o introduce the June 24 celebrations dedicated to Florence’s patron saint St John the Baptist, it is wise to draw inspiration from the Oltrarno, and in particular from a street in this area that tells us so much about the history of Florence, namely Via Maggio.
The image of St John the Baptist was disseminated throughout Europe on the florin, the Florentine coin that was introduced in 1252, and was even mentioned by Dante in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy. It is also present in a fifteenth-century fresco representing Christ’s baptism by the Lorenzo di Bicci workshop, and a 1467 triptych by Neri di Bicci in the church of San Felice. St John the Baptist can also be seen on the capitals in the Palazzo Ricasoli Firidolfi courtyard and in the private chapel of Palazzo Ridolfi in Via Maggio, which was built at the end of the sixteenth century by Giovan Battista Zanchini and attributed to Santi di Tito.
To get inside the heart of this Florentine feast day, the words of nineteenth-century English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning are perhaps some of the most revealing. Barret Browning spent her Florentine days writing verses in her literary shelter of Casa Guidi on Via Maggio, an apartment that she shared with her husband Robert Browning at the south end of the street, and which can be visited every year from April to November. Amongst her writings, she describes how the feast day was celebrated during the period of the Italian Risorgimento.
In a letter to her sister dated June 1847, Barrett Browing writes:
“Meanwhile, here is the grand festa of San Giovanni, the patron saint of Florence, the grandest festa of the year—and there are to be chariot races in the piazza close to us, & horse races (without riders) somewhere else—games in the manner of the ancients—also fireworks at night. We had intended to have hidden our sublime faces from these things—but after all, I suppose we shall not—it seems foolish not to see what is so characteristic of the people when we have only to open our eyes—so we have ordered the carriage as usual at six, & I will tell you the result. The fireworks I certainly shall like to see: for I like fireworks, & Robert says that Italy is famous for them. Altogether it will cost us a few pauls & two headaches, perhaps.”
Characteristic of both yesterday and today, the annual St John the Baptist fireworks display that the city offers to its residents and visitors is a real Florentine tradition that struck the English poet. This is how she describes it:
“I couldn’t help screaming out for pleasure, and surprise. I never had seen any good fireworks, but Robert, who had, declared that nothing ever met his eyes to compare with these…and then the whole scene, the river, the people, the garden & characteristic houses contrived to throw one into a fit of ec[s]tasy—it was my turn to be child, after all my fine reflection of the hour before. Beyond description beautiful, these fireworks were. Great temples, living in light up in the sky…fantastic palaces, burning there & going out, fading away, leaving rains of glory…fountains of flame rising upward as if to find the stars, & then falling, falling into the river…dripping in a regular noiseless splendor which took away your breath! and then entire globes which leapt above the houses, & there broke into a rain of fire or of living fiery serpents which seemed tensing & curling when you looked at them! I cannot describe to you how marvellously beautiful it was.”
Trace Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s steps in Florence with a trip to Casa Guido, located at Piazza San Felice, 8 (347 69 68 528; email@example.com). Open from April till November on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (3–6 p.m.). Entrance is free.