Imagine a tower 33 meters high, weighing about 5 tons, fully illuminated, slowly making its way through the narrow streets of the historic centre of the city of Viterbo, transported by the sheer force of 153 men. It seems incredible, but it is so, a unique spectacle in the world, an indescribable feeling when it passes near or when the spire appears through the roofs of the city. It is such a unique show that the “macchina” (machine) of Saint Rose has become part of the intangible heritage of UNESCO. On September 3rd of this year the first transport with the official emblem of UNESCO engraved at the base took place, but the tradition of the machine of Saint Rose has well over 750 years.
It all started back in Viterbo in 1233 after the birth of little Rose, a girl of humble origins, born with a severe malformation, she was born without the sternum. The whole life of little Rose was a series of miracles because she survived up to 18 years, unthinkable for her deformity, dying in 1251. The Pope Alexander IV had her body moved from the Church of Santa Maria del Poggio to the Monastery of the Clarisses who had deceived her when he was alive, and devoted the Monastery to her. It was the 4th of September 1258. Since then, every 4th of September Saint Rose is celebrated and on the 3rd of September the machine is transported to remember this event, but the machines back then had nothing monumental as those of today. It was only in the 19th century that the machine became so big and impressive to the point that a fierce competition between architects takes place to win the honour of being the next designer of the machine.
Each machine is used for 5 years and this year Fiori nel Cielo (Flowers in the Sky) made its last appearance, so next year there will be even more suspense to see the new machine. To watch the transport of this huge creature that rises dramatically above the buildings of the historic city of Viterbo is a breathtaking experience in itself, but each new machine attracts thousands of curious viewers that come just to see what the new one looks like. Designing this creature is far from easy because in some parts of the city the roads are so narrow that even the number of porters needs to be reduced down to 75 and spectators must squeeze in the doorways to make room for the machine to pass.
Becoming porters is a great, great honour for any man from Viterbo and many of them wait for years to take the place of some older porter who grudgingly retires. Aspiring porters must first go trough a tough selection, which requires the aspirant porter to travel at least 90 meters with 150 kg on his shoulders. Those who will pass the test, will have the honour of belonging to the Sodalizio dei Facchini (association of porters). The porters, however, are not figures that come out once a year just to carry the machine, they are porters all year round. They deal with charity dinners, where each of them engages in order to raise funds to donate to the poor, to buy equipment for the hospital or for any other charitable work their city may need, putting in heart, body and soul.
Definitely the most exciting moment of the transport is the last part, where from Piazza Verdi, the porters run through Via di Santa Rosa to stop in front of her sanctuary. This is also the most dangerous part because there is a difference in height of some 15 meters, and being the last, the porters are more tired. However, awaiting them on the steps of the church are their families who support them and encourage them, bursting of pride in watching them arrive running. Once arrived in front of the Church, the machine rotates on itself and finally the porters can set it down on the floor and hug their families, thanking the saint to have protected them during the transport.
Not only does this show deserve to be seen at least once in a lifetime, but being Viterbo a small town, this event unites the citizens giving them a sense of identity and pride. As John Paul II said when he witnessed an exceptional transport of the machine on May 27th 1984: "It is worth coming to Viterbo".