Republic, and while one doesn’t picture politicians actually carrying the spear around, the procession of the standard, guarded by officers in white and red livery and floppy Renaissance hats, standing solemnly through the whole mass holding their charge, remains a thrilling sight.  As does the real live politician following it in, who holds the successor to that noble office.

The Great Standard of the Republic of Florence enters the basilica for the festival mass

The banner of the saint is not usually there above the door; it’s just for his festival week.

The Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence is a church I have visited many times and shall visit many more, in person and in my discussions.  While my usual focus in visiting is the excellence of its neoclassical architecture and the brilliant design of the various Medici tombs therein, on August 10th it must be instead its dedicatee.  San Lorenzo (Saint Laurence in the anglophone world) is a saint particularly relevant to many of us, and has the  enviable distinction of being the Patron Saint of both libraries and chefs.  The former office he acquired, along with being patron of archivists and notaries, because of his activities as one of the early administrative deacons who ran finances and record-keeping of the early Roman Church; the latter for being grilled alive at the order of Emperor Vespasian, August 10 259 AD.  He is one of the  earlier martyrs, and one with a short but excellent set of associated anecdotes.

In this detail from a Fra Angelico fresco in San Marco, Lorenzo with his grill is obligingly easy to recognize standing next to blood-smeared St. Peter Martyr.

Discovering Lorenzo and his office, Vespasian commanded him to hand over the treasures of this illegal cult.  Given three days to prepare, Lorenzo emptied the treasury, giving everything he had to the poor.  When summoned to present the treasures to Vespasian he instead brought a company of the poor, sick and crippled, declaring that these were the treasures of the Church.  He is supposed to have been good-natured about his execution, and is rumored to have said when he was being grilled alive something along the lines of, “Flip me over, Caesar, I’m done on this side.”

San Lorenzo has several churches in Rome, including the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda (better known to classicists as the church they built in the middle of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, where San Lorenzo was supposedly sentenced), and San Lorenzo in Panisperna which has the famous grill on which he was executed, which he also carries quite reliably in art, making him one of the easiest saints to recognize when one plays the never-ending art game, “Spot the Saint”.

San Lorenzo’s basilica in Florence might in fact be the oldest church in Florence – several fight for the title, excluding rivals by using various definitions of “Florence” based on different past locations of the city walls.

Seen from above, you can see the long roof, the octagonal dome in the back (added later), and the library extending off to the left.

The eleventh-century original was replaced over the course of the 1400s by a new Romanesque church, intended to be showpiece of the new architecture based on the recently-rediscovered Vitruvius and other glories of the lost Roman arts.  Originally it was to have been paid for by the city with one chapel financed by the Medici, but when the Medici contribution was nicely done and the rest still languishing almost untouched, the Medici (who totally didn’t rule the city honest we didn’t) offered to step in and pay for the whole thing.  Good publicity for the Medici all around, and it became the family’s traditional burial church.  The great Laurenziana Library, containing the former Medici collections and many other manuscripts, is still attached (and currently doing a feature exhibit on the oldest and most complete surviving ancient collection of Virgil).  The facade of the church, as you can tell, was never finished, due to some legal quarrels and artist deaths and Michelangelo having another row with the pope and all the usual, but the inside…

A slightly organized mob

…is not our concern today.  Today’s concern is that the city has promised to give a free feast to the populace this night every year forever, and they’re not about to fail in 2011.  Not quite.  You see, excellent as the parade part of the festival is, feeding 1,000 Florentines, and 1,000 attending tourists, requires a great deal of logistics and discipline, and was organized by…  well… Florentines.

Our goal for the night?  Distribute watermelon, yogurt cups and pasta to an enormous mob.

They erected metal barriers, like you do, to organize the line into two files, then had a series of tents in which the watermelon was sliced and the pasta heated by burly men, then women with trays to carry them to the people

A well-meaning watermelon booth

By carry them to the people, I mean wander confusedly toward the mob and hold out trays until hands grabbed things in a vast, crushing mass.  The immediate effect was that a lot of us got in lines, and then huge numbers of people streamed past the lines, going around the barriers to the middle, and shoving in, getting food from the confused women, and leaving again past the people still waiting in the line.

The consternation of those in line was matched only by the unblinking calm of the hundreds streaming to cut in line, who were either blissfully unaware of the situation or equally blissfully uncaring.  The whole stream just flowed past us, smiling and shoving, while we stood stock still, with an increasing number of complaints rising from the veterans who put up with this every year.

Poor St. Laurence watching these attempts to feed his people…

Watermelon was the first item to manifest, and here a new problem arose.  Those in the front of the mob were shoved up against the front rails by the booths, along which it was necessary to advance to reach the pasta.  Those with watermelon brought it, and we ate it, but had no way to escape the area even if we wanted to since there was an enormous mob behind us.  Thus the dozens who already had watermelon blocked the hundreds who had not, with no escape in sight.  There was also nowhere to put the peels, resulting in hundreds of people standing in a tight mob either holding our dripping and sticky watermelon rinds, or attempting to hurl them over the head of the crowd into large, distant dumpsters, with mixed success.  And soon there was no one left who wanted watermelon, at least not that could get near.

After 2 hours of holding watermelon rind, I finally advanced to the pasta stage and discovered the next brilliant plan.  There were only two men working the pasta booths, and it took about two full minutes for them to do each batch, which was about 6 bowls.  12 bowls every two minutes, 1,500 people give or take, so… a process which started at 10 PM was still well underway at midnight when I escaped with the hardest-earned bowl of pasta I’ve ever eaten.

The fruits (or noodles) of victory!

It was a Tuscan specialty, ground meat with a little tomato, not much else.  But it will remain one of the most memorable pastas I’ve tasted, partly for the chaos of its acquisition, but more for the thought of so many previous Florentines (Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini, young Marsilio Ficino) fighting what I’m sure were equally-organized mobs.  You know, the tradition of handing out pasta at these things originated before the tradition of handing out silverware.  Yogurt, I hope, is modern.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply