The ‘Festa di San Martino’ is celebrated throughout Italy on 11th November each year. San Martino or St Martin was a military man who was an early convert to Christianity. His story is touching and kind.
Legend says that St Martin was riding his horse through a city, in the depths of winter, when he saw a poor man, dressed in rags and begging. Martin’s response to this man’s situation was to cut his cloak in half and give half of his cloak to the frozen man. A simple act of kindness and generosity. That night Martin had a dream – in his dream Jesus appeared before him wearing the exact same military cloak that Martin had cut in half to give to the poor man. Whilst the details are sketchy, as is often the case with early Christian legends, Martin then converted to Christianity and went on to become the third Bishop of Tours, in France. In the British Isles and France we know Italy’s San Martino as St Martin of Tours.
The San Martino story is so touching and so easy to appreciate that there have been many paintings and sculptures depicting this event. In Germany the main entrance of Hoechst Castle depicts the saint cutting his cloak in half to give to the poor man. Meanwhile artists have painted the scene, showing the knight in shining armour helping the poor man at his feet. A perfect tale of morality, kindness and humility. Martin was one of the early Christian saints and stories like this were vital to the Christian Church as the faith spread across Europe. The study of the lives of individual saints is known as hagiography. These stories are often an intricate woven tapestry of folklore, legend and the occasional historical fact.
VENICE – in Venice the tradition of San Martino has developed into a delightful day for the local children. The bakeries and pastry shops all make beautifully decorated biscuits in the shape of a great man on a horse. The man is of course San Martino. These large biscuits are elaborately covered with sweets, chocolate coins and icing sugar. On the feast day of San Martino the children of Venice walk or run around the campos of the city visiting the local shops and requesting a small gift. The shop-keepers are ready with sweets, biscuits and small cakes to give to the children. It’s like Halloween only much more innocent. In the days leading up to 11th November the shop windows are filled with these colourful and joyous displays.
Over time the local bakeries have developed more and more elaborate and highly decorated San Martino treats. My favourite is this one (below) which includes a biscuit base, loads of icing sugar, smarties, chocolate money and even sparkling silver balls for good measure. Well of course I had to buy one – for research purposes only. Since this picture was taken this particular San Martino has sadly lost his foot. I think it fell off in a hunting accident. Thank you so much San Martino your generosity of spirit lives on in the cake and biscuit making calendar of Venice. What a legacy!
Interestingly the San Martino feast day tends to coincide with the arrival of the first wine of the season – Italy’s equivalent to France’s Beaujolais Nouveau. Sometimes you’ll hear the Festa of San Martino referred to as ‘l’estate di San Martino’ this means ‘the summer of San Martino’ and is Italy’s equivalent to a British Indian Summer. In these early days of November there is often a period of beautiful, pleasant sunny days, not warm but very calm and enjoyable. Today is one of those days – a day to be savoured before the winter begins.
- You can read about the Festival of San Martino (in Italian) here:
- La festa di San Martino è una ricorrenza celebrata in tutta Italia durante l’Estate di San Martino, l’11 novembre, caratterizzata da diverse usanze regionali. Questa ricorrenza è legata alla figura di San Martino di Tours e alla tradizione che racconta di come Martino, soldato dell’impero romano, durante una ronda notturna nell’inverno del 335 divise il suo mantello con un mercante seminudo. Dopo quella notte e la visione di Gesù in sogno vestito con la metà del suo mantello militare, Martino si convertì al cristianesimo.
- I’ve written about other saints too – for example: St Catherine of Alexandria and The legend of St Lucy – Santa Lucia in Italy – 13th December is her Feast Day
POSTSCRIPT – My lovely friend Francesca Blench read this article about San Martino and kindly offered her own memories as follows, it’s a charming and delightful read…….
Janet, San Martino remains a firm favourite of mine, a fine saint surrounded by great local traditions in many places – of course, as you know, the little Church at Villa Cordevigo is dedicated to him and who better for a place owned by vintners?
But I first learnt of San Martino when as a youngster I lived and taught English in Gattinara, a northern Piedmontese village that produces a very fine red wine, 100% Nebbiolo, for some as good as the other Nebbiolo based Barolo or Barbaresco from southern Piedmont! Just less well known. On St Martin’s day in Gattinara each year, it is a public holiday as San Martino is the patron saint of the village – that means the local populace has a day off work and spends the morning at an enormous street market, gathering to talk about village affairs (gossiping frequently!) and then they all go to the local restaurants for a slap up meal …. traditionally this is also the day the first new wine is drawn off to check whether it will be a good vintage or not. Another tradition on this exciting day in Gattinara is to see whether the local band parades through the streets in the late afternoon, signalling that there will be a Carnival parade the following February. Carnival keeps Gattinarese people cheerful through the long dark winter. Local groups of friends design floats and costumes and meet two or three times each week through the long winter preparing everything for two processions and parades culminating in the Mardi Gras celebrations and a final masked ball that closes carnival the night before Ash Wednesday. I spent my first 20 years in Italy in Gattinara, throwing myself in the 1980’s into these local traditions, inventing dance routines, dressing up (or down, we often wore scanty costumes more suited to summer!) to be on the floats or dancing through the streets (definitely the best way to keep warm). Today sadly many of these traditions have got lost or have changed, I think …… but San Martino still closes the agricultural year and is the time the vintners to draw off the precious nectar and judge its future potential.
And I still buy Gattinara on special occasions. You must taste it with me next time you are in Italy, Janet.
Thanks and cheers!
When Francesca refers to Villa Cordevigo, she is referring to a truly fabulous country house hotel that I’ve had the good fortune to work with for the last 8 years. A superb, privately-owned, country house hotel. Here’s a link to one of my articles about Villa Cordevigo. Villa Cordevigo – country house hotel and to inspire you further……….
A brief biography of San Martino (St Martin):
- San Martino was born in 316 AD (or CE / Common Era if you prefer)
- San Martin became the 3rd Bishop of Tours in 371 AD.
- He died in 397 AD
- For context the ‘Edict of Milan’ was passed by the Romans in AD 313 granting tolerance and freedom of worship to Christians. Constantine (Emperor at the time) was said to be influenced by Helen, his mother (a devout Christian) in making this decision and therefore (in theory) ending persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire.
- His shrine in Tours became a famous stopping-point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
- Written: November, 2020
- Updated: January 2021 / November 2021 / November 2022