The Catholic Church has more saints than there are days in the year. Conservative estimates suggest the number is around 900 but as there was no central record of saints until the late 1500s many have been lost in the mists of time. Even the church doesn’t have an exhaustive list! But one chap who is still recognised and remembered across the Catholic world is San Rocco, or St Roch to give him his original name. So who was the man and why do so many still commemorate his life with the Festa di San Rocco on August 16th?
Facts around Rocco’s birth are a little sketchy – one biography euphemistically describes his life as being “shrouded in legend and resisting all documentary research”! For example, some scribes report his birth in Montpellier, France, in 1295, others in 1348. And still more record his death anywhere between 1327 (assuming he was born around 1295 obviously!) and 1379. But all seem to agree that he died on August 16th. Or was it the 15th?! Well, either way, August 16th sees churches and congregations, particularly in Venice, celebrating the man.
In fact for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and the Church of San Rocco in Venice’s San Polo district Roch is the central figure and the very reason they exist so August 16th is a key date in their calendar. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves!
Legend tells us that Roch de la Croix, born to a rich and noble French family, stood out from birth. He had a red cross-shaped birthmark on his chest and prayed devoutly with his mother, fasting twice a week from an early age. As he grew up he seemed destined to follow his father, governor of Montpellier, into politics. But the death of his parents when he was just 20 changed everything.
Roch gave away all his worldly goods, much like Francis of Assisi had done 2 centuries earlier, and set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. He worked in hospitals along the way, treating plague victims in Rimini, Novara and Cesena. And it was this work with the sick and poor, in the face of contagion and even his apparent ability to heal patients with prayer that made him the people’s champion. Eventually, however, he himself succumbed to the plague in Piacenza, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy and was expelled from the city.
Roch took to the woods outside the city, building a small hut out of branches and leaves – I’m imagining a medieval Bear Grylls! Just me?!? Anyway, legend then says that a small spring sprang up to give him water which was handy. And a small mongrel dog, owned by a local count, brought him bread to eat, licking his wounds and eventually healing him although a scar remained on his thigh.
Roch finally returned to his hometown of Montpellier but was arrested as a spy as even his own family didn’t recognise him. He remained in jail for five years, refusing to reveal his identity to avoid any glory for his work. And he finally died on August 16th, probably sometime in the 1370s, although records are not exactly clear where – some say Montpellier, others say Voghera in north western Italy. I digress!
Anyway, location aside, the plague continued to ravage Europe and Rocco’s name began to spread. Many prayed to him for a cure for the pestilence. And towns and cities such as Bergamo, Padua and Mestre built churches to his memory. Meanwhile a Venetian nobleman, Francesco Diedo, decided to write Roch’s biography in 1478 to cement his place in history.
And then the story takes a bit of a strange turn. Some biographies suggest that Rocco’s body, that had been resting in Voghera, Italy, for years, was “relocated”, “permanently borrowed” or plain old nicked(!) by some Venetian monks. The monks turned up with Roch’s remains in Venice on 29th April 1485 and, for once, we can be pretty sure of that as the Venetians were renowned record keepers – the city archive holds over 70 kilometres of documents and continues to grow! We’re digressing again! Rocco was later declared the patron saint of Venice in 1576 but it wasn’t until the 1590 that Pope Gregory finally added him to the Roman Catholic church list of martyrology, making him a saint and fixing August 16th as his official feast day.
Today San Rocco lies in the church that bears his name in Venice and his finger, detached from his body by the Venetians to be worshipped as a relic, lies in the treasury of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, next door.
The Venetians mark his feast day by throwing open the doors to the Scuola Grande, painted throughout by Tintoretto and known as his “Sistine Chapel” (but we’ll save that for another post!) Entry, normally €10, is free all day and many locals take advantage of the chance to visit.
The church holds masses all day but the main ceremony, however, is at 6pm when the scuola confraternity members process from the scuola to the church for a final high mass at 6pm. In days gone by the Doge, Venice’s President, would process to the church to give thanks for San Rocco’s help in bringing another plague episode to an end.
The procession usually took place under the cover of awnings to protect the Doge from the strong sunshine and was captured in Cannaletto’s 1735 painting of the grand procession of dignitaries. Today however, although the red canopy is still erected, city officials and local clerics have replaced the Doge and the procession is a little lower key.
Nevertheless, if you’re ever in Venice, especially on August 16th, make sure to check out Tintoretto’s masterpiece paintings, San Rocco’s relic finger and look out for the procession.
Keep your eyes open for the main himself too – he’s usually painted or sculpted accompanied by a small dog with bread in its mouth representing kindness towards the sick. Rocco is often also painted holding up his tunic to show the plague scars on his thigh so he’s hard to miss flashing a bit of flesh! And ultimately whilst historians can’t seem to agree when he lived or exactly where he died, clearly the sight of Rocco scarred by the plague but still alive must have been quite an inspiration as evidence that the plague could be overcome. Leave me a comment with your thoughts on the man, the saint and now the patron saint of dogs, the sick and falsely accused people. Personally he seems to have been a decent old chap, so here’s to you San Rocco, happy feast day!
The Solennità or Festa di San Rocco occurs every year on August 16th.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice is open from 9.30am to 5.30pm every day of the year except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. More details can be found via its website, in English, here
The Chiesa di San Rocco church in Venice is open from 9.30am to 5.30pm every day of the year. On Christmas Day and New Year’s Day it opens from 9.30am to 12.30pm. Mass is held on Sundays and religious holidays at 11am. More details can be found via the website, in English, here
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