Roses, chocolates, tokens of love - did you know this sweet tradition is rooted in a lusty Roman festival?
The ancient festival of Lupercalia, dedicated to Luperco, Roman God of Fertility, was traditionally celebrated from 13th -15th February and much to the Catholic Church's disapproval, involved some rather raunchy, nudist behaviour in the streets. In 496, through a tactical move by Pope Gelasio, February the 14th was swiftly converted to a more sombre religious celebration: Festa di San Valentino, in honour of the church's revered saint of love and marriage. But who exactly was this man?
As tales twist through time and legends form, we're faced with the romantically mysterious story of two men, both Saint Valentines.
San Valentino I's tale is probably the least told. A kind, romantic soul, Valentinus was born in the tiny town of Terni, Umbria, on 14 February in 176 AD. He enthused love and marriage, protecting lovers and encouraging large families. Religious history describes him as a healer of epilepsy and defender of love-stories. His claim to fame was preventing a nasty break-up by placing a single red rose between two begruntled lovers. His gentle spirit lives on as the Patron Saint of charming Terni.
San Valentino II historically lived a far more dramatic life and died on14 February in 274 AD as a martyr. Valentinus was as a Christian Priest with little regard for Catholic religion. A shame really, as there was no getting past the power of the Vatican or the Roman army in ancient times. The disconcertingly romantic story goes he would marry Christian couples in secret against the church's wishes and one day conspired to marry Christian Serapia to legendary Roman Sabino (who truthfully was Pagan). The ceremony was organised and conducted in haste as poor Serapia was terminally ill. Tragically, the newly-weds died in each-other's arms just as Valentinus sealed their unification but even more tragically, word got to Emperor Claudius II who insisted that Valentinus immediately renounce his faith. Naturally Valentinus refused and was captured and imprisoned. Legend states after attempting to convert even the Emperor himself to Christianity, the priest was beheaded on 14th February 269, or was it 274 AD?
One cannot but admire bold Valentinus for sticking to his faith until the very end. Thanks to Pope Gelasio who used his martyrdom 200 years after the tragic beheading to squish an unruly pagan party, he' became a befitting mascot for loved-ones world-wide who celebrate in his name every 14th of February.
Countless Valentini have lent to the legend and perhaps we'll never truly know. It was only until The Parliament of Fowls, a poem by Chaucer from the late 14th century, that 'seynt valentynes day' was associated with lovers and cherubs in the form of birds who'd gather on this very spring day to choose their mates. With a link between cherubs and Seynt Valentynes Day officially established, enter the love-note: proof of a love-letter from 1477 written by Margery Brews, a Norfolk woman, is cherished as the fist of a recorded kind. Margery writes to to her beloved cousin John Paston, her 'right well beloved Valentine’ and our tradition is born.
We've established Valentines Day, love-notes, red roses and cherubs, can we account the chocolates to Baci Perugina?
Since 1922, these classic hazelnut 'kisses' smothered in chocolatier Luisa Spagnoli's signature mix, are a classically essential part of San Valentino in Italy. Gifted traditionally to one's amore, each contain a love note in five languages.
There are all kinds of pilgrimages of love and not all are in Italy:
- on the island of Sardinia, picturesque Sadali is home to a small church dedicated to San Valentino. The village celebrates their patron saint three times a year: 14 February, 8 May and 6 October. There's a beautiful legend explaining the positioning of our famous saint's statue and it goes like this: 'A vagabond carrying a heavy statue of San Valentino stopped for a rest near the cool waterfall of Sadali. After replenishing and relaxing, when he made to depart the statue would not budge and he was forced to leave it there by the people of Sadali who doted on it, erecting a temple dedicated to the saint.' The waterfall spectacularly flowing beside the place of worship took its name - the Cascata di San Valentino. With caves and ponds galore, it is the only said waterfall to flow in a Sardinian town and proudly welcomes hundreds of pilgrims looking for love every year.
- my favourite pilgrimage of love has to be in Verona, in Juliet Capulet's courtyard, particularly on the tunnelled entrance walls into her tiny enclosed garden, you know... where Romeo stood under her balcony.
Some may scorn at graffiti but if there's anywhere in the world defacing someone else's property could be celebrated, it used to be here. Once upon a time, not so long ago, millions of star-crossed lovers would find a pen or a nail and scratch a name into any space they could find and believe me there weren't any. Layers upon layers of hopes and pleas befell these colourful walls. Earnest whispers and ardent requests, lips-whispering, eyes-closed prayers to Juliet or just to whomever may have listened, if only these walls had ears. I always found there was something exquisitely beautiful in the fervent etchings that fetched as far as a human arm could stretch and if you could see past the 'vandalism', you too would have spent hours before these walls in awe of pure love. Sadly, the City of Verona could not.
Since 2017, the layers of love have been whitewashed over and replaced with boards of warning and a fine. Maybe the layers remain below and love is not lost forever and hopefully the cycles of time will one day uncover Shakespeare's ardent pleas as we now uncover similar things of historical awe. All the love is not lost because once past the international warnings, inside the pretty courtyard, many romantics reach out to rub Juliet's statue's bronzed right breast in a gesture of hope, leaving her rather lopsided but very popular. Additionally, every year her home receives thousands of letters on Valentine's Day filled with world-wide passion and heartbreak and Juliet's secretaries read through every single one to choose a 'Cara Giulietta'/'Dear Juliet' winner. The best writer attends a ceremony at Juliet's house, that is, 'fictional' house, for she never truly existed.
- Of course beautiful Terni's Basilica was built on the ancient cemetery outside of Saint Valentino's Umbrian town to honour their patron saint and all lovers after his holy body was brought back from Rome by his disciples to be buried in his home.
From Giacomo Casanova's Venice to Romeo and Giulietta's fair Verona, romance is engrained in Italy's every fibre. San Valentino is celebrated here as it is everywhere with bold declarations of love and secret whispers of hope.
Nowadays Galentine's, Pet Valentine's and Singles Awareness Day's may have broken down the barriers of true love's kiss and happily ever after, but ultimately, whomever your heart desires, 'When you dance down the street with a cloud at your feet, that's amore'
and it's always worth fighting, pilgriming and praying for.