Alright all you seasoned travelers and sophisticated students, we know that you came to Europe to find yourself, prove your independence, and indulge your mature tastes in art and culture (ehem, well sorta), but for this one, Meg and I need you to rewind and get back in touch with that inner kid …
This Friday evening the children of Florence will convene in Piazza Santssima Annunziata. Is it the scents of popcorn and warm sugar wafting through the air that will lure them in? Or could it be that the toy stores of the city will put their treasures on wheels and display them in the square? Perhaps it is the ethereal ambiance that the myriad colorful lanterns bobbing above the heads of the crowd will create. Sure, this atmosphere something to do with it, but the real reason these children will gather here Friday night is a centuries-old Florentine tradition called the Festa della Rificolona.
The festival takes place every year on the evening of September 7th, the eve of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. Although it culminates in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, where the fun and games await, the children process from Piazza Santa Croce with their colorful paper-mâché lanterns. Rather than finding yourself a curbside on the parade route, I would recommend heading straight for the party in Annunziata to get a head start on the fun (the parade will reach the square around 8:30 PM).
To get to Piazza Santissima Annunziata take Via dei Servi out of Piazza del Duomo (on the northeast side of the cathedral). Walk for about 5 to 10 minutes until you reach the next big piazza. Shrieking children, colorful lanterns, and your aching sweet tooth will let you know you have arrived.
Distance: 750 m
Time: 9 minutes
As you most likely know by now, behind every quirky custom in Florence, you will find an ever quirkier origin. The roots of this tradition date back to ancient times in Florence. Every year on the evening of September 7th the “country folk” would travel to the big city to celebrate the Feast Day of the Virgin Mary on September 8th. They brought with them their produce and crafts to sell during the festivities. Dressed in what they thought to be their most fashionable attire, these farming families trekked into the city with lanterns hung on the ends of long sticks lighting their way. So struck by the beauty of the lanterns twinkling on the hills as the farmers descended into the city, Florentines have preserved the scene for centuries through the procession of the lanterns from Santa Croce to Santissima Annunziata on the Festa della Rificolona. Likewise, every year on September 7th, rural Tuscans still bring their wares to sell in the Fall Market held in Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
Well, in the true spirit of childhood, this sweet story is ruined by a few little brats. As the farming families processed into town wearing their Sunday best, little fashionista Florentines liked to poke fun at the peasants’ dowdy duds, and called them rificolone as they passed by. Sound familiar? Rificolona is the Italian term for a woman with a poor sense of style and the origin of the name of the festival. That’s right! In a city known for its fashion (as Meg told us about in walking tour: fashion as art on display), we have our very own Festa of the Frumps!
If the name calling wasn’t enough, the children composed the following chant:
Ona, ona, ona
What a beautiful Rificolona,
Mine with bows is tied, In yours lice resides
And for the cherry on top, the children shot pebbles out of straws at the lanterns that the rificolone carried, in attempts to knock over the candles inside. The festival today, of course, is all in good fun, but you should be warned that bands of little rowdy hellions still troll the piazza shooting tiny balls of stucco out of long straws at lanterns and unsuspecting visitors. What can we say? Kids will be kids no matter the century!
Once the children arrive, the piazza will be abuzz with music, dancing, lantern bursting, and excessive sugar consumption. Make sure to take note of the elaborate lanterns. Some of the children will enthusiastically carry their store-bought Hello Kitty and Pokemon lanterns, while others will proudly show off their very own creations that they crafted themselves.
The revelry will last about an hour so grab some cotton candy and join in on the fun! The celebration culminates in a “spontaneous” bonfire in the middle of the piazza in which the children delight as they watch their colorful creations go up in flames. Yes, children assembling an uncontrolled bonfire (this is one of those “only in Italy” moments).
Fire, candy, glowing lanterns, cornucopias of toys, and a dash of violence. I’ve got to give it to you Florence, you just get kids! Although this festa may seem more like a glorified, unsupervised, child’s birthday party, this actually is a part of Florentine culture as rich as any other. So take part, let loose, get on your best sugar high and feel good knowing that you are experiencing an unadulterated Florentine tradition with the locals, and all the while, aren’t dropping a dime.