Practicing the Transport of la Macchina di Santa Rosa

The most exciting thing that happens in Viterbo happens in September when we’re not here. It’s called the Transport of the Macchina di Santa Rosa. It’s a ritual to honor the patron saint of Viterbo, Santa Rosa, which began in 1258. A huge four-story-tall monument is built and carried by 100 male porters (called facchini di Santa Rosa) from one end of town to the other—about a mile. Every five years a new monument is built, and the current one is retired. Right now, the last one is at an “Expo” in Milan. The Viterbese are understandably very proud of this.

The Macchina from 2007. They light it up
and shut off all the surrounding lights in town.
Fred was drawing yesterday and settled down in a part of town much closer than he’d intended to because he stumbled upon the monument being assembled. Our wine-store-owner-neighbor bumped into Fred and told him that tomorrow morning at 6 am would be a rehearsal for the September 3 procession and that we MUST witness it. And that we did. (This neighbor is now fluent in English, having studied all year with a local Scottish guy he hired for private lessons. “Suddenly I’m English!” he said to me.)

This morning we got up earlier than we ever have in Viterbo, not counting the days we leave and have to get on a bus to the airport. It was not typically quiet and eerie, though, because as we neared the square, we could see and hear the townspeople gathering near the structure.

Some onlookers aren't quite as enthralled as others.

La Macchina—this is just a partially-assembled version.
The final one will have candles, and who knows what other embellishments.

We waited for quite some time, 6 am not really meaning 6 am in Italy, but were rewarded. A guy on a speaker—the capofacchini, “head of the guys carrying the macchina”—told everyone “We’re beginning,” and all the facchini in their matching white tee-shirts, black work boots and various “padding” apparatus took their assigned spots under and around the monument. It’s HUGE, towering over the tops of the three-story buildings surrounding it. The actual specs require it to be no higher than 28 meters (30 yards), no heavier than 5 tonnes (11,000 pounds), and no wider than 4.3 meters (5 yards). Until a few decades ago, the Macchina di Santa Rosa was made of paper mache, but now it is made of steel, aluminum and fiber glass to be lighter and fire resistant.

A word about the facchini. To be selected as a facchino, one must pass a test of strength by carrying a 160 pound box on his shoulders for at least 70 meters without stopping. It is a great honor to be selected. Before the start, they receive a special blessing and, for most of the route, they walk without any visual aid, directed by the capofacchini and guides posted at the four corners of the machine.

The facchini then lifted the macchina off the saw horses it rested on, only by about a foot, and made their way down the hill to the Fontana Grande, about four blocks away, all downhill. The guy with the speaker repeated “Fare! Fare! Fare!” which means to make or do. Kind of like “hut” to a soldier. The monument bobbed slightly (and tilted a tiny bit) as it slowly glided down the narrow street.

Ropes lined the street, presumably to keep us onlookers off the street and on the sidewalk, but nobody paid any attention and the street filled with spectators following the bobbing tower. At the Fontana, the facchini rested and had a cigarette and a swig from the fountain. For about 45 minutes. Much fun people- (and dog-) watching. (The Italians love their dogs.)

This facchino has a leather shoulder pad on his right shoulder with the number 8.
This means he will be on the left side of the macchina, as it will rest on his right shoulder.
The guys in the middle, underneath the structure, have a hooded neck/back pad, and a rope
they hold in their mouth, like the rein of a horse.

She's all set with him.

An ambulance is always on standby because in 1790 the machine fell during the move. In 1801, the cries of a spectator robbed of her jewels by some pickpockets in the Piazza Fontana Grande panicked some cavalry horses. Twenty-two people in the crowd died in the ensuing confusion and later that night the machine caught fire in Piazza delle Erbe. In 1814 tilted backwards and a few porters died.

When they started up again, we stayed and watch them go, rather than follow. They went about equidistant from where we’d come to where we were, then stopped, turned the statue around—a complete 360—and then another 90, till they were taking a right down the next street, after which they disappeared and we went home to bed.Someone posted a video of the whole event and it can be seen here. Here's the url: