Throughout Italy the Festa della Repubblica (Festival of the Republic) on June 2 commemorates the day in 1946 when the Italian people voted for a republic as their national form of government. Our adopted seaside town of Porto Ercole on the western coast of Tuscany has a double reason to celebrate.
June 2 is also la festa di Sant’Erasmo, the patron saint of the ancient fishing port and of all mariners. In addition to concerts, a rowing race, dances and a solemn mass, Porto Ercole honors its saint with a procession of his relics to the sea, a lighted boat parade and a spectacular display of fireworks.
“Who was this Saint Erasmo?” I asked a friend born on June 2 in Porto Ercole and, of course, named Erasmo. A bishop, he told me. Several of his fellow Portercolesi added that Erasmo was a martyr who once saved a ship of local sailors from a tempest at sea.
To find out more, I went to Wikipedia, which presents the gruesome suffering of Sant’Erasmo (known in English-speaking lands as Saint Elmo) as the stuff of legend. In the late third century, during the Roman persecution of Christians, Erasmo was jailed, “besprinkled…with foulness,” beaten with leaden mauls until his veins burst, thrown into a pit of snakes and worms and covered with boiling oil and sulfur. Through it all he remained calm, “thanking and loving God.” Then lightning struck and electrocuted everyone around him.
Continuing to preach the Gospel, Erasmo was again captured and tortured, this time with burning oil poured into his mouth and a searing hot metal cloak wrapped around him. An angel swept him to safety. Other torturers plucked out his teeth with pincers, scraped his skin with an iron wool carder and pulled out his eyes with their fingers. In the grisliest account, Erasmo’s stomach was slit open and his intestines wound around a windlass, a type of winch used to hoist an anchor on a ship.
Finally Erasmo was burned alive. A bluish flame appeared on the top of his pyre, which onlookers interpreted as his soul ascending to heaven. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships during storms came to be called “Saint Elmo’s Fire” (fuoco di Sant’Erasmo), a sign of the martyr’s protection.
The nationwide festivities on June 2 commemorate a much more recent event. After the end of World War II, the Italian people went to the ballot boxes to choose the type of government they wanted.
On June 2 and 3, 1946, they voted to end the monarchy that had ruled their country for 85 years. The final tally: 12,717,923 votes for the Republic and 10,719,284 against. King Umberto II of the royal house of Savoy was deposed, and the male descendants of the family were exiled. A new nation—la Repubblica d’Italia—was born.
Although the Second of June has since become a national holiday, for the people of Porto Ercole, it remains, first and foremost, a day to honor Il loro santo patrono–their patron saint.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language, MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World. For more information, visit diannehales.com.