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THE FEAST OF St. AGATA ( in italian )

( St. Agatha and Catania )

Three days of cult, devotion, folklore, and tradition, that stand almost alone in the world.

Only the Holy Week in Seville, and the corpus Domini ceremony in Cuzco, Peru, may be compared in terms of popularity, to the festivities that since five centuries bave immutably been held in St. Agatha's honour. For three days, Catanians and tourists swarm in the streets, numbering to almost a million. During those intense days, Catania turns into one and only crowd marching behind the Patron.

( Three incredible days )

The 4th and 5th of February stand out among the three days of festivities, when St. Agatha passes through then eigh bourhoods on her silver carriage (Catanians call it, specifically, "fercolo" or, more commonly, "vara").

The first day of celebration, the 3th of February, develops itself into three distinct moments: the long and solemn Midday procession for "the offering of wax" to which civil, religious and militar authorities all attend bearing the standards of the City, the Province, and the University. Leaving St. Agatha' s (the Church of St. Agata alla Fornace ) to the Cathedral, the procession cuts through two lines of a huge crowd. Eleven "candelore" (large candleshaped structures), symbolizing the guilds, and two carriages belonging to the old Catanian Senate, bring up the rear. In the afternoon, at 3.00 PM, St. Agatha's international cross-country race takes place through the old and new streets of the town-centre. Finally, in the evening, later than 8.00 PM, grandious fireworks are on display in piazza Duomo.

The following night is spent sleepless by tbousands of Catanians, who crowd the Cathedral at dawn in a strongly emotional atmosphere, for a first meeting with "their" Saint. St. Agatha's image, waving amidst the crowd, is firstly brought to the high altar, than on the "vara" by devotees wearing the "sacco" (a white alb): its bust, covered up with jewels bestowed by sovereigns and celebrities (there also is a cross wbich was donated by composer Vincenzo Bellini), rises and falls amidst a cheering crowd.

The carriage carrying the reliquary-bust and the finely wrought silver casket containing other relics, starts covering the route crossing through Porta Uzeda, then passing through via Dusmet, the distinctive feature of which are the arches holding up the railway: beneath them, once there was the sea, just close to via Biscari, where St. Agatha supposedly was born. The route from piazza Carlo Alberto to piazza Stesicoro is eagerly awaited: we are now in places tbat are extremely dear to Catanians; in these ancient sites, Agatha men with imprisonment and martyrdom, dying in atrocious sufferings. There, it is anotber spectacular moment: thousands of devotes run and drag the heavy carriage along a slope (salita dei Cappuccini), stopping once halfway to pay homage to the Sacred Gaol.

In the evening, the run takes place downtown: via Plebiscito, Fortino, S. Cristoforo. There the festivities are felt in a different way: all private houses are open and well-lit, coffee-houses are crowded all night long. Music is heard coming from everywhere, Streets are crowded with stalls and booths where all sorts of sweets are sold, and mobile grids where horse meat is roasted. Balconies are well-lit, kiosks are strewn with flowers and embellisbed with St. Agatha's effigy, while shop-windows display artistic reproductions of the "candelore". Almost at dawn, magnificent fireworks welcome the Saint on her way back to the Cathedral passing through Porta Uzeda again.

( Spectacle and devotion )

Just few hours of sleep: in the late morning of the 5th. of February (the climax of the festivity), a Pontifical Mass is celebrated by a specially invited prelate.

The Saint's image travels along another route, through the old town centre: the carriage proceeds slowly along the elegant via Etnea. The eleven, richly adorned "candelore" lead the procession, being followed by 700 devotees holding torches: then the white river of devotees follows. They all drag the "vara" and sing the praises of the Patron ("We are all, all devotees. Citizens, long live St. Agatha!"). The City bell tolls, announcing the Mayor's homage to the Saint. The stream of people puts on a protracted and fascinating tableau vivant. In the evening, people crowd together again in piazza Borgo, in order to attend further fireworks (also known as "the fireworks of the evening of three"); soon after the crowd follows and escorts the "candelore" in an "endurance race" along the slope of "salita di San Giuliano". Time goes by, and the setting sun gives way to the night: St. Agatha patiently awaits for the end of the contest, at the crossing of via Etnea and via di San Giuliano: it's the "final pull", that should bring the festivity to an end, with an enthusiastic applause of relief. The race is an event mostly reserved to young people: strong arms and sturdy legs are needed to drag the several tons of the "vara". Partaking to the race is a mark of love and devotion that should non be underrated: doing it in "one go" allows to draw favorable auspicies for the year, since the real New Years Day in Catania falls on the 5th of February; once, contracts and deeds were actually started or delivered on such a date.

( Martyrdom and the old town )

Catania, brought back to life after every eruption of the Etna volcano, has bestowed some of the most beautiful churches and monuments to the Patron. On the inside of "S. Agata al Carcere", the III century remains of the gaol, where St. Agatha faced her martyrdom and death, are still to be seen. The Church of "S. Agata alla Fornace" (in piazza stesicoro) and "S. Agata la Vetere" (the first Cathedral of Catania, and supposedly the first burial-place of the Saint) are non far. Many other places in Catania keep alive the memory of St. Agatha: "Badia S. Agata", the "stele" in piazza dei Martiri, the fountain in via Dusmet, the Norman-baroque Cathedral.

Precious relics, as such as the bust and the casket bearing the signature of Di Bartolo, are preserved in the Basilica, but the real centre of the cult of St. Agatha is the Church of the Sacred Gaol. On the inside, besides the dark cell where the Saint was imprisoned, a lavic slabbearing St. Agatha's footprints can be seen. The prison, an embankment, was part of the buildings of the Roman praetorium, close to the residence of Quintianus, Agatha's persecutor. Upon the high altar, a large panel dating back to 1588 and bearing Bernardino Niger's signature, portras St. Agatha at the stake. Next to the Gaol, a highly revered lavic stone bears St. Agatha's footprints. A plaque of the XV century and portraying St. Agatha can be seen in the sacristy, besides memorial stones, bas-reliefs and an old epigraph: "Noli offendere patriam Aghatae, quia ultrix iniuratum est" (Do not offend Agatha's nation, "cause she will avenge all offence).

( Candlemas, a baroque feast )

 

"Almost all Sicilian feasts are baroque" says historian Giovanni Lanzafame. Writing about the eleven "candelore", he defines the so called "annacata " as "baroque on the move ". Baroque moving through a baroque city as devised by Vaccarini after the 1693 earthquake.

Ten huge "candelore" and a smaller one, now lead the procession. A candelabrum in memory of cardinal Ventimiglia comes first, being followed by the "candelora" (decorated with four griffins at the basement) offered by the inhabitants of San Giuseppe La Rena. Then the candelabrum of the Floriculturists follows, in Gothic style, portraying statues of Catanian martyrs and bishops: once it was tooped with a bouquet of flowers, now replaced by a bow.

The "candelora " representing Fishmongers comes next: it is in rococo style and bears votive offerings and a statue of St. Francis of Paola, patron of fisbermen and sailors. The other "candelore" represent Greengrocers (it bears a bust of St. Agatha), Butchers (it displays a small bouquet of flowers), Makers of Pasta (an eighteenth-century candlestick), Grocers (in liberty style, decorated with characteristic caryatids at the basement), Bakers (the heaviest, carried by twelve people, instead of eight, and displaying human-heigbt statues of angels), Vintners (carried by ten people and displaying four lions and griffins at the basement).

 

 

( An international cult )

The cult of St. Agatha is non strictly Catanian: the Saint is venerated all over the world. St. Agatha is the Patron of 44 italian municipalities, and 14 of them bear her name. Besides, St. Agatha is among the Patrons of Malta and S. Marino. In Spain, she is worshipped in Andalucia and in Jria (Valencia). The chapel in Barcelona where the Catholic sovereigns welcomed Christopher Columbus back from his first trip to America, is dedicated to St. Agatha. A peculiar tradition takes place in Zamarramal (Segovia): on the 5th of February, women are the masters of the city. In Portugal, St. Agatha is the Patron of Agueda. In Germany Agatha is the Patron of Aschaffemburg. In France, St. Agatha is venerated in Le Fournet (Normandy). The cult was grandiosely celebrated in Costantinople, while in Greece the Saint is extremely popular, specially in the Aetolian region. Even in India, in Viayawala, a cult of St. Agatha exists, and in Argentina, where sbe is the Patron of firemen. The cult is widely spread in Italy, specially in Lombardia, but also in Rome, Florence and Naples.

( Art and St. Agatha )

Works of art honoring St. Agatha are spread all over the world: in Ukraine (in Kiev), Italy (in Ravenna, Uffizi Museum and Galleria Pitti in Florence), Austria, Malta, and Spain.

In most of Catanian private houses and in those churches where the Saint is officially venerated, busts of St. Agatha are easy to be faund.

The whole province of Catania is rich with works of art dedicated to such a cult: the most famous of them is in Nicolosi, where Cardinal Dusmet saved the city using the veil of St. Agatha to stop lava flows.

- Photos by Giuseppe Leone

- Texts and translations from:
Touristic office of Catania


Virtual postcard from the province of Catania

Map of the province of Catania

 

Bookstore:

IN ITALIAN :

- AGATA. La Santa di Catania
-
Guida di Catania e Provincia
-
Catania (Touring Club)

IN ENGLISH:

- Guide to Catania and its province
-
Michelin map of Sicily
- Michelin green guide to Sicily

acquista
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Michelin Green
Guide of Sicily

:: in italiano ::

:: in english ::

 


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