Pisa Lights Up the Arno with Ancient Tradition

Centuries-old traditions come to life in an otherworldly light-filled night in Pisa, followed by a medieval regatta the next day. Between June 16 and 17, tourists and locals will gather to soak in this annual two-day spectacle certified as an UNESCO Cultural Heritage event.

After sunset on Saturday, June 16, nocturnal wonders envelop the ancient maritime city and the Arno, both shimmering and buzzing with candlelight thanks to the Luminara di San Ranieri. On Sunday, June 17, groups of rowers from each of Pisa’s historic neighborhoods take to the Arno to race in the Palio di San Ranieri.

The Luminara began in medieval times as part of the banquet festivities for the patron Saint Ranieri of Pisa. Today, the festival maintains many of its original elements, but adds a few tantalizing modern flares.

Around 100,000 lumini—candles placed in glass cases—are constructed. Some are then released onto the Arno, while others light up the façades of historic buildings along the river. These candles are fixed to windows, balconies, and doors of the riverside palazzos with wooden, white-painted frames. They are lit after sunset, bathing the noble renaissance moldings in warm light. Together with the drifting lumini, the lights dance, reflected in the river’s dark, polished surface.

Fireworks, a relatively recent addition, will add joyful bursts of color and excitement to the serene wonder of the celebration. All-night food stands line up along the river bank to accompany the visual wonders with gastronomical delights.

The following day holds the Palio di San Ranieri—a friendly competition between the historical quadrants of Pisa: San Martino (red) Sant’Antonio (green), Santa Maria (sky-blue), San Francesco (yellow). The race was originally conceived in the late13th century as a celebration honoring the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (August 15). In the 18th century it was added to the patron saint festivities. The boats used are modeled after the frigates of the Medicean Order knights, each watercraft colored according to its corresponding neighborhood.

The teams, composed of eight rowers, a coxswain, and a montatore, will race a 1.5 km (one mile) stretch of the Arno, from Ponte della Ferrovia to the Palazzo Mediceo. In order for a team to officially win, the montatore must climb a 10 meter (over 30 foot) flagpole, affixed to a floating platform at the finish line. The first one to retrieve the traditional flag at the top has won the Paliotto for his team and neighborhood.

(tyler bunton)