La notte delle stelle cadenti
The night of the falling stars
As a young girl, an Italian friend eagerly awaited la festa di San Lorenzo (the feast of Saint Laurence) on August 10. When the sky filled with stelle cadenti (falling or shooting stars), she and her friends would run through the fields with open handkerchiefs to try to catch one. If they did, they’d say, “Stella, mia bella stella, desidero che…” (Star, my beautiful star, I desire…) in the hope that the wish would be granted (nella speranza che si esaudisse il desiderio).
La festa di San Lorenzo coincides with the time when the earth passes through the Perseus meteor shower. The fiery streams of light came to be known as “le lacrime (the tears) di San Lorenzo.” The saint whose tears blaze across the summer sky was one of the seven deacons of the Catholic Church in Rome in the year 258. Under orders from the emperor (imperatore) Valerian, the prefect of Rome commanded Lorenzo, who was in charge of material goods, to gather the treasures of the Church (i tesori della Chiesa) and turn them over to him.
Three days later Lorenzo presented to the prefect a crowd of the poor, blind, lame, malformed, leprous, maimed, orphaned and widowed with the declaration: “Ecco questi sono i nostri tesori eterni, non vengono mai meno, anzi crescono.” (These here are our eternal treasures, they never become less, but in fact are growing.)
The furious prefect ordered Lorenzo to be put to death (messo a morte, giustiziato)—as slowly and painfully as possible. According to legend, he was roasted alive (bruciato vivo) on a giant gridiron (graticola) with burning coals beneath it. After a while, he called out to his tormentors, “I am cooked on this side. It’s time to turn me over.”
San Lorenzo became patrono dei cuochi (patron saint of cooks)—as well as of bibliotecari, librai, pasticceri, vermicellai, pompieri e lavoratori del vetro (librarians, book sellers, pastry chefs, pasta makers, firemen and glass workers). The revered Italian poet and scholar Giovanni Pascoli wrote a famous poem, X Agosto, inspired by the death of his father, who was killed on August 10. It begins:
San Lorenzo, io lo so perché tanto di stelle
per l'aria tranquilla arde e cade,
perché si gran pianto nel concavo cielo sfavilla.
San Lorenzo, I know it because so many stars
burn and fall through the tranquil air
because such a great weeping shines in the concave sky.
If you see a falling star this month, remember to make a wish (esprimere un desiderio). I hope that it comes true!
Words and Expressions
Stella nascente — rising star
La pioggia di stelle — star shower
Essere nato sotto una cattiva stella — to be born under a bad or unlucky star
Seguire la propria stella — to follow your star or destiny
Stella — star, an endearing nickname for a child
San Lorenzo l'innocente, mille fuochi in cielo accende –- a saying that translates as “San Lorenzo the Innocent, a thousand fires rise in the sky"
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
Here's the trailer for an unforgettable film about the night of the falling stars: