The magic nights of San Giovanni

Turin, capital of Piedmont in the North of Italy. A city of art, with its marvellous Savoy residences built by the royal Savoy family, its great Piazzas, its museums. A city famous for football and the FIAT logo. However, Turin also has a hidden side unknown to many, linked to magic and ancient pagan beliefs.

By Alessandra Ivaldi / 23.6.2018

The capital city of Piedmont has always been a magical place, where Christian and Pagan traditions are blended together in harmony. On one side, everyone knows that the city cathedral, or Duomo, is watched over by the Turin Shroud, which attracts masses of faithful admirers to see the precious relic with their own eyes. On the other, not many know that Turin is also recognised for the practice of the occult arts, being the meeting point of two ‘magic triangles’ – one white one with Lyon and Prague, and one black one with London and San Francisco.

These are only legends, they will tell you, but how do these superstitions infiltrate the concrete life of a modern and dynamic city? Well, you must understand that for two days a year, Turin relives the magic of its past and celebrates a curious anniversary, born from the fusion of pagan and Christian beliefs.

This anniversary is on the 23rd and 24th June, when the local people of Turin celebrate the city’s patron saint, San Giovanni. Even as far back as the Middle Ages, it was tradition that the city stopped for two whole days for the important anniversary, which boasts even older origins. The traces of its origins can be found not only in Italy, but also in other European countries.

“The nights of San Giovanni allocate ‘mosto’, marriage, wheat and corn.” (‘mosto’ or ‘must’ is made of pressed grapes before they are fermented to make wine). This proverb, of Venetian origins, shows how particular beliefs surrounding the night between the 23rd and 24th June have diffused throughout the entire nation. It is actually believed that during this particular night it’s possible to influence the harvest of the coming year through witchcraft (hence the reference to mosto, wheat and corn), as well as the destiny of young girls at the age of marriage.

Prophecy rituals call for the rise of bonfires in both the countryside and the cities, a practice still observed today in many places, not just in Italy.

For example, in Scandinavian countries this represents a very important anniversary, during which spectacular bonfires pierce the darkness of this magical night, deterring evil spirits and giving life to its picturesque landscape. The English also have their own beliefs relating to this particular time of year. Do they think it is a coincidence, perhaps, that the magical events described in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare are set during the night of San Giovanni?

Let’s stay in Italy, more precisely in Turin. The festivities, which unfold in the city centre, include a range of activities: shows in the piazzas (town squares), games, concerts, fun activities for little ones… But without a doubt, the most important moments throughout the two festival days are these three: the ‘Farò’ (or Bonfire), the costume parade and the pyrotechnic display.

During the late afternoon of the 23rd June, the streets of Turin are invaded by a parade of historic costumes, recalling the city’s great past. A past which through the course of centuries in ancient times was under Roman occupation, capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia under the Savoys, and once capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 to 1865.

The parade finishes around 10 o’clock in the evening in Piazza Castello, opposite the Palazzo Madama (the seat of the Italian Senate), one of the marvellous residences that were built in the capital by the Savoy family during their reign.

It is in this very square where every year, once the costume parade has finished, follows the spectacular Farò, which in the language of Piedmont means ‘bonfire’. Its light will illuminate Piazza Castello all night long.

At the centre of the bonfire, the outline of a huge bull is raised, which is the emblem of Turin. The flames consume it and at one point during the night the bull eventually falls to the ground. Even today, it is considered that following the direction in which it falls predicts whether the coming year will be good or bad for the city. In fact, falling in a particular direction, the bull could find itself under the influence of black magic. Whereas falling in the other direction, it will instead bring the protection of white magic on Turin and its inhabitants.

The San Giovanni festival traditionally closes with the magnificent pyrotechnic display, which lights up the Turin sky and reflects on the water of the Po, the river that runs through the city, on the night of the 24th June.

This year, the Turin Council has proposed a unique alternative to the traditional firework display. In order to light up the waters of the Po, there will in fact be an army of over 200 shining drones. The world moves forward, but technology cannot dream of putting aside ancient traditions. It will instead have to integrate with them, just as Christianism had to integrate with ancient pagan magic.


Alessandra Ivaldi (Italy)

Studies: Foreign Languages for International Communication

Speaks: Italian, English, German, French

Europe is… a cultural heritage.


Alex Wakeley-Jones (United Kingdom)

Degree: BA Italian and Spanish from Cardiff University

Languages: English, Spanish, Italian

Europe is… a mixing pot of cultures and identities

Author: Anja

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