I love a good story, especially one going back several centuries. One of the oldest in Lucca is the legend of the Volto Santo (sacred face), a powerful larger-than-life image of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ carved in dark wood, reportedly by his disciple Nicodemus.
One interesting thing about an ancient legend is all the variants that spring up over the years, but in this case there is general agreement among the chroniclers that the carving eventually arrived in Lucca in the eighth century (an important exception is radiocarbon dating which puts it later). The anniversary of its arrival on 13 September, perhaps in the year 742, has been celebrated at least since the late Middle Ages, by a luminara, during which the streets of Lucca are illuminated by thousands of candles and thousands of people process through the candlelit streets. Before the days of street lighting, which only arrived in the 19th century, there were many luminare a year on religious and civic festivals that took place after sunset so people could see where they were going. Now there’s too much light. In order to have the proper effect, Lucca passed a law that all street lights and house lights must be extinguished from 8.00 pm when the procession begins.
The problem with age-old celebrations is that they can be very boring. I think it was Thomas Hardy who said that you can tell how authentic a ceremony is by how bored the participants look. You can tell this is a very authentic ceremony.
I take my guests early to catch the more interesting ‘backstage’ operations. People are enjoying themselves as they carry out their tasks or idle away the time waiting to take their appointed places.
Every crane in Lucca Province converges on the city to raise the candle lighters to the required altitude for lighting. They have to light all of them at the last possible moment so the candles don’t burn out before the interminable procession has snaked its solemn way from San Frediano basilica to San Martino cathedral. I wonder where the cranes disappear to at 8 pm on the dot?
Now, what to do during the procession itself? Since Sapori e Saperi means flavours and knowledge, I searched around for a culinary solution and found a restaurant with a dining terrace right along the route of the procession. This is where my guests and I sit in splendid comfort on a front row seat, where we can watch as much or as little as we like and never have to be bored.
The restaurant serves a set menu of traditional Lucchesi dishes, so we don’t even have the trouble of deciding what to eat.
And still the procession continues to pass by.
For some unbeatable photos of the procession, read this post on Debra Kolkka’s blog Bagni di Lucca and Beyond.
Heather Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won’t find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Heather’s own adventures on her blog.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.