In the Italian city of Viterbo, thousands of people gather every year for the festival of Santa Rosa. Here, a large group of men carry a towering structure called Macchina di Santa Rosa across a mile-long walkway in the center of the medieval village. This annual fiesta is not only a religious tradition, but it is also a grand spectacle for tourists. Despite its fame and nationwide broadcast, there are only a few tourists who come to witness this event, and mostly only Italians know about it. Read on to find out the origin of this event, who Santa Rosa is, and what takes place during this celebration.
1. What is Macchina di Santa Rosa?
The Macchina di Santa Rosa is an illuminated tower or machine that was built in honor of Saint Rose of Viterbo, the patron saint of Viterbo, Italy. It stands 30 meters (98 ft.) high and weighs around 5,000 kg (11,000 lbs). As part of an annual September procession that draws thousands of tourists, this machine undergoes reconstruction each year. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has included this event in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
2. History of Macchina di Santa Rosa
2.1. Background of Rose of Viterbo
Viterbo used to be a contested commune of the Papal States. Rose of Viterbo, who was born in 1233, spent her life as a recluse but openly supported the papacy. Despite her unremarkable life, she became known for having mystical gifts of prophecy and miraculous powers. She died in March 1251, but she only officially became the patron saint of Viterbo centuries later, in 1457.
Rose belonged to a poor yet pious family, so she spent a lot of time praying and encouraging people to do penance. According to some accounts, she was only three years old when one of her maternal aunts died. As the family stood around their deceased loved one, the little girl went to the coffin and prayed. She then placed her hand on the body of her aunt and mentioned her name. The aunt miraculously opened her eyes and embraced her niece.
2.2. Early Life of Rose of Viterbo
As a child, Rose reportedly had an innate compassion for the unfortunate. She always tried to save a little food to share with the poor. On some days, she would leave their house with some bread in her apron so she could give it to whoever needed it. At the age of seven, she started retreating to a little cell in their house and spending much of her time in prayer and penance.
When she was 10 years old, she reportedly had a vision of the Virgin Mary telling her to join a Franciscan monastery and preach to the local citizens about repentance. She eventually entered the Third Order of Saint Francis in Viterbo. The young girl started dressing in a simple tunic and walking around the streets holding a crucifix. She also talked about the teachings of the Catholic Church during her walks.
Rose continued on her mission for two years. When Viterbo revolted against the Pope in 1250, she also joined the protest against Emperor Frederick II’s occupation of the city. Because of her actions, her family went into exile and sought refuge in Soriano nel Cimino. They were only able to return to their home city when the Papal States managed to reclaim Viterbo. She was already 15 years old at this point.
2.3. Rose’s Gift of Prophecy and Miracles
On December 2, 1250, Rose allegedly foresaw the emperor’s hasty death, which actually took place on December 13. Shortly thereafter, she went to a nearby town and successfully converted the local population, led by a sorceress. She achieved this by standing on a burning pyre for three hours without sustaining any injuries.
According to some accounts, Rose wanted to join the monastery of the Order of Saint Clare. Unfortunately, her poverty hindered her from paying the required dowry to enter the Order. While she accepted this situation, she also predicted that she would be able to join the Order after her death. On March. 6, 1251, Rose passed away in her father’s home and was buried in Poggio at the Church of Santa Maria. After a year, Pope Innocent IV promoted her veneration and authorized her canonization.
2.4. The First Transport to the Chapel of Saint Rose
More than two years after her death, Saint Rose reportedly appeared three times to Pope Alexander IV while he was in Viterbo. She told the pope that she wanted her remains to be moved to the Santa Maira delle Rose (known today as the pilgrimage chapel of Saint Rose). This was the church where she had previously wanted to become a nun.
More than six years after her death in 1258, they exhumed her body and scheduled its transportation on September 4, 1258. It was during this time that the first festival of Macchina di Santa Rosa took place. Although the details surrounding the event remain shrouded in mystery, the belief is that porters initially carried a lit statue of St. Rose on a canopy during the mile-long procession.
According to some Catholic websites, Rose’s remains were miraculously intact—a religious phenomenon known as incorruptibility—due to divine intervention. While her skin looks dark, her body remains flexible, and her internal organs are reportedly in good condition. In fact, her heart was removed in 1921 and placed in a reliquary for a procession. Miracles are also regularly occurring at her tomb. Pope Callistus III canonized her as Saint Rose in 1457.
2.5. Evolution of the Macchina di Santa Rosa
Count Sebastian Gregory Fani reportedly designed the first Macchina di Santa Rosa in 1686. There are sketches of the machine in the Civic Museum of Viterbo that date back to 1690. During the 18th century, noble families in Viterbo sponsored extravagant versions of the machine to honor Saint Rose of Viterbo.
Some designs resembled an altar, while others looked like a church tower. The next design appeared to be Gothic and later evolved into a sculptural concept. In recent decades, creators have shifted from using wood and papier-mâché for the older macchina to employing a combination of steel and fiberglass.
Every five years, the Municipality of Viterbo chooses a manufacturer to build a new macchina. There are some specifications for the structure. First, it has to be “28 meters high above the shoulder of the porters,” resulting in a height of 29.50 meters from the ground. There are also some required measurements that are based on the streets of Viterbo’s historic center, taking into consideration the narrowest passages, as well as gutters and balconies along the way. Past designs of the macchina resembled a Gothic bell tower. This is why writer Orio Vergani coined the traditional description of “walking bell tower.”
2.6. Macchina di Santa Rosa Accidents
There were several accidents and disasters that happened in relation to the procession. In 1790, the machine fell. In 1801, a spectator screamed after being robbed by pickpockets in the Piazza Fontana Granda. This caused the cavalry horses to panic, resulting in the deaths of 22 spectators. To make matters worse, the machine went up in flames in Piazza delle Erbe that very night. The series of disasters prompted Pope Pius VII to temporarily ban the procession until 1810.
That’s not the end of unfortunate events related to the machine. In 1814, it tilted backward and killed a few porters. In 1893, a heavy downpour prevented the transport but resulted in the discovery of a plot to throw bombs at it. The procession was once again suspended when the First World War broke out, but it resumed in 1918.
3. Macchina di Santa Rosa Festival
The Macchina di Santa Rosa Festival is the most important religious occasion in Viterbo, which is located about 100 kilometers from Rome. Every year, on the evening of September 3, a hundred men called “Facchini di Santa Rosa” (Saint Rose’s porters) hoist the obelisk-shaped machine and carry it through the streets. In 2013, this grand event made it to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Indeed, the procession of the macchina is a sight to behold. The 90-foot tower appears to be floating over residential buildings as it glows against the dark sky. Spectators start arriving to reserve their viewing spots in the morning and ask their friends to bring them food and water throughout the day. At night, tourists and locals alike take part in the carnival-like atmosphere of this fiesta.
In the past, disasters during the procession resulted in the deaths of several porters and spectators. Fortunately, no such disaster has happened since. However, it is said that porters are required to sign their wills before taking up the macchina.
4. Macchine di Santa Rosa Festival 2023
4.1. Macchina di Santa Rosa Festival Preparation
The Macchine di Santa Rosa Festival starts in the morning, when the historic streets of Viterbo are filled with the hustle and bustle of locals and visitors. There is singing of hymns, rounds of applause, and cheers for the facchini. Stands, scattered across the main piazzas, offer seating for those who have purchased tickets to witness the procession. Vendors fill the streets of Viterbo, setting up their stalls. Observers can spot people sitting on balconies or peering out of windows, eager to secure a good view of the procession.
The real excitement begins after sunset, when darkness wraps around the city as all lights are extinguished. The transport begins at around 8:00 p.m. as the local band plays hymns and marches along the route of the procession. They are also blessed with protection from any harm or danger that may befall them during the event.
Over the last few months, the macchina would have been hidden in the grounds of the Church of San Cisto as it was being built. During the time leading up to the festival, the builders spend a lot of time checking the macchina’s lights and construction. As they unveil the macchina, its lights are switched on before it is transported.
4.2. COVID-19 Pandemic
In 2020 and 2021, the transport had to be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, the macchina was simply put on display at the Piazza del Plebiscito. The festival only resumed in September 2022. This cancellation was a unique incident in the long history of the Macchina di Santa Rosa Festival.
4.3. Macchina di Santa Rosa Festival 2023 Events
The activities for the Macchine di Santa Rosa Festival 2023 began on August 22 with the inauguration of the International Peace Machines at the Santa Rosa monastery sanctuary. This celebrates 10 years of UNESCO recognition of this religious tradition. In the days leading up to September 3, there were several novenas and other prayer gatherings in different parishes all over Viterbo. This year, the organizers sold 1,200 seats and 1,375 spots in the stands to individuals desiring attendance at the transport of the Macchina di Santa Rosa. These were the available seats:
1. Piazza San Sisto: Grandstand with 103 seats (€39 each)
2. Piazza Fontana Grande: 600 seats (€15 each)
3. Piazza del Plebiscito: Grandstand with 819 seats (€35 to €44 each) and 600 chairs (€15 each)
4. Piazza Giuseppe Vergi: Grandstand with 453 seats (€35 each)
4.4. Macchina di Santa Rosa 2024
This year, the latest Macchina di Santa Rosa bid Viterbo goodbye. Gloria is the Santa Rosa machine designed by Raffaele Ascenzi. His latest masterpiece completed its last procession after nine years and seven transports. The vehicle that carried the machine also bore the names of porters who lost their lives in past transports and 50,000 prayers dedicated to their souls.
5. Museum of Sodalizio dei Facchini di Santa Rosa
The Museum of Sodalizio dei Facchini di Santa Rosa is a private museum located at 60.62 Via San Pellegraino in Viterbo. You can find it inside a medieval palazzeto (auditorium) that the municipality donated to the Sodalizio dei Facchini di Santa Rosa (Sodality of Porters of St. Rose). Founded in 1978, this organization has a mission to preserve the tradition of the procession and ensure its execution in a safe and responsible manner. It also promotes tourism, cultural activities, and mutual aid for its members.
The museum, which has been open to the public since 1994, is a two-storey structure. The ground floor displays models of the machines of Santa Rosa from 1690 up to the present. The museum currently holds 10 small-scale models arranged in chronological order in this section, commencing with the initial model from 1690. The collection is regularly updated to incorporate the latest models of the machine.
Upstairs, visitors can find an audiovisual room where they can view screenings of past and recent machine transports. This exhibit aims to recreate the emotions of the spectators and participants in this spectacular event. The museum’s cultural operators offer free guided tours and explain to visitors the most technical aspects of the macchina. The top of the building is closed to the public, and this is where the Sodalizio dei Facchini di Santa Rosa holds its weekly board meetings.