is perhaps one of the ironies of Sicilian culture that the heavenly
patroness of Palermo, the island's largest city, is a shadowy figure about
whom little is known. Yet her feast in mid July is one of Sicily's largest.
It is thought that Saint Rosalie was born into a noble Norman
family around 1130. Choosing the life of a hermit, she went to live in a
cave on Mount Pellegrino overlooking Palermo. She is believed to have died
around 1164, without ever having founded a convent or anything like a religious
order. Indeed, very little was ever known of her until after the Middle
Ages, when Baroque minds sought to embellish her legend.
It was during the "Plague of 1624" that Saint Rosalie reputedly
appeared first to a sick woman. Later, appearing to a hunter, she revealed
the location of her remains in the cave and told him to bring her bones
down to Palermo. These relics were found on 15 July and borne in procession
throughout the quarantined city. The plague then ceased.
Miracles aside, competent medical care and generally better sanitary
conditions might have yielded the same effect. Throughout the modern era
Palermo's "popolino" (common people) have been left mostly to
their own limited resources, and today the economic lot of the crowds who
celebrate Saint Rosalie's annual festival is little better than that of
their seventeenth-century ancestors.
Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) was working in the city that summer,
and created the painting shown here (Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken
of Palermo). In fact, the saint's "official" ecclesiastical feast
day is observed on 4 September. In typically Palermitan fashion, many locals
take both 15 July and 4 September off from work.
Truth be told, we know not whether the bones found in the cave were those
of Saint Rosalie. We don't even know if she was actually Norman. Some scholars
have suggested, based on a dearth of contemporary twelfth-century evidence,
that she may never have actually existed. However, a chapel was built in
the cave and she became the city's patroness. In the process, the name "Rosalia"
became, and remains, very popular in Palermo --while pilgrimages to Mount Pellegrino
are less frequent than in times past. Only in 1630 did the Catholic Church formally recognise
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno
has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and
Giuseppe di Lampedusa.