Rificolona is a Florentine folklore tradition: a paper lantern festival which lights up the streets of Florence on the eve of September 7th. Originally, the festivities were a celebration of the nativity of the Madonna. The tradition of parading down the streets leading to Basilica Santissima Annunciata carrying lighted paper lanterns on sticks dates back to the middle of the seventeenth century, and is reminiscent of the many peasants who arrived from the hills surrounding Florence to celebrate and to sell their wares in the market the day following the birth. Coming from very far away, they had to travel all through the night, carrying their wares on their backs and lanterns in their hands, hoping to remain safe in their journey. They arrived in the square and by the light of their flickering lamps, sang to the Virgin into the small hours of the morning.
Having arrived in Florence for the first time in early September, now more than two years ago, I had never heard of Rificolona. One night while walking the streets to meet some friends, I found myself swept up in the crowds of people making their way to Piazza Santissima Annunciata with their lanterns to enjoy music, street food and each other’s company. The air was full of magic and energy. We wound our way through the streets, and I was packed amongst people with lanterns swinging, held high as we inched our way towards the square. Once part of the procession, I was locked in until we finally poured into the piazza, joining the main event. After some searching I was able to find my friends in the crowd, and we took a seat on the busy steps of the piazza, watching the festivities unfold with enthusiasm. With my newcomer’s eyes I admired the raucous celebrations, observing as lanterns took off into the sky, people danced, and people sang. The air was still heavy with the heat of September.
As we chatted on the steps, my eyes wandered lazily around the crowd. Unwittingly, I locked eyes with a young man, probably about my age, standing further down on the steps and smoking a cigarette. He could have been a university student, or a young worker. Definitely not a tourist, with his apparent ease with his surroundings. He seemed lonely, and he, too, lazily took in the crowd, meeting then dropping my gaze. I happily people-watched for several hours, tuning in and out of my friends’ conversations, and the young man crossed my sight several times. He seemed to be alone, and didn’t appear to be waiting for anyone or heading in any particular direction. He was just lingering around the square, as were we.
When the night began winding down, we stood from our perch, stretched out our legs and said goodbye to one another. As I turned to leave, I spotted a group of people under the arch of the church at the top of the steps laying out cardboard and spreading blankets, covering themselves from the now slight nip in the summer air. People sleep here? I thought to myself. How sad. The women all wore long colourful skirts, swishing this way and that as they made their makeshift beds and began tucking themselves in. Among them, I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of the young man, just as he pulled the cover up over his head, turning in for the night. I wasn’t sure of what I had seen, could he have been getting ready to pass the night here? With the others? Confused, I went on my way home.
After that night, I began seeing him everywhere around the city; sitting on steps smoking cigarettes, standing outside the book shop trying to sell newspapers, or walking a few paces ahead of or behind the women in the colourful skirts. He seemed to remain invisible to the tourists or workers bustling through the streets on their way to somewhere. I wondered where he came from, and how, or why he had ended up here, selling papers by day and sleeping on church steps by night.
I left Florence for some time, returning to Canada and then moving to Rome, before finally returning to Florence to teach. I took an apartment in a part of town I was mostly unfamiliar with. It seemed quiet, within sight of the Duomo but on a tranquil street with limited traffic. Nothing special. I had been living there for several weeks, and was walking home late one night, passing through the quiet piazza leading to my street. The pavement was inky wet from a previous rain, and my footsteps echoed into the calm night. I looked up at the church steps just as a woman in a swishing skirt was unfolding a blanket, getting ready to tuck in next to several others huddled under the arch of the church. All of a sudden I had the most vivid déjà vu, and the square was full of lanterns, street vendors and people once again.
A voice from behind me brought me back to the present. Have you been following me?