Italy is a country that lends itself to generalizations. Some of these wide brush strokes ring true (Italians have a sense of style) and some less so (Italians eat pasta at every meal), but the most popular stereotype about Italy–permeating everything from movies to books to travel bucket lists–also happens to be one of the most accurate: Italians are romantics.
The Night of the Shooting Stars
As proof of this, look no further than the feast day of San Lorenzo. Each year on the evening of August 10th, millions of Italians turn their faces to the sky to watch the shooting stars light up the heavens on La Notte di San Lorenzo, making wishes and revelry against the backdrop of the annual Perseid meteor shower.
Though we know now that this natural light show is caused by the particles of the Swift-Tuttle comet entering our atmosphere on the Earth’s annual orbit through its path—the timing of this passage has shifted slightly since the first observation by Chinese and Greek astronomers millennia ago; the best night to observe Le Perseidi is now two days later—Italians don’t let modern science detract from the romance (and superstition) surrounding this popular holiday, also known as La Notte dei Desideri.
Italians don’t let modern science detract from the romance (and superstition) surrounding The Night of the Shooting Stars. Click to tweet.
Shooting Stars and San Lorenzo
As with almost all modern Italian holidays, La Notte di San Lorenzo has roots in Catholicism. Saint Lawrence, while serving under Pope Sixtus II, was ordered by Emperor Valerian to cede the church’s treasures to the Roman Empire. In a symbolically laden reply, the cheeky deacon presented the poorest member of his congregation to the ruler. The symbolism was apparently lost on Valerian, as Lorenzo was rewarded for his lesson in Christian values with a summary execution, carried out on the night of August 10th in the third century AD. The shooting stars seen on this same night in the centuries following his death are said to be le lacrime di San Lorenzo, or the tears he shed during his martydom, which are suspended in the cosmos for eternity and descend to earth just once a year. Those who take a moment to reflect on the saint’s sufferings and repeat the incantation, “Stella, mia bella Stella, desidero che…” (Star, my pretty Star, I wish…) on that night will be granted their heart’s desire.
There are a number of colorful popular traditions surrounding San Lorenzo’s martyrdom. In one, he is supposed to have declared with admirable sangfroid during his torture over flames, “Flip me over, I’m done on this side.” In another, the shooting stars are said to be the sparks rising into the sky from the bonfire where he met his death, from whence the popular proverb, “San Lorenzo dei martiri innocenti, casca dal ciel carboni ardenti” (Saint Lawrence of innocent martyrs, hot embers fall from the sky). Unfortunately, this stories are anecdotal at best, as according to historic sources Lorenzo died by the much less poetic means of decapitation.
Repeat the incantation, “Stella, mia bella Stella, desidero che…” on La Notte di San Lorenzo to be granted your heart’s desire. Click to tweet.
Shooting Stars and Priapus
As with almost all modern Catholic holidays, La Notte di San Lorenzo has roots in paganism. Centuries before Lorenzo walked the earth, ancient sky-gazers had noted the annual star shower and attributed it to the fertility god Priapus, protector of livestock, orchards, gardens, and—ahem–male genitalia. According to Plutarch, each year on August 10th a grand procession took place to honor Priapus, featuring an immense phallus borne by a group of virgins which was then used to “baptise” the fields with a mixture of water, honey, and wine, a symbol of the “primordial ejaculation” which ensured the land’s fertility. This symbolism was echoed in the ancient heavens later that night, as the shooting stars were also considered a symbol of the shower of divine fertile seed.
Alongside Priapus, the ancients grouped together a number of fertility gods into the melting pot that was the Roman Empire’s pantheon. Pan, Dionysus, Lupercus and Faunus, and Inuyasha all became closely associated with each other, as did—most importantly–the Etruscan divinity Acca Larentia, protectress of the poor and of agricultural fertility. It’s an easy leap from Larentia to Lorenzo, and the modern “tears of San Lorenzo” are quite probably the last lingering vestiges of the celebrations honoring Larentia (and her fertile colleagues) on August 10th from three thousand years ago.
Shooting Stars and You
You won’t find modern Italians parading the cities bearing giant phallus statues (unless you head to Gubbio on May 15th ), but you will find them heading to the nearest dark stretch to gaze at the skies and make their wishes on the night of August 10th. The best bet to really enjoy the show in light-saturated Italy is either in the country hills or far from the shore on a night sail on the Mediterranean.
Otherwise, the Italian association for wine tourism has held Calici di Stelle –events centered on wine and culture “under the stars” in wineries and historic sites across Italy–for the past few years, for the evening of astronomy, music, and fine wine.
As a last resort you can spend a cloudy August 10th instead watching the Taviani brothers’ award-winning 1982 masterpiece La Notte di San Lorenzo (translated as The Night of the Shooting Stars) or listening to Pat Methany’s evocative San Lorenzo . Whatever you end up doing on this magical, mystical night…don’t forget to make a wish!