Legend says the rain stops falling, the clouds clear and the sun comes out when San Crescentino’s image is carried outside the Duomo in Urbino. On the first day of June Urbino’s patron saint is celebrated with a special mass, procession and feast. However, this year the rain did not cease. Participants were unable to carry the saint through town as tradition instructs. Enzo Busignani remembers only two occasions out of seven decades when this grace failed. Did this deter the faithful?
MULTIMEDIA: See how Italians honor their patron saints.
Each Italian city has a patron saint. San Crescentino belongs to Urbino. Immortalized for renouncing the Diocletian ruling powers and spreading Christianity, the Roman soldier turned minister was beheaded in 303 A.D. His brief ministry resulted in many converts. San Crecentino’s figure appears not only in Urbino but also in Rome. From the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, he stands along with Jesus and St Paul.
Processions are performed to honor a saint’s anniversary of death or another defining event. Carrying the statue in the early summer is a demanding job. Balancing the statue takes precision. It requires six volunteers to support the life-size figure at one time with about 20 men alternating throughout the procession. About 1,000 people join the event each year. Food and wine are an important part of the day. A few people have specific roles in the festival.
Busignani, or “Pippi” as friends know him, has carried the statue for 20 years. The oldest barber in town, he learned the business as a child from his father. Working for 65 years has not slowed him down.
He stops cutting a client’s hair to share the prayer he says each year to San Crescentino, “If you want me to carry you again next year, give me health.” Hair falls in every direction as he excitedly waves his scissors. He explains his favorite is not San Crescentino, but Santa Rita. He wears her image around his neck and often jokes with her, “If you don’t do me this grace, I’ll go to Crescentino.” The grace is health. With health, he explains, you can have anything and without it, nothing.
Next to Busignani’s barbershop, beyond his birdcage replica of the Ducal Palace, is the former home of the statue’s creator. Francesco Antonio Rondelli constructed the image in the early 19th century. Made of paper-mâché, the statue is kept out of the elements and the public eye except for the procession. To preserve the work, it is stored behind a painting in the Duomo. With a push of a button, the painting dramatically slides down to reveal San Crescentino. The statue holds a relic, a bone from Crescentino. The remaining relics are stored under the cathedral’s main altar.
San Crescentino’s image is easily found around town. This year church officials placed a replica of a bronze statue capturing the saint slaying a dragon. Beside the steps leading up to the Duomo, San Crescentino stands on the left with the dragon at his feet, and opposite is Bishop Mainardo. This bishop brought Crescentino’s relics to Urbino in 1068, some 765 years after he was beheaded.
The current bishop of Urbino, Francesco Marinelli, explained the symbolism behind the dragon slaying. The dragon depicts the triumph over evil and temptation. “Everyone knows him but none try to imitate, ” the bishop says through an interpreter.
Knowing is not necessarily believing. In order to draw in young crowds, especially the estimated 17,000 students that attend the University of Urbino or Università degli Studi di Urbino “Carlo Bo”, Bishop Marinelli writes and edits books each year to distribute free of charge. One such booklet includes stories of modern-day martyrs. Photos of famous art and of the procession are also featured in the book. The bishop hopes this effort will encourage the faith of younger generations.
Each year the book highlights a personal attribute of San Crescentino, with youth as the current theme. He was a very young man who became famous for his martyrdom. In his twenties, Crescentino was targeted by the same military he once served.
One Urbino citizen believes in playing a part in the recreation of this celebration. Giuseppe Cucco, who manages all sites for the University of Urbino, also coordinates the logistics for the procession, from the timing of prayers to the organization of the band. Cucco enjoys conveying the significance of the protection a saint offers. “My faith is not only when in church, but it’s a part of normal life in other places.” With a big smile, he explains why the procession is important. Cucco says he always feels close to God but the procession is a way to express his devotion. “I love my son every day. When he has a birthday, I throw a party.”
And a party it is! Cucco recalls a strong impression imposed during childhood. People would hang out their nicest hand-sewn blankets to decorate the homes providing festive colors for the march. The citizens also threw out flower petals from windows to make a lovely street for the march.
Traditions do not stop at the Italian border. People in countries such as Mexico, Spain and the United States celebrate saints as well. Rosanne Romanello of Long Island, New York participated in processions as a child by signing with the choir in both English and the Italian dialect, Calabrese. Romanello’s parents remember 3,000 people squeezing into church, women and children inside, men standing outside, to hear mass. Today as Italian-Americans have assimilated and moved away, probably no more than 500 come to “La Festa di Santa Marina” celebrated every July. The procession for Santa Marina is celebrated in Filandari, Italy as well as Long Island.
Romanello said, “For the Calabrese who came over to New York 100 years ago, religion was the one thing they could bring over with ease…a metaphorical ‘invisible and weightless suitcase’-” Romanello wrote in an email interview. Every city is looking for a protector according to Cucco. In moments of danger, a city asks for protection. In 1741, Urbino requested a co-saint, Emidio, protector of earthquakes. Emidio earned this reputation because in 1703. an earthquake hit the Le Marche region, but Ascoli Piceno, where the saint once worked miracles hundreds of years earlier, was spared.
Saints are used as intercessors to God. The procession is a physical representation of belief that has withstood ages and a faith that continues today. When Busignani was asked why it is important for future generations to carry on the procession, he answered, “We’re done if you don’t carry the tradition.”