I grew up in the myth of the Macchina di Santa Rosa of Viterbo, listening to stories about a beautifully illuminated tower being taken around the narrow cobbled alleys of Viterbo, my dad’s hometown. I still remember the first time I saw it – I must have been 12 or 13: the thrill of waiting for the tower to pass by; the disbelief at how utterly massive and beautiful it was; how narrowly it passed on those tiny, dark alleys; and the look that the facchini (Santa Rosa’s porters) had on their face as they carried the mighty statue.
Last September, I finally managed to attend the Macchina di Santa Rosa celebrations again.
Santa Rosa festival is such a special, unique event in Italy that I thought I’d write about it and share it with you. If you do happen to be in Rome at the end of August or beginning of September, definitely plan to spend a couple of days in Viterbo and take part in the festival.
Make sure to read my post The Best Things To Do In Viterbo and A Useful Guide To Tuscia.
What Is The Macchina Di Santa Rosa?
Literally “the Machine of Santa Rosa”, this is an illuminated tower that plays a central role in a festival of the same name dedicated to Saint Rose of Viterbo. Taking place in Viterbo, on the same night every year, this celebration sees a hundred porters (called facchini) carry this 30-meter-high (that’s more than 98 feet) (and at times even higher) tower through the narrow streets of the historic center of Viterbo.
To be specific, they carry it from the Church of San Cisto to the Church of Santa Rosa. The festival – a tradition that has been going on for centuries – is now inscribed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The event is so famous that it is televised live across the nation, yet only Italians know about it so you never really see foreign tourists. Should you decide to attend, it is a really good chance to be fully immersed in celebrations that are still very much local!
The History Of The Macchina Di Santa Rosa
Who is Santa Rosa?
The history of this storied festival begins with the story of Santa Rosa, more widely known as Rose of Viterbo, herself. Being a saint, the tale of her life is mixed up between fact and legend.
She was born in Viterbo around 1233 at a turbulent time when the city was a contested commune between the Papal States and the Holy Roman Empire. Her parents were poor but pious, and as a child she spent much time praying for the conversion of sinners and for helping the poor.
By the time she was 10 years old, it’s said that Rose was visited by a vision of the Virgin Mary, who told her to enroll in a Franciscan monastery, where she should preach to the people of Viterbo to repent their sins. Rosa was successfully taken into the Third Order of Saint Francis, situated in Viterbo.
During her time as a nun, Rose dressed in a simple tunic with a cord tied around the waist, and would walk the streets of the city with a crucifix in her hand. As she walked the streets, she would preach repentance and endorse the views of the Catholic Church.
Her daily life was centered around penance and prayer, and she spent much of it at her father’s home in solitude, emerging sporadically to encourage piety among the people of Viterbo. The region at that time was ruled by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor.
Rose’s holy mission lasted around two years, until 12 January, 1250, when Viterbo was in revolt against the Pope. Though she was still young, Rose began protesting against Frederick II’s occupation of the city. Because of this rebellious act, Rose and her family were exiled from the city.
They found a new home in the town of Soriano nel Cimino, only to return to Viterbo when the Papal States reclaimed Viterbo.
On 5 December, 1250, it’s believed that Rose foresaw the hasty death of the emperor, Frederick. This prophecy came true later that month, on 13 December.
Following this, she traveled to a nearby town to preach to the local population influenced by a sorceress. This is when the mysticism of Rose of Viterbo begins to show itself; apparently, she converted the sorceress and the whole of the town by standing for three hours on a burning pyre without any injury.
It is said, then, that Rose wanted to enter into the monastery of the Order of Saint Clare. However, because of her poverty, she couldn’t pay the dowry required to enter into the Order. Although she accepted this rejection, she also foretold that she would be accepted into the Order after her own death. Not long after, on 6 March, 1251, Rose died in her father’s home.
The following year, Pope Innocent IV promoted the veneration of Rose and opened the case for her canonization. But she would not become a saint until centuries later, in 1457.
Rose of Viterbo had been buried in Poggio at the local parish Church of Santa Maria. Six years later, in 1257, Pope Alexander IV – also a supporter in favor of her canonization – ordered for Rose’s body to be moved to a church at the Order of Saint Clare Monastery, where she had previously wished to become a nun. At this time, the church was renamed in her honor, and remains today the Church of Santa Rosa.
When did the festival of Macchina di Santa Rosa start?
When Rose’s body was finally exhumed to be moved on 4 September, 1258, her body was miraculously intact and showed no signs of death. This religious phenomenon is called incorruptibility, and is said to be due to divine intervention.
This is when the festival of Macchina di Santa Rosa began to take shape. However, the history of the events surrounding the festival – held on the 3 September (the eve of her feast day) is shrouded in mystery and legends.
The first reliable piece of evidence of a macchina being paraded through the streets of Viterbo dates to the 17th century. Records hold that on 3 September, 1686, a procession of followers carried a macchina, a term borrowed from Ancient Greek theater that describes a transportation device, along the same route along which Rose’s body was carried during her transfer in 1258.
The original festival is thought to have consisted of a simpler affair – a statue of the saint under an illuminated canopy that was carried along in procession.
However, the 1686 macchina is thought to have been designed by Count Sebastian Gregory Fani. Over the following years, more and more lavish macchine were designed, often funded by nobles of the city.
It was actually banned in the early 19th century by Pope Pius VII because of a series of disastrous events during the processions, including trampling, fire, and the macchina itself falling over into the crowd – all resulting in death.
The parade resumed in 1810. In 1893, heavy rain saw the event canceled (though locals will say that it never rains during Santa Rosa celebrations). This turned out to be a good thing, as it was later found that anarchists had been planning to attack the macchina with bombs. It was understandably halted during both World War I and World War II.
Throughout all of these years the design has changed. In the 18th century, the macchina was altar-like, similar to a church tower, then began to be more Gothic in appearance, until in recent years becoming more sculptural. Until a few decades ago, the macchina was constructed of wood and papier-mache; today, it is created using a mix of steel and fiberglass.
Every few years (normally four), there is a new competition to design the macchina, but there are specific guidelines that winning designs have to follow. It has to be at least 28 meters (91.8 feet) high; it must weigh less than 5 tons; and the maximum width is 4.3 meters (14 feet) (due to narrow roads).
A recent iteration of the macchina was called the Fiore del Cielo, in use between 2009 and 2015. Locals’ favorite Macchina di Santa Rosa is definitely the Volo d’Angelo – ask anyone in town, and they’ll all state the same. Currently the macchina is Gloria, designed by Raffaele Ascenzi, and has been in use since 2015 and will be paraded in 2023 too. There should have been a new one in 2020, but we all know what happened.
Macchina Di Santa Rosa Celebrations Today
When does the festival take place?
The Macchina di Santa Rosa takes place every year on the evening of 3 September. It is a huge event, captivating the entire city and attracting tourists from all over Italy – though hardly any foreigners.
Santa Rosa’s mass is held on 4 September, when the streets of the center of Viterbo host a lovely fair.
What does it consist of?
The day of the festival begins in the morning with the streets of the historic center of Viterbo becoming busy with locals and visitors alike. Finding a spot to see the procession is a fiercely contested event in itself – arrive early if you want a good place to see from! The atmosphere is festive. You will hear the locals – especially the youngsters – singing hymns in appreciation of the saint, giving rounds of applause, cheering the facchini.
The main piazzas have stands, where prepaid tickets allow you to have a guaranteed seat to watch the procession. These sell out well in advance of the event, so make sure to secure your ticket in good time. Elsewhere, the sidestreets of Viterbo become busy with people setting up their own stalls, or sitting on their balconies or leaning out of windows for the best view.
As the sun sets, the city is plunged into darkness as all of the city’s lights are switched off. The procession starts at around 8:00 pm, with the local band playing hymns. The band marches following the route the machine will later take in reverse, starting at the Church of Santa Rosa, to the Church of San Cisto, where they are blessed to protect the procession from any danger or accidents.
The transport of the macchina then begins. The macchina would have been built over the summer months in the grounds of the Church of San Cisto, and hidden away until the very last moment when the procession begins.
Much time is spent in the time running up to the transportation of the macchina when the lights and construction are meticulously checked and double-checked.
The white sheet covering the macchina is finally taken off, revealing the structure and its lights are switched on, before it is picked up and transported along the 1,200 meter path through the city streets. It finishes its route at the Church of Santa Rosa, where it remains outside the front of the church for visitors to admire over the following days.
Sadly the event had to be canceled in both 2020 and 2021 (when the machine was just exposed in the Piazza del Plebiscito), due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But thankfully it resumed again in September 2022.
Who are the Facchini?
The facchini are the porters who carry the macchina. They are a particularly important part of the tradition, and are responsible for the safe transit of the macchina. In fact, they are so important that the facchini are part of a special guild called the Sodality Facchini of Santa Rosa, which was founded in 1978.
This guild maintains the traditions of the festival and ensures that no accidents occur during the event. It also helps to promote the cultural side of the festival, and was one of the signatories of the UNESCO application.
Being selected as one of the facchini is, understandably, a great honor. In order to be selected, they have to pass a test first. They have to be physically capable of carrying a 150 kilogram (that’s more than 33 pounds) box on their shoulders for 100 meters (almost 329 feet) without stopping.
Incidentally, it’s not written anywhere that the facchino has to be a man or a woman, but no woman has ever become a facchino. The statute of the guild, written in 1978, says any person that passes the test can be a facchino.
Facchini wear a white costume with a red sash belt tied at the waist, and a white bandana covered with leather. These special porters are blessed before they head off on their journey.
During the transport itself they are led by a capofacchino (foreman) who shouts commands such as “lift”, “stop”, “slowly” and “go ahead”. It’s all in Italian – or better, in the local dialect. The expressions you’ll most often hear – shouted by the capofacchino – are “sollevate e fermi” (lift and stand still) and “semo tutti d’en sentimento”, which loosely translates as “do we all feel it?”
Most of the time, the facchini are working blind, relying solely on the commands of the foreman and those of the four guides posted on each side of the macchina.
Each facchino has a particular position in the procession, and requires them to wear leather padding on their shoulders to protect against the pain of bearing the huge weight of the macchina. But the most coveted position is the 63 porters inside the perimeter of the macchina, who bear the weight not on their shoulders but their necks.
Their job is an extremely difficult one: the streets of Viterbo are incredibly narrow, and on occasions the Macchina di Santa Rosa will only pass by a centimeter or two: the “spallette laterali” (the facchini that stands on the very sides) have to quickly switch position while the macchina is moving, from the outer to the inner side. It’s a graceful swift, when you see it – almost looking like a dance!
The itinerary of the Macchina di Santa Rosa
The route that the Macchina di Santa Rosa takes is over a kilometer long, and makes the following stops at various landmarks in the city of Viterbo:
- Porta Romana, the starting place, which is located next to the Church of San Cisto.
- Piazza Fontana Grande.
- Piazza del Plebiscito, right in front of the town hall; this is where the facchini rotate the macchina in a sign of reverence (and to greet the watching crowd).
- Piazza delle Erbe, home to a famous fountain decorated with lions.
- Chiesa del Suffragio, the next stop and just before the Corso Italia, which is the narrowest and trickiest portion of the course.
- Piazza Verdi – the last stop before the macchina is carried to the final stop outside of the Santa Rosa Church, and the last resting place of the facchini before they tackle the uphill run of the macchina, assisted by ropes.
On special occasions, the macchina will make a few additional stops. This was the case in 2022, when it was paraded along Via Marconi and then back to Piazza Verdi before being carried up to Santa Rosa Church.
Other Macchina Di Santa Rosa Related Attractions
The Museum of Sodalizio dei Facchini di Santa Rosa
This museum may be small, but it is a really important place for learning more about this centuries-old festival. Here you can see models and sketches of previous macchine of the past. Each macchina has its own name, and sometimes stories, attached to it.
You can also see other interesting artifacts and objects at the museum, which all help to tell the story of the tradition. These include the headdresses the facchini wear, called ciuffo, to protect their necks.
One of these ciuffi has actually been into space. Astronaut Roberto Vittori took it with him on the space shuttle Endeavor; there’s even a certificate at the museum that shows that it has been authenticated by NASA.
The museum itself is located along Via S. Pellegrino 60-62 in Viterbo. It’s free to visit and open Wednesday to Saturday from 10:30 am to 1:00 pm and from 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm.
Church of Santa Rosa
At the Church of Santa Rosa, the finishing line for the Macchina di Santa Rosa, it is possible to see the body of Saint Rose of Viterbo herself. Here she is preserved in mummified form in an ornate glass box for visitors to pay their respects. This is also the church where the mass in honor of Santa Rosa is held every September 4th.
Casa di Santa Rosa
Once the home of Santa Rosa, this museum, a 12th-century building, tells the history of the city including the life of the saint herself. It is said to be a place where Saint Rose of Viterbo performed some of the miracles attributed to her.
It is located in Via Casa di Santa Rosa 8 in Viterbo and it is open only at weekends, 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and then again from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm.
Useful Information To See The Macchina Di Santa Rosa
Macchina di Santa Rosa tickets
Information on ticketed areas (usually in the piazzas) and the program events can be found on the local Comune of Viterbo website.
While there are ticketed areas from where you can assist to the show, getting hold of tickets is known to be very difficult. Continue reading to discover how to do it.
How to see the Macchina di Santa Rosa without tickets
Attending the festival is actually free – but you can expect massive crowds.
Most locals will simply stand in the streets along the route waiting for the illuminated tower to pass. They will start heading to viewing points along the itinerary in the morning, often bringing small camping chairs to sit while they wait.
Younger generations will often sleep in the streets from the night before, not even the rain stopping them from attending such heartfelt celebrations. That’s probably the most impressive thing about the festival altogether: locals truly care about it, and among them, younger generations especially love it.
Since finding tickets for the sitting area is very difficult and standing in the streets for hours on end can be uncomfortable, the best trick to view the tower in all its glory is to find a terrace along the route – that’s what locals do. My dad, my sister and I saw it from the terrace of Hotel Palazzo Verdi near Verdi Theater; whereas my cousins saw it from a friend’s terrace near Porta Romana.
The best tip I can give if you wish to attend is to try to find accommodation along the route, asking for a room with a view or double checking there’s a terrace overlooking the itinerary I have reported above.
How long should you stay in Viterbo?
As the event ends quite late, you need to spend at least one night – that of 3 September – in Viterbo. But there’s so much going on the days before and after, and so many places to visit in Viterbo and the surrounding area, that you honestly should plan to stay in Viterbo for a few days.
How to get to Viterbo
This is definitely the best way to travel to Viterbo. Having a car will give you full freedom to explore the beautiful Tuscia region around Viterbo. If you are coming from Rome, there are many places where you can stop along the way to Viterbo, turning this into a fun road trip. My favorites are Anguillara Sabazia and Tuscania.
Check out the prices of car rental in Tuscia here.
By public transport
Direct trains to Porta Romana station in Viterbo from Rome depart regularly from Roma Termini, Roma Ostiense and Roma Tiburtina station. The journey takes about one hour and 40 minutes – though some trains take longer.
You can check the train timetable on the website of Trenitalia or on the Omio app here.
Where to park
The only issue you will have if you are traveling to Viterbo by car for Santa Rosa’s celebrations is parking. You’ll have to park it outside the walls as all the gates to the historic center will be closed since the night before the event (in any case, most of the historic center of Viterbo is a ZTL, limited traffic area).
Parking close to the historic center can actually be a nightmare, however there are some parking lots way off the center, near the Cassia Nord, and in via Palmanova, Santa Maria in Gradi e le Pietrare. From there, you can take a shuttle bus to the historic center – it will be marked clearly with a Santa Rosa sign, so you can’t miss it.
What if it rains?
In theory, the Macchina di Santa Rosa is not paraded around Viterbo if it rains. The cobbled streets get too slippery if it does, and it becomes dangerous.
But here’s the thing: it never rains during the celebrations. Or at least, locals swear it never rains when the Macchina di Santa Rosa is being carried along the streets of Viterbo. I asked insistently last time I attended as the forecast suggested a massive thunderstorm would hit Viterbo, and my cousins swore that it would not rain.
They were right! We could see thunders in the distance, but sure enough it didn’t rain in Viterbo that night – call it a Santa Rosa miracle! (FYI, it was pouring the morning after!).
For more information about the Tuscia region, make sure to read this post:
- The Best Hidden Gems In Tuscia
- How To Make The Most Of Tarquinia
- What To See And Do In Civita Di Bagnoregio
- A Useful Guide To Vitorchiano
- A Guide To The Lovely Celleno Borgo Fantasma
- A Complete Guide To Villa Lante, Bagnaia
- How To Visit Villa Farnese In Caprarola
- A Short Guide To Bomarzo’s Parco Dei Mostri
- The Ultimate Guide To Calcata Vecchia