The flames leap higher than the village rooftops heating up the piazza and the crowds who come from nearby towns: no, it’s not a tragic fire, only Italy’s largest bonfire in honor of St. Anthony.
Known as Il Focarone, this centuries old tradition is held every January 16th-17th in hundreds of towns and villages all over Italy. Just on the island of Sardinia more than sixty three similar bonfires will be burning all night until the early hours of the saint’s festival on January 17th.
But that of Bagnaia, at the outskirts of Viterbo, is the biggest of them all – a towering 8 metres of purifying heat and smoke to honor the saint revered as a healer and protector of livestock.
Squads of young bonfire builders work for an entire week beforehand setting up the eight-metre tall mass of tree trunks in the middle of the piazza. The construction must be “just so” to insure that the bonfire will burn evenly and not collapse.
The mid-winter festivities begin at sundown with a costumed procession and flag throwing and throughout the night-long vigil in front of this “Guinness of bonfires” the sausages sizzle as citizens and visitors enjoy the night time picnic with a glass of local wine as well as the warmth from the huge fire.