This itinerary explores the astonishing history of the only city in Emilia Romagna to have not just one Patron Saint but four.
Each stage, dedicated to a Saint, reveals the bond between Forlì and its divine protectors and highlights how the life of each saint is linked inextricably to the religious practices of the people of Forlì. Indeed, the population has chosen to conserve the relics of these saints in what are today the city’s most important places of worship. Follow us on this city tour to discover the legends, tales and popular traditions linked to the celebrations dedicated to these saints through the centuries.
Saint Valerian, the first Patron Saint of Forlì and certainly the most controversial, lived in Roman times in today's Romiti district, where the Church of Santa Maria del Voto now stands. He lived as a “romito”, that is, as a hermit. We describe his history as controversial and uncertain because, although he was attributed miraculous deeds and is remembered as an expert exorcist and skilled preacher, in 1967 the Sacred Congregation of Rites decided to cancel his feast day, previously on May 4 of the liturgical calendar.
The reasons for this decision derive from doubts about the saint’s identity as over the centuries he had become confused with the soldier and martyr from Forlì who went by the same name and was already celebrated every 22 November. This version would seem to corroborate the legend according to which, after being hired by the Forlì army, the soldier Valerian fought in Romagna against the Goths and died in battle in the current neighbourhood of San Varano. His relics, which were conserved immediately after his death in a place of worship whose location has never been identified, were then transferred to Forlì’s Cathedral in around 1267. Among the depictions of the Saint present in Forlì, the most famous are the one set in the marble lunette at the entrance to the Church of the Carmine and a canvas by Livio Modigliani “Saint Valerian preaching to his fellow Roman soldiers” exhibited in the Civic Art Gallery at the San Domenico Museums. Finally, we should note that the saint, now Co-Patron Saint of the city, was also depicted on horseback in armour on the city of Forlì’s former coat of arms.
The history of Forlì’s first Patron saint is intertwined with that of the current Patroness: the Madonna of the Fire (Madonna del Fuoco). In fact, alongside the Chapel dedicated to Saint Valerian inside Forlì’s Cathedral you can now visit that of the city’s Patroness. This latter chapel conserves one of the oldest known woodcuts on paper remaining today.
This devotional print was at the centre of a miracle that occurred in Forlì on the night between February 4 and 5, 1428. The episode relates to a fire that destroyed a school located in today’s Via Cobelli; once the flames were finally extinguished, it was seen that the icon of the Virgin Mary, to which the students had previously prayed, had remained intact: it was neither burned nor even blackened by the smoke. Nowadays, on the Feast of the Madonna of the Fire every 4th February, numerous stalls are set up and sell a variety of goods, especially a typical oval-shaped, sweet aniseed-flavoured bread. This feast-day is celebrated in the area between Piazza Saffi and the Piazza del Duomo and focuses on the column that hosts a 2.35-metre-high statue of the Virgin in Carrara marble created by the sculptor Clemente Molli. The statue was initially located in Piazza Saffi but was removed in 1909 and placed in the Church of San Filippo Neri. In 1928, on the fifth centenary of the miracle and after years of bitter political controversy, it was relocated to Piazza del Duomo on its restored column. In 1948, a small group of families, eager for their children to comprehend the importance of the celebration on February 4, initiated another tradition linked to the cult of Forlì’s Patroness that continues today: fascinated by the miraculous story, the children chose to pay homage to the Madonna of the Fire by attaching drawings and flowers to the railing that protects the Column.
Another record belongs to the Co-Patron Saint of Forlì, Saint Mercurialis, who was appointed the city’s first Bishop in the 5th century. His life is shrouded in mystery, legends and fantastic tales, many of which derive from the figurative representations of the Saint's deeds. The most famous event is, undoubtedly, the fight and subsequent defeat of a dragon that terrorized the city and the whole of Romagna, bringing death and disease. Bishop Ruffillo of Forlimpopoli and Bishop Gaudenzio of Rimini were also protagonists in this exploit. Although the news regarding the life of Saint Mercurialis is limited and there are few certainties, he continues to arouse much curiosity, especially after the latest studies conducted on his relics. In 1601, Mercurialis’ relics were permanently placed in the Mercuriali Chapel, at the bottom of the right aisle of the Basilica dedicated to the Saint, while his head was placed in an altar of the Church of the Holy Trinity. Between 2018 and 2019, scholars analysed the relics and concluded that the head and the other remains belong to the same person. Mercurialis was aged between 50 and 60 at the time of his death and was of Asian origin, perhaps Armenian. In the Basilica in Piazza Saffi, the beating heart of the city, you can still see a painting by Ludovico Cardi depicting the Saint as he overcomes the dragon (Mercuriali Chapel) and a work by Giacomo Zampa depicting Mercurialis blessing the city of Forlì presented by an angel (right aisle). The feast day dedicated to Saint Mercurialis was originally celebrated on April 30 but to avoid any overlap with that of Saint Peregrine on May 1, it was moved to October 26, the day on which Saint Mercurialis’ remains were moved to their current location in 1601. The bell tower of the San Mercuriale Basilica is open to the public for the celebrations of the Madonna del Fuoco, the Feast of Saint Mercurialis and in conjunction with other events.
The last stop on our journey is the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi also known as San Pellegrino, where the body of the last illustrious Co-Patron Saint of Forlì, Saint Peregrine, is conserved. Despite various alterations over the centuries, the building located in front of the current Palazzo della Provincia retains traces testifying to its considerable age (it dates from around 1250). The seventeenth-century interior, in strong contrast with the austere terracotta façade, has three naves. On the right, you can observe the Chapel of Saint Peregrine that was created in the eighteenth-century and is decorated with different-coloured marbles. A glass reliquary protects the Saint’s relics. Now venerated as the Patron Saint of cancer sufferers and people with other serious diseases, Peregrine Laziosi fought as a political activist in many battles against the Guelphs and later, after his religious conversion, became part of the Order of Friar Servants of Mary. After his novitiate in Siena, he returned to Forlì. The miracle that led to his veneration and canonization in 1726 is linked to the disease that struck him down at the age of 60 and from which he unexpectedly recovered the day before he was due to be operated. Even today and every year, for the Feast of Saint Peregrine on May 1, stalls are set up near the Church of San Pellegrino, in the area between piazza Morgagni and via Mercuriali, for the sale of citrons. These fruits, whose therapeutic properties were used by Peregrine to comfort those suffering from cholera, fever and plague, are by tradition taken to the Church for blessing and then eaten at a mealtime.