June 17 is the feast day of San Ranieri, or Saint Rainerius, patron saint of Pisa. It is a day of celebration in Pisa, if you've never been before and chance to visit on this particular day, you won't be disappointed if you decide to spend the entire day there and join in the air of festivities in the city.
If you're thinking of attending the regatta, we actually recommend arriving the evening before (make sure to reserve a hotel for the night at least a few days before) to witness the Luminara and fireworks display which are part of the festivities for San Ranieri. You'll then have celebrated San Ranieri just as the Pisans do.
The main event of the day takes place in the late afternoon of June 17. The four quarters of the city challenge each other in a Regatta on the Arno in remembrance of the nautical tradtion of the city.
Each quarter has its own colors:
white + blue for Santa Maria
white + yellow for San Francesco
white + green for Sant'Antonio
white + red for San Martino
The race takes place over a 1,500 meter-long stretch of the Arno, rowing against the current. The start of the race is near the bridge used by trains to cross the river and the finish is in front of the Palazzo Medici near the Ponte della Fortezza. The boats, with fixed seats and a crew of 8 oarsmen, a helmsman and "montatore", are made in the style of the frigates of the Medicean Order of the Knights of St. Stephen, a military order founded in 1561.
Victory does not go to the first boat that arrives, but depends on the ability and agility of the boat's "montatore" (climber) to climb a rope and grab the correct flag at the top of a 10 meter pole mounted on a boat anchored at the finish line! Doesn't that sound complicated :).
We went to the Regatta of San Ranieri and would like to share it with you!
I say the correct flag because there are 3 flags at the top of the pole, each in a different color. The blue flag represents victory, the white one second place and the red one third.
The last montatore is left with no flag and instead receives a pair of geese as a consolation prize. It is said that this particular tradition goes back to the origins of the competition itself. Back when there were more races held both on land and water on the feast of the Assumption in the 13th century, in addition to the "palio" or banner, prizes were often animals: an ox, sheep, pig or rooster were the better prizes, the geese were seen as a lesser win. Depending on the period in time the city was going through, the rowing contests on the Arno were sometimes held, sometimes not.
After interruption of the games in the period of Florentine domination over the city, the tradition was once again started on the feast of the Assumption in 1635. San Ranieri had just become patron saint in 1632 and some of the games were moved to his feast day.
The regatta has taken its present shape throughout the course of centuries. Witnessing the regatta today is seeing a competition deeply rooted in tradition. Since 1737, the regatta has taken place in this part of the Arno, with the finish line in its current location, with the boarding of the vessel at the end. This particular aspect of the regatta recalls the victorious Battle of Lepanto of 1571 in which the Order of St. Stephen took part against the Ottomans. The fleet had to board the ship of the "infedels" and conquer the battle pennant found on the ships' flagpole. The pennant conquered by the Pisans is today conserved in the Church dei Cavalieri (of the Knights) in the Piazza dei Cavalieri, one of Pisa's most beautiful and important squares.