Flowers and fireworks: How Rome (usually) celebrates its patron saints’ day

June 29th is the feast of St Peter and St Paul, the two patron saints of Rome, and a public holiday within the capital. But this year, the celebrations are a little different.

Flowers and fireworks: How Rome (usually) celebrates its patron saints' day
June 29th fireworks over Castel Sant'Angelo. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

While June 29th remains a holiday in Rome in 2020, the usual celebrations have had to be scaled back because of the coronavirus epidemic. 

Here's what you need to know about the history and traditions of St Peter and Paul's Day.

That's right, Rome has two patron saints

St Peter, first bishop of Rome and namesake of the world's largest church, may be the first name that comes to mind, but St Paul is joint patron of the Eternal City. Both apostles were martyred in Rome within three years of each other and both are said to be buried at the two basilicas that bear their names today: St Peter's at the Vatican, and St Paul's Outside the Walls, to the south of the historic centre.

Both churches have matching statues of the two saints. You'll also see them represented together on either side of the bridge leading to Castel Sant'Angelo, the riverside fortress that once protected the popes, St Peter holding the keys to heaven and St Paul the sword.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

And Caravaggio paired them in two of his most striking religious paintings, the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, which hang opposite each other to this day at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo.

They each have their individual feast days earlier in the year, but June 29th commemorates their deaths at the hands of the Romans – Peter's by upside-down crucifixion, Paul's by beheading – as well as their significance for Christianity in Rome and around the world.

The Conversion of St Paul by Caravaggio

It's a public holiday, but only in Rome

The capital celebrates June 29th as an official holiday, so be prepared to find some shops and offices closed and transport running on a reduced schedule.

READ ALSO: 'No segways, no crowds, and only Italian spoken': Here's what visiting Rome is like right now

But you can expect less disruption than you'd find on a nationwide holiday, with intercity transport operating as usual and most museums and visitor attractions remaining open. And if you work in Rome, you might even get the day off.

The celebrations are solemn…

As you'd expect, most of the festivities are concentrated in and around St Peter and Paul's twin basilicas. They start with special vespers at St Paul's on the evening of June 28th, followed by masses throughout the next day. The church concludes its celebrations with a solemn procession of the iron chains said to have held Paul as he awaited his death.

Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

In St Peter's, a bronze statue of the eponymous saint – the one kept on the right of the nave as you approach the main altar, and which has lost its toes to centuries of rubbing by pilgrims – is dressed for the occasion in full pontifical vestments, including the papal tiara and ring.

The current pope celebrates a mass on the morning of the 29th at which he blesses the pallium, a white woollen stole to be given to newly appointed archbishops as a symbol of the authority granted them by the Holy See.

The ceremony and the traditional prayers in St Peter's Square that follow it took place again this year, although with fewer people.

… and spectacular

Aside from the liturgical celebrations, Rome lays on quite a show in honour of its two patron saints.

The most unique festivity takes place outside the Vatican: starting in St Peter's Square, volunteers build a spectacular carpet of flowers that leads down Via della Conciliazione and towards the River Tiber.

Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Known as the Infiorata, it's a tradition started by a master florist in the 17th century and not much changed today. Beginning the day before and working through the night to have the floral artworks ready for the pope's celebrations on June 29th, participants from all over Italy scatter bright petals, salt and coloured sawdust to create a new range of designs each year.

In 2020, however, the Infiorata was exceptionally cancelled.

Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The other highlight is a massive firework show the same evening. Dubbed the Girandola ('pinwheel'), legend has it that it began during the Renaissance when Michelangelo designed a grand fireworks display lit from the Castel Sant'Angelo, culminating with an enormous fountain of sparks that poured over the round fortress like a giant Catherine wheel.

The practice became an annual tradition for four centuries, until killjoys in the 1880s decided it was too dangerous. It was revived – with better safety standards – in the 2000s and now usually takes place on the Pincio Terrace overlooking Piazza del Popolo, ensuring the sparks can be seen all over Rome. 


This year, though, the display has been cancelled because of the pandemic. Instead there'll be a video version that you can watch online, starting at 9pm (details here).

There will also be private fireworks this evening at the Cinecittà film studios on the south-east outskirts of Rome, for any visitors who buy a regular entry ticket today.

Buona festa!



La Bella Vita: Pasta, coffee, and the signs you’re becoming Italian

From how your eating habits become more Italian (without you even realising it) to the best ways to prepare and drink coffee, our new weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Pasta, coffee, and the signs you're becoming Italian

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

The longer you spend in Italy, the more you might find yourself adapting to Italian culture in ways you didn’t expect. For Brits like me, that might mean swapping your tea with milk for black espresso. For Americans it could be that your tastebuds have slowly become less accustomed to spicy foods (good tacos are, sadly, hard to find in Italy). And you’ve heard all about the tomatoes, but are you eating more lentils yet?

Once you find yourself eating pasta on an almost daily basis and reacting to the idea of fast food with a heartfelt ‘che schifo!’ you’ll know there’s really no going back. These are just some of the eating and drinking habits you might see change over time:

17 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you live in Italy

With all that pasta in mind, if you want to make sure your favourite recipe is executed in truly flawless Italian style we’ve got some expert advice on nailing the technique for saucing all of your pasta dishes correctly every time – and there’s more to it than you might expect.

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And then there’s the coffee. Whether you prefer yours from an espresso machine or the iconic stovetop moka coffee pot – personally I find it hard to pick a favourite – everyone who’s spent even a short time in Italy knows there’s an art to preparing and drinking coffee all’italiana

This rich tradition comes with a set of rules and norms that can be hard to navigate if you weren’t born in the country, so here’s our complete guide to where, when and how to drink coffee like a true Italian.

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A shot of dark, velvety coffee is more than just a quick caffeine hit: Italy’s espresso is a prized social and cultural ritual the country considers a part of its national heritage. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

The weather has taken a turn for the worse this week and many parts of northern Italy are experiencing freezing temperatures and snow. It sounds obvious now, but before I moved to Italy I didn’t realise just how bitterly cold it gets, and my first winter in Tuscany was a bit of a shock. Luckily, Italians from around the peninsula share a love of talking – or complaining – about cold and wet weather so there were plenty of people ready to commiserate.

Here are ten Italian phrases you can throw into your weather-related conversations during these chilly days:

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And have you noticed how some Italian translations of English-language film titles bear very little resemblance to the original? I first realised this when an Italian friend told me how they always watched something called ‘Mamma ho perso l’aereo’ at Christmas, and described the plot, which sounded identical to that of Home Alone…

From the very literal to the improbable, here’s a non-exhaustive list of our favourite Italian movie title translations.

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Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]