Italian Language Blog

La Festa della Santa Croce Posted by on Sep 28, 2009 in Culture

By far the most important religious and social event that takes place in Lucca is La Festa della Esaltazione della Santa Croce (The Festival of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) which happens each year on the 13th and 14th of September. This year, for the first time in ages we decided to go into Lucca on the evening of the 13th to witness the most spectacular part of the celebrations, la processione notturna a lume di candela (the nocturnal procession by candlelight) which is known as La Luminara. As with most things that we revisit after years of absence, the candlelit procession didn’t quite live up to my expectations. For example, I had remembered all the city lights turned off, and the streets illuminated only by candlelight and of course it wasn’t quite like that. For a start there were the television cameras to accommodate, with their dazzling spotlights in Piazza San Martino somewhat detracting from the beautiful facade of Il Duomo (The Cathedral) which was otherwise lit only by flaming torches. The spotlight were also ‘fortuitous’, I suppose, for all the participating local town mayors and politicians who would naturally want to be as visible as possible on the Lucca TV station, or am I just succumbing to Italian cinismo! Nevertheless, it is still a very pretty sight, with literally thousands of candles decorating the buildings located along the route taken by the lenghty procession.    

The festival, which has taken place for many centuries, is based on the culto del Volto Santo di Lucca (cult of the Holy Effigy of Lucca), a cult once widespread throughout medieval Europe. The Volto Santo is in fact a famous crocifisso ligneo (wooden crucifix) which has a number of fascinating legends surrounding it. This famous depiction of Christ on the cross is believed to have been carved out of a Lebanese cedar tree by Nicodemus, whose hand, it is said, was guided by angels. During the time of the crusades and the persecution of the Christians, many such religious relics were hidden away to avoid their destruction. At some point, in order to ensure its safety, the Volto Santo was placed on a crewless boat and entrusted to the waves of the open Mediterranean sea. Having crossed the Mediterranean, and survived attacks by pirates, it was eventually washed up on the shore at Luni on the Tuscan coast. There then ensued many longwinded arguments between the Lunigiani and the Lucchesi over who should take possession of it, and where it should be placed (hmmm, nothing changes!), which were finally resolved by entrusting it once again to the laws of chance (as I said, nothing changes!). The Volto Santo was placed on a cart drawn by two wild oxen who of their own accord took the road to Lucca, and ecco fatto its fate was decided.

Initially, the Volto Santo was placed in the church of San Frediano, however the following day it disappeared, only to mysteriously turn up on the other side of town in a vegetable plot near  the Duomo di San Martino. This was taken as an indication by the Volto Santo that it preferred S.Martino, and it still resides there to this day. Every year, the crucifix’s journey between S.Frediano and S.Martino is commemorated by the famous candlelit procession through the streets of Lucca. The procession is so long that by the time the head of the procession is entering S.Martino, its tail is still within S.Frediano.



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  1. Jan Flore:

    Thanks for the history on La Festa della Santa Croce. I just returned from Italy and had the most joyous pleasure of finding myself in Lucca on the two days of the festa this year. For a first-timer it was truly magical – especially seeing so much of the old city lit by candles and torches. Thanks for a great article!!

  2. Serena:

    Salve Jan, I’m glad you enjoyed the article and ‘La Faesta della Santa Croce’. Of course these things are always more magical the first time you experience them. I’m always a bit cautious about over romanticizing my native land, I prefer to try and convey something more of the reality of life here in Italy, plus of course cinismo (cynicism) is a national sport for us!

  3. Bill Rohwer:

    Gentile Serena,

    Yesterday we visited the Museo at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. A moving and deeply disturbing experience. We had previously visited Marzabotto, leaving with similar feelings. I’m puzzled, in this context (and in the context of your Blog about ‘Campadoglio’, by the current relationships between Italians and Germans and would like to pose a question, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate for the Blog. Per favore, consiglimi.

    Bill Rohwer

  4. Serena:

    Dear Bill, I’m on holiday in the U.K. at the moment, and I have very limited internet access. However, I understand what you’re getting at in your comment, and when I get back to Italy in a few days I should have time to give you a proper reply.

    A presto, Serena

  5. Serena:

    Salve Bill, I’ve been thinking about your comment on current relationships between Italians and Germans. I don’t know if I’m really qualified to give you a true picture, but I can share my observations of the attitudes that I have encountered in our village. Most of the remaining inhabitants in the villages around us are elderly, and many of them remember the war with its pain and privations. Lunigiana, you may already know, was an important stronghold for the resistance during WW2, perhaps you have read Eric Newby’s book ‘Love and War in the Appenines’? Therefore, it goes without saying that the Germans were not very popular amongst the locals, to put it mildly.

    As this area has never had many tourists (my English husband is the only foreigner in these parts!) the locals have not had an opportunity to get to know any German people in recent years. Therefore when a holiday house was opened up in our village last summer, and the villagers heard that the first occupants would be German, there was a bit of a panic amongst the ‘elders’. What would these new ‘invaders’ be like?

    A young German couple soon arrived to take up their lodgings, and the villagers, being naturally hospitable, overcame their fears and welcomed them in the traditional manner: bottles of local wine, freshly laid eggs left on their doorstep, and other offerings. None of the villagers speak German, and the Germans only spoke a bit of English (my husband soon became the interpreter), but smiles are international, and when the young couple left two weeks later they parted with hugs and kisses on the cheeks to a chorus of ‘tornate presto’ (come back soon). We have since had many other German lodgers in our village and it has had a very positive influence on the inhabitants. It wouldn’t surprise me if a similar process has taken place in other parts of Italy.

    I hope this helps, a presto, Serena

  6. Bill Rohwer:

    Grazie mille, Serena,

    per la tua risposta. It was very helpful. It also confirmed the understanding our local frutta e verdura merchant friend, Bruno, has given us. That understanding is that the Italian people are, by nature, molto, molto socièvole, or to use your term, ospitale. In addition, both you and Bruno are telling us, I think, that Italians make judgments about individuals, not about classes of people like “Germans” or “Americans,” or members of political coalitions like the PD or the PDL.

    As an American, though, I’m struggling to understand how gli Italiani hanno tanta clemenza verso i tedeschi dopo il comportamento dei tedeschi durante 1943-44 a Stazzema e anche a Monte Sole. I struggle equally to understand how the Japanese can forgive us Americans for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Forse la grammatica è più facile, sebbene per un Americano la grammatica Italiana sia impossibilamente difficile!

    Un saluto,


  7. marybeth:

    Serena, thank you so much for this informative article about the festa della santa croce. Are restaurants typically open for dinner during such festivals? Grazie mille, Marybeth

    • serena:

      @marybeth Salve Marybeth, I don’t live in Lucca,and in the past I used to stay at my parents’ apartment, but I would imagine that restaurants will be open during ‘La Festa di Santa Croce’ as there are many tourists coming to see the festival.

      Saluti da Serena

  8. Jo Hanny:

    We will be Lucca for the festival this year.
    Where to park? We will be arriving in the morning.
    What time to make a dinner reservation after the festival? Approximately what time does it begin?
    Do you follow the procession or stand and watch it go by? Where is the best place to be when it starts? THANK YOU!

    • serena:

      @Jo Hanny Salve Jo, I don’t live in Lucca any more, so I’m not up to date with timetables, restaurants and places. I had a look on the internet but couldn’t find any information. The procession of Santa Croce is always on the evening of the 13th of September. It starts inside the Basilica di San Frediano and ends inside the Cathedral. It takes place in the evening (I can’t remember the exact time, maybe 8 o’clock), after a solemn Mass, and lasts a couple of hours. If you don’t belong to a parish group, association, etc. you don’t follow the procession but watch it go by.
      My parents lived in the periphery of Lucca, so we used to walk to Lucca, but the best place to park it’s probably “Parcheggio di Via delle Tagliate” near the main cemetery and the fun fair! You can walk into Lucca from there, or catch “la navetta” (the bus shuttle).


  9. Alison:


    Thanks for this information. I have been doing my Ancestry and found that my relatives on my mother’s side were born in Bagni di Lucca. I have traced some distant relatives who have invited us to the festival. We are looking forward to going

    THANKS 🙂

    Alison x

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