Pisa’s San Ranieri Regatta

If September is Lucca’s month, so full is it of processions, fairs and other events, June is definitely Pisa’s moment of glory and festivities. San Ranieri is the patron saint of Pisa and for three days this month he is celebrated in style by the inhabitants of one of Italy’s four ancient maritime republics (the other three, in case you didn’t know, are Amalfi, Venice and Genoa).

Ranieri Scàcceri was born in Pisa in 1118 and died there in 1161. He was a hermit who travelled to the Holy Land, became a miracle-worker, was adopted as Pisa’s patron saint and is buried under the high altar of its wonderful cathedral.

On the 16th the Luminara lights up the city with over 100,000 candle-lanterns. I’ve seen this magical evening on a previous occasion and it casts a delightfully archaic light over the city’s river front and the area round the leaning tower. The Luminara is something not to be missed and gives one the best impression of what a mediaeval city would have looked like before the invention of electricity.

Lucca’s own Luminara on the occasion of the celebration of the “Santo Volto” in September gives a similar impression but, of course, lacks the peculiarly beautiful effect of the lights reflected into the river Arno which describes a broad arch, rather like a long-bow, through Pisa.

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Moreover, Pisa’s version highlights the architectural features of its buildings in a stunning manner. The candles appear to be left around after the event and most passers-by help themselves to their remains.

The celebrations in honour of San Ranieri continue the next day in the Arno, where the “Regatta di San Ranieri.” is celebrated. Four boats, inspired by the Medici Order of the Knights of St. Stephen (Pope and martyr) founded in 1561 and who played such a leading part in defeating the Muslims at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 (remember Shakespeare’s “Othello”?) from the city’s historic districts (or quarters) of S. Maria, S. Francesco, S. Martino and S. Antonio, respectively decorated with blue, yellow, red and green lights, compete to win the Palio (or religious banner – as in the more famous Palio di Siena) di San Ranieri. Climbers, known as “montatori”, have to climb up a rope at the finish line to reach the prize at the top of a ten metre high flagpole mounted on a barge in the middle of the river. The last one to arrive gets as a prize a pair of ducks.

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Before the race proper there was a cortege with drummers. They start them young in this part of the world:

The race takes place over a distance of 1,500 metres along the Arno and against the river’s current. It is, therefore, a particularly tough exercise, considering also the heavy weight of the boats themselves. The competition begins near the railway bridge and ends in front of the Palazzo Medici Bridge near the city’s fortress. The boats have fixed seats and a crew of eight rowers, a helmsman and the “montatore”.

Victory actually does not depend on who wins but on the skill and agility of the first “montatore”, who manages to grab the flag.

This customs harkens back to the victorious Battle of Lepanto where the Order of Santo Stefano had to board the infidel ships and win the pennant that was on top of the enemy’s mast. The flags captured then are still preserved today in Pisa’s Chiesa dei Cavalieri.

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The event we witnessed last night was enhanced by spectacular lighting effects which truly added to the occasion.

If you’ve missed the Luminara and the regatta then you can still join in today for the big procession which will take San Ranieri’s remains around the city together with a costumed cortege.

For those interested in statistics this is the current score of victories of the various quarters in modern times:

  • Sant’Antonio 24
  • Santa Maria 23
  • San Martino 11
  • San Francesco 6

San Martino (the red boat) won this year’s regatta followed by the yellow, blue and green boats.

I don’t know if bets were taken…

 

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