San Martino is one of the Venetian traditions mainly celebrated by children and certainly worth a detour if you are in Venice on November 11. Children walk on the streets to sing the San Martino song in exchange for a Samartin biscuit. But who was this Saint Martin? Continue reading below the picture to find out what’s happening on that day and how it all started.
What’s going on that day?
On this name day of Saint Martin, the Venetian children go out on the streets dressed up with a cape and armed with pots, pans and cutlery. They make a lot of noise with their tools and sing a traditional San Martino song in the Venetian dialect.
San martin ze ‘ndà in sofita
par trovar la so novissa
la so novissa no ghe gera
San Martin col culo par tera.
E col nostro sachetin
cari signori se San Martin
With this song, they hope to get money to buy the typical Samartin biscuits, but they are also happy with any type of candy. The Samartin biscuit depicts a knight on a horse with a cape and a sword and is covered with colored pearls of sugar. It can only be bought around this period and you can find them in different sizes in bakeries across Venice.
Their little parade takes place during the afternoon under the supervision of their teachers and (grand)parents, so make sure to include one of the shopping streets (e.g. Via Garibaldi in Castello) in the neighbourhood of a school in your program for that day. It is a lot of fun to see them all excited as they are allowed to make as much noise as they can and on top of that, they even get rewarded for it with candy. How much better can it get for a child? And for you, it’s a good excuse to buy some Samartins to give to the children, and to try them yourself.
Singing for candy while being dressed up seems to be a popular excuse for children to celebrate traditional Christian moments. Other examples are Epiphany (January 6), where children dressed up like the three kings go from door to door to sing, or Halloween (the night before All Saints Day), although the latter doesn’t necessarily relate to religion anymore.
Besides this celebration by the children, there are also several other festivities in the Veneto region in the week before San Martino. They include markets and historical re-enactments.
Who was San Martino?
Saint Martin of Tours was born in Hungary in 316 as a son of a Roman soldier and his family soon moved to Pavia in Italy, where he spent most of his childhood. As a young man, he joined the Roman army around the age of 15. When he saw a beggar who was freezing at the city gates of Amiens in France, he took his sword and cut his red cape in half to share it with him. The next night, Jesus appeared to Martin, who from then on devoted his life to Christ. He left the army and became the symbol of charity. He was acclaimed bishop of Tours and died on November 8, 397. His name day on November 11 commemorates his funeral.
DID YOU KNOW? The word ‘chapel’ is derived from this deed of San Martino. The building where the relic of his cape (‘cappa’ in Latin) was preserved was known as the ‘capella’, the root for our word ‘chapel’.
Where to discover San Martino in Venice during the rest of the year?
If you are not in Venice in the first half of November, you won’t be able to taste the biscuits, but you can still pay tribute to San Martino.
Near the Arsenale in the Castello sestiere, you can visit the San Martino church on the Campo San Martin. This renaissance church was initially founded between the 7th and 10th century (sources vary widely on this timing), but it was rebuilt from 1546 to 1610. On the central ceiling, you can admire the fresco ‘Saint Martin in Glory’ of Jacopo Guarana, an Italian painter and a founding member of the Venetian Accademia di Belle Arti. Next to the church is the former Scuola di San Martino, where you find a relief above the door of San Martino sharing his cape with the beggar. This Scuola used to be the seat of the guild of ship builders, of which Saint Martin is the patron saint, and hence also the location nearby Arsenale. Nowadays, the charity spirit of Saint Martin is remembered by the second hand sales that are sometimes organized here.
On the islands in the laguna, you will find mosaics of San Martino in the Cathedral of S. Maria Assunta on Torcello and there is also a San Martino church on Burano.
Is San Martino celebrated across the world?
The name day of San Martino is celebrated in several regions on November 11, but the way of celebrating differs substantially. It is always a very local event and never nation-wide. In some areas in Belgium for instance, it’s the day when children receive a lot of presents from the saint. In parts of Germany, they hold light processions and distribute candy to the children and elderly. In Hungary, they eat goose to remember the fact that Saint Martin hid between the geese because he didn’t want to be appointed bishop or pope (depending on the story), while in Austria and Croatia, the priests consecrate the new wine. The most important celebrations are however in Tours in France, where San Martino is buried under the basilica. In 2016, the city of Tours organized large festivities to celebrate his 1700th birthday. One of these events was the restoration of the statue of Saint Martin on top of the dome of the Saint-Martin de Tours basilica.
If you are in Venice during this period, don’t forget to taste these delicious biscuits yourself.
Ama il prossimo!
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