The explosive beauty of faith!
On the first, second and third of July Rapallo celebrates the apparition of Our Lady of Montallegro that took place on 2 July 1557. It is a great manifestation of popular faith that lasts from dawn until late into the night. As early as 5 a.m., the faithful participate in the novena Mass at Montallegro, followed by processions and engaging prayers. Meanwhile, from morning to night, thanks to the work of the Sestieri, the bangs of the mascoli and the fireworks that light up the Gulf echo throughout the city. To those who complain about the noise, the inhabitants reply with a smile: “In Rapallo we have been bursting with joy for four hundred years!”
Interesting fact: At 12 noon on 2 July there is the ‘panegyric’ culminating in the thunderous ramadans on the seafront!
A bit of history….
It was, in all likelihood, the ringing of the bell of the Civic Tower at an unusual hour on the afternoon of 2 July 1557 that summoned the population to announce the ‘miraculous event that took place in the afternoon’.
On a sunny Friday, on the hill of Ponzema, in the then Borzoli district, farmer Giovanni Chichizola is resting when the Madonna appears to him, “in the figure of a Woman dressed in Turchino”.
Mary asked to be worshipped there, in that place, and in confirmation of her protection for the people who inhabit the land of Liguria, she left a miraculous picture, testimony ad perpetuum of her predilection.
From that moment on, the life of Rapallo was closely linked to the Sanctuary. The city is preserved from the great plague of 1656-1657. With a resolution passed on 29th August 1656, the Magnificent Community of Rapallo proclaimed a solemn vow to processionally go, every year, ‘infra l’ottava’ of 2 July, together with the parish priest and the people of Rapallo, to the Sanctuary, in perpetual gratitude to the Virgin Mary.
Since then, the tradition has been renewed year after year with festivals dedicated to the patron saint – known in Rapallo as ‘July festivals’ – held over three days, on 1, 2 and 3 July.
On these days, the six city districts (Borzoli, Cappelletta, Cerisola, Costaguta, Seglio and San Michele) light the firing of the ancient mascoli and put on night-time firework displays. Each year, in rotation, a district is chosen to honour the Madonna, especially in the famous ‘Panegyric of Noon’.
Before the holidays… the Novena
From 23 June to 1 July, the doors of the Sanctuary open wide in the middle of the night to welcome pilgrims who come up to the mountain for the missa in albis, celebrated at five o’clock in the morning.
Keeping alive a centuries-old tradition, many, for the entire nine days, ascend on foot, others reach the shrine by car or motorbike.
The start of the festivities is the rite of the ‘messa in cassa’ of Our Lady, at eight o’clock on 1 July, in the basilica of Sts. Gervasio and Protasio.
The sestieri and the entire population attend the rite of placing the gold and silver statue of Our Lady of Montallegro on the silver ark and its subsequent display to the faithful and the authorities inside the basilica of Saints Gervasio and Protasio.
The event is celebrated with the firing of the mortals, as is customary ‘the first shot is from Langan’ (from the Langano pier). That is, it is up to the Sestiere di San Michele to open the greeting to the Madonna with a salvo, followed in order by the responses of the Sestieri Seglio-S.Rocco, Borzoli, Cerisola, Cappelletta and finally Costaguta (called reciammi in the local slang, the ‘calls’), carried out with Ligurian mortals.
The individual shots of the calls are called ‘shots’ and every five shots are followed by a ‘shot’.
Within this sort of rotation, two Sestieri, rotating over the years, perform a ‘daytime’ firework display from barges positioned in the centre of the stretch of water in front of the seafront promenade, consisting of the firing of so-called ‘daytime’ fires consisting mostly of thunderous shots and coloured smoke bombs.
At six o’clock, in the basilica, children offer flowers to decorate the high altar and Our Lady’s casket, a way, perhaps the simplest, to make known and pass on to new generations the bond of a city with its patron saint.
In the evening, after the various greetings of the sestieri (always called reciammi), fireworks light up the Rapallo stretch of water.
While waiting for the fireworks display (which on the three evenings sees the participation of two sestieri at a time), lanterns or so-called lumetti rapallini are placed in the sea.
The Panegyric to Terra takes its name from the celebratory speech given during the pontifical mass on 2 July, in which the municipal administration officially participates.
At 12 o’clock on the dot, a time reminiscent of the Marian apparition, it is realised with the lighting of a theory of thousands of small mortals, spread out on the red promenade, connected by a strip of black powder. Every now and then a more thunderous bang indicates that a mortal has given way to a ‘cannon’.
Phantasmagorical is the final ‘ramadan’, consisting of a grouping of mortals exploding in sequence. These are placed on the Marian character design traced on the floor with different coloured powders, renewed every year by the district that makes the Panegyric.
Particularly evocative is the final evening of the festivities, when a long procession made up of the bearers of Christs and the silver ark with the Madonna of Montallegro passes through the town centre and along the seafront. Finally, the spectacular ‘burning’ of the castle by the sea is particularly spectacular, obviously simulated and of purely symbolic value, for which red smoke and fires cascading over the sea are used.
Before the castle is set on fire, a firing of mortals known as the ‘Sparata dei Ragazzi’, so called because in ancient times it was the youngest who did this, under the watchful eye of the older Massari. Today, only the name remains, as the enormous restrictions on safety require all Massari to be of age and have a special ‘Licence’.
Dissolution of the Vow
The last act of the celebrations in honour of Our Lady of Montallegro is accomplished with the Dissolution of the Vow.
Every year ‘in fra l’ottava’, the Rapallo community gathers at the white Sanctuary for the ceremony.
A centuries-old rite that goes back to 29th August 1657: when the Magnificent Community of Rapallo, after expressing gratitude to the Virgin of Montallegro for having preserved the city from the terrible pestilence that had mowed down the whole of Liguria at that time, made a solemn vow to processionally go to the Sanctuary on a day of the octave of 2 July (the day on which the Madonna appeared to the peasant Giovanni Chichizola in 1557), to celebrate a Mass there and to offer an offering as a sign of gratitude to the Virgin.
Since then, the vow has been uninterruptedly and regularly fulfilled every year.
The use of mascoli (or Ligurian mortaletti), i.e. metal cylinders filled with gunpowder, is documented from 1619. In the Tigullio and Golfo Paradiso, they have ‘survived’ only in the areas near Rapallo and Recco due to the severe restrictions imposed by the police.
The mascot is not equated with an ordinary artificial fire: its operation is inherently safer (though less spectacular). In fact, the mortal does not rise from the ground and does not throw anything upwards (except a small plug of sawdust), it simply hits the ground and is lit according to 400-year-old techniques and rituals.
The Ligurian mortaletto is therefore the true ‘ancient heart’ of the pyrotechnic events in this area of the eastern part of Genoa: where commercial pyrotechnics live on in respect of ancient cultural and popular pyrotechnics.