Fire and Dew for San Giovanni

June 14, 2013 / Events
Grello, Umbria
Straw torches will soon be litIn the tiny Umbrian mountain village, Grello (pop. 45), the celebrations around the solstice have no one standing still: young men run with fire on the night of June 23rd, vigil of the feast of St. John the Baptist, village patron saint.

The feast interweaves water rites (logicamente!) with fire. Fire and water, propitious elements of purification, combine and merge in many late June Umbrian festivities, all rooted in Roman rituals. Like others in the area, Grello’s St. John the Baptist feast is a “Christianizing” of ancient solstice celebrations. In Grello, the proverb in dialect “San Giovanni nun vole n’ganni” (“No one wants deceptions on St. John’s Day”) ties the feast to sincerity and trust, that is the loving liason between Christ and His cousin, John.

Nightfall moves in on GrelloGrello’s Festa del Fuoco e Guazza di San Giovanni on June 23rd, centers on rituals of fuoco (fire) and guazza (dew – hence, water) – as did the Roman solstice festivities. At dark, three groups of six young men in toga-like tunics – the village has three rioni – run around the crumbled fortified castle walls bearing fiery torches and then race through the village dragging fire-bearing treggeLa treggia, a sort of wooden sled, was once harnessed by farmers to oxen and used to drag crops in from the fields. 
Each treggia bears a flaming rudimentary cero (“candle”) – called “incije” in the dialect of Grello – made of straw, wood and other inflammable materials. It stands erect on the treggia: phallic? A Maypole link?

The Grello night is illuminated by the fiery sled-born “candles” as the villagers cheer all to the finish. The embers of the fiery torches are all that remain on the tregge, as the proud winning team climbs the stage in the center of the piazza to accept the palio (banner), which stands in a place of honor in the winning rione all year.

Treggia will be run in honor of San Giovanni Battista

Treggia is ready - torch will be lit
Grello youth prepare for the race
Runners in toga, unite after the run
Tregge on fire at the end of the run

A race in the night, light in the dark

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See for more on her Umbria tours. Do see for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

28 Responses to “Fire and Dew for San Giovanni”

  1. Rosemary

    I missed this one when we lived in Umbria! Loved all the festivals we attended – and there are so many at this time of year. Thanks for sharing a unique one!

  2. Joseph DeRuyter

    This brings back memories of the Corsa dei Ceri
    in Gubbio on the 15th of last month. Wow! Can
    it really be possible that it has been a month since
    that day so filled with passione’? I am convinced
    that there is ALWAYS a festival of some sort taking
    place somewhere in Umbria! Always the perfect
    opportunity to gain insight into the heart and the
    history of these wonderful people.

  3. Anne Robichaud

    Rosemary, hope you can catch this festa one day….and as written, no one standing still although…near the end of June, the sun stands still – or so it seems.
    Wish to add this note: At the solstices, the sun’s apparent position on the celestial sphere reaches its greatest distance above or below the celestial equator and for a few days before and after each solstice, the sun appears to stand still in the sky. “Solstice” derives from “sol” (“sun”) and “sistere” (“to stand still”).

    This festa is strongly tied to summer solstice

  4. Sophia

    A feast that promotes sincerity and trust– so great! Interesting article here. I didn’t know there is a village as small as a population of 45! It’s wonderful that they honor St. John the Baptist in this way. Thanks for sharing Anne!
    Much love to Assisi….

  5. Janice

    Your stories are always the most informative. What an interesting festival, wish I was there.

  6. Ginny Siggia

    Oh, there are even tinier villages. After my trip to Umbria, I became intrigued by the terms “comune” (a township, group of “frazione”, or villages) I did some research. When riding the local bus between Spoleto and Scheggino, the bus stopped at every tiny frazione within reach, and it was clear they were indeed tiny, maybe a house or two or three. I looked up those frazioni and found populations for Scheggino (both a comune and the capoluogo, or seat of the comune): Civitella, 16; Collefabbri, 7; Monte San Vito, 9; Pontuglia, 20; Schioppo, 6 (!!). Ceselli, the big one at 127.

  7. Ginny Siggia

    Oops, I think I elevated Scheggino and used the term capoluogo incorrectly. Oh well, you know my heart is in the right place.

  8. gerald anders

    Bravi, grazie to GB and Anne respectively for their timely notebook entries for the Nemi Fragolini and Grello S. Giovanni feste making it possible to attend rather than read in frustrating disappointment after the fact.

  9. Linda Boccia

    While festivals are fun and keep us connected to the past, what are the new traditions emerging from Umbria that speak to the present and future?

  10. Cindy Tanner

    Your stories always make me want to book a trip to Umbria. Maybe someday it will happen.

  11. Anne Robichaud

    Thanks to all – and Linda, many festivals in Umbria (and elsewhere) speak to the present and future. for example ( in Umbria): a – Perugia festival on gluten-free foods – Narni’s Kilometro Zero festival (centered on farm-to-table eating) – Premio Barzini, Orvieto (journalism) – and Festival Internazionale del Giornalismo, Pg..(and I wrote about it on this site) – Todi Art Festival (music, theater, art) – Festival Valentianiano, Terni (classical music) – Bianca Film Festival di Perugia (on small, independent films) – Slow Food festival in Orvieto – Altrocioccolato in Gubbio (on free-trade chocolate) – Festival of Science and Philosophy in Foligno- Perugia Science Festival in Sept – Spoleto Festival – Umbria Jazz in Perugia (with jazz workshops) – Young Jazz Festival in Foligno – Folk Festival of Orvieto (folk music of all of Europe)..etc

  12. Madeline Margraves

    We’ll be in Umbria for two weeks at the end of Sept and beginning of Oct. Other than the Oct 4 & 5 tours with you, what other festas are happening around at that time ? We’d love to be a part of the celebration of such a vibrant and religious culture.

  13. Suzanne and Jack

    Another reason to come back to Umbria. Anne, we will put this on our long list of things to see with you when we next visit.
    Thank you so much for reminding us of the richness of the Italian culture.

  14. Diane Lennon

    Anne, how interesting!! It never ceases to amaze me the types of festas and sagras they have here in Umbria. I am glad you advise us all about the unusual ones we may want to attend. Thanks!

  15. Mary C

    Intriguing article! After being in Italy for about 2 weeks so far, I’ve realized the different customs and activities. This is one festival that would be so cool to experience! A festival tied sincerity and trust sounds wonderful.

  16. Melanie conant

    Loving all the tid bits on the Umbrian festivals and goings on. Wish I was there!!! Missing you and looking forward to the next visit!!

  17. Pat Parsons

    Love Umbria and can’t wait to return. Will definitely check with you Anne to make sure we come at a time when we can take advantage of all the wonderful stories and celebrations you post. Love Love Love Assisi

  18. Anne Robichaud

    More summer solstice news: starting June 20- 22nd, the Umbria World Fest in Foligno gathers togethers writers, journalists, photographers musicians, film-makers to celebrate June 20th night…as sun will shine 15 hrs that day..
    A multi-culture event…”as all peoples have gathered and celebrated together the solstice since time immemorial”
    bello no?
    Program here:

  19. My oh my, dear Anne, another wonderful story! The next time I see you (I wish it was tomorrow)I’m going to touch your arm, maybe some of your knowledge and your writing gifts will transfer to me! Thank you Tanti baci, Marianna

  20. While organising a winter solstice celebration downunder in Australia, I wish I could teleport to Grello for this festival! Thanks for this charming insight Anne. The Umbria World Festival sounds wonderful too!

  21. Joe Hitt

    This is the only guide to go with.knows all the history. Have lunch with her at the
    Farm to Table. She can also make reservations at other places beside Assisi.

  22. Frank and Brit

    Wow, Annie, great photos. It looks as though the whole town of 45 was involved in this. Thanks for telling us about this.

  23. Michelle Toohey

    Thanks so much, Annie , for bringing this festival to our attention. I have always appreciated how the pagan and Christian traditions infuse Assisi to make its spirit still relevant today. As always, your articles tantalize and educate at the same time. Thank you!

  24. Pat Grappolini

    Thanks Annie –
    I am forwarding your article about June 23 to my nephew whose birthday is that day. Maybe someday he’ll go to Italy & see the festival himself.

  25. Angela Melczer

    Your article made me feel like I was there! I always enjoy your articles and they make we want to experience whatever you describe!


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