Tips for enjoying an authentic old tradition

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.

Volto Santo banner

An image of the Volto Santo heads the procession

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.

Not a single smile

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?

Crane in Piazza San Martino, Lucca

A crane facilitates candle lighting in the piazza in front of the cathedral

Man on the roof of San Martino, Lucca

What’s that man doing on the roof of the cathedral?

A priest hurries to take his place in the procession on the other side of town

Ristorante Giglio gets its candles lit

Another crane with candle lighters

Some make do with a ladder

Ambulance drivers and paramedics fluoresce in the dusk

Child gets a sweet

It’s hard to decide which sweetie to choose

Police in natty costumes

Ringside seats in Piazza San Michele

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.

Ristorante Giglio, Lucca

Staff prepare our table at Ristorante Giglio

Teatro Giglio and Garibaldi

The view from our table of Teatro Giglio and Garibaldi before the procession begins

The restaurant serves a set menu of traditional Lucchesi dishes, so we don’t even have the trouble of deciding what to eat.

Ristorante Giglio set menu for the Luminara

The menu is nearly as long as the procession


Antipasto arrives: bruschetta, crostino with chicken liver paté, prosciutto and coppa

Luminara band, Lucca

…and so do the drummers

Here come some nuns

A forest of lanterns

Traditional Lucchesi tarts with 'birds' beaks'

Already we’re at dessert: traditional torte dei becchi (tarts with pastry shaped like birds’ beaks)

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.

Erica 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 Erica’s own adventures on her blog.

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4 Responses to Tips for enjoying an authentic old tradition

  1. Debra Kolkka says:

    This year is the first time I have watched Luminaria. It was lovely to see Lucca lit up, and the residents taking part in this solemn ceremony. I think you did it the right way.

  2. Janine says:

    Thanks for sending me over here Heather. I love your very personal take on proceedings. Genius decision to tee-up a ring-side table. Clever you!!!

  3. Heather Jarman says:

    One year I hope I have the stamina to stay for the fireworks at the end.

  4. Heather Jarman says:

    If you’re even in Lucca on 13 September, we’ll go together.

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