Friday, August 23, 2013

San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo
Here's another instalment in the busy 'feast season' on the Amalfi Coast, when each village celebrates the Saint Day of their special patron saint. On the 9th and 10th of August, the village of Scala put on their party for San Lorenzo, the patron saint of the village after whom its impressive Duomo is named. Scala's church is a little-known secret - the oldest church on the Coast, dating from the 12th century and boasting a lovely majolica-tiled floor.

Read about Scala in this blog post by Laura Thayer:
The heart of town is the Duomo of San Lorenzo in the center of Scala. Dating back to the 12th century, this grand church – far larger than any of the churches in Ravello – retains its Romanesque central portal surrounded by medieval sculptural decorations and two griffins standing guard. Traces of frescoes above the door are all the remain of what once must have been an elaborately decorated fa├žade. The bell tower dominates the town’s main piazza, which is surrounded by shops, the city hall and the town’s elementary school.

Duomo of San Lorenzo, Scala
Stepping into the Duomo, you immediately get a sense of the splendor and wealth of Scala in the Middle Ages. Although the town is quiet today, the size and grandeur of the Duomo reflects the city’s prominent past. The church was redecorated in the Baroque style in 1615, and the ceiling features painted panels depicting scenes from the life of the martyr San Lorenzo, the patron saint of Scala. In the center of the church you’ll find an elaborate and decorative scene on the floor created with hand painted ceramic tiles. The central shield depicts of lion climbing a ladder, which is the symbol of Scala—the word “scala” in Italian meaning “ladder” or “stairs.”
Tiled floor in San Lorenzo's cathedral.
Ceiling frescoes, Duomo San Lorenzo. They date back to 1748.
So what happens during the celebrations of San Lorenzo's Saint's day? Like the other village celebrations - we've covered Santa Maddelena and San Pantaleone this summer - lights are strewn in the trees and along the village streets; itinerant vendors come in to sell gimcrack plastic toys, balloons, corn on the cob and such-like delicacies; the church is open all day for masses and confessions, culminating in a long parade where the effigy of the saint is carried around all the village streets to the accompaniment of incense, prayers and a little hymn singing. A band is hired - Scala's was a good one, they did numbers from Verdi's 'Il Trovatore' (Verdi is always a crowd-pleaser); and the night is capped off by a fireworks display.

Celebrating San Lorenzo's festa.
The village gathers in the piazza to watch the saint return to his Duomo after the procession.
There he is, San Lorenzo.
The band chose Verdi, a popular choice.
San Lorenzo and his grid-iron
 (source)



But, as always, the story behind the saint is intriguing. Who was San Lorenzo, and why has Scala adopted him as their own? It seems he is properly known as 'San Lorenzo di Roma' and lived in the third century, when Christians were still being persecuted in Rome by the Emperor Valerian. San Lorenzo died a martyr's death, according to legend being barbecued on a grill. This grisly end is recalled in paintings and sculptures of San Lorenzo, when he is depicted holding a small grill, or grid-iron. The whole gory episode is shown somewhat more graphically in Tintoretto's "The Martyrdom of St Lawrence" (which is in Christ Church, Oxford):


Tintoretto imagines....(source)
It was rather surprising to discover that San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence in English) is, rather tastelessly (no pun intended), the patron saint of cooks.

Wiki tells the story of his martyrdom:
A well-known legend has persisted from earliest times. As deacon in Rome, Lawrence was charged with the responsibility for the material goods of the Church, and the distribution of alms to the poor. St. Ambrose of Milan relates that when St. Lawrence was asked for the treasures of the Church he brought forward the poor, among whom he had divided the treasure as alms. "Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the church’s crown." The prefect was so angry that he had a great gridiron prepared, with coals beneath it, and had Lawrence’s body placed on it (hence St. Lawrence's association with the gridiron). After the martyr had suffered the pain for a long time, the legend concludes, he made his famous cheerful remark, “I'm well done. Turn me over!” From this derives his patronage of cooks and chefs.
However, some party-poopers have suggested that the whole legend is a bit suspect, pointing out that although Christians were indeed killed in those times, a slow lingering death was unusual. Moreover, in a particularly boring deflation of the legend, a certain Pio Franchi de' Cavalieri postulates that it was the result of a mistaken transcription, the accidental omission of the letter "p" – "by which the customary and solemn formula for announcing the death of a martyr – passus est ["he suffered," that is, was martyred] – was made to read assus est [he was roasted].

We can only hope, I suppose, that San Lorenzo did not die a slow and lingering death for his faith; though if the grill story is a typographical error, then I guess we also have to abandon the excellent anecdote about "I'm well done. Turn me over!" -- and the cooks and chefs have only a tenuous claim to San Lorenzo as their patron. Though for those who like a good legend, there is a shrine in Rome that displays the actual grid-iron said to have been used to grill San Lorenzo to death, and the Vatican has a reliquary said to contain his burnt head.

San Lorenzo is big in Rome, and throughout the Roman Catholic world:
St Lawrence is especially honoured in the city of Rome, where he is one of the city's patrons. There are several churches in Rome dedicated to him, including San Lorenzo in Panisperna, traditionally identified as the place of his execution; the part of Rome near the San Lorenzo basilica is called Quartiere San Lorenzo. He is invoked by librarians, archivists, cooks, and tanners as their patron. His celebration on 10 August has the rank of feast throughout the entire Catholic world. (source)
Moreover, San Lorenzo, who is thought to have been born in Spain, has a close connection with the Holy Grail:
According to lore, Lawrence was able to spirit away the chalice used during Christ's Last Supper (the "Holy Grail") to Huesca, in present-day Spain, with a letter and a supposed inventory, where it lay hidden and unregarded for centuries....While the Holy Chalice's exact journey through the centuries is disputed, it is accepted by many Catholics that the Chalice was sent by his family to this monastery for preservation and veneration. Historical records indicate this chalice has been venerated and preserved by a number of monks and monasteries through the ages. Today the Holy Grail is venerated in a special chapel in the Catholic Cathedral of Valencia, Spain. (source)
Added to all this is the fact that French explorer Jacques Cartier gave the name of Saint Lawrence to the widest river estuary in the world. At the mouth of this river is the large Gulf of Saint Lawrence, surrounded by all the Canadian Maritime provinces. 

And there's more: the night of 10th August is known as "The Night of San Lorenzo". It's a time when you can expect to see stella cadenti - falling stars - and your dreams might come true. "The Night of the Shooting Stars" is the name of an Italian fantasy ware drama made in 1982.

As for Scala - I could find no source to tell me why its Duomo is dedicated to San Lorenzo, nor why he was adopted as the town's patron saint. Perhaps they just wanted to go with the biggest and brightest.

San Lorenzo immortalised in a local trattoria.
An itinerant merchant at the recent Festa in Scala,
with a sign in rather bad taste, I thought. Considering.
For more on festivals and Feasts on the Amalfi Coast, you can check this site, though note the rueful disclaimer:

NB.  Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy (but this is Italy and subject to more change than normal!)


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