Blessing of the animals in St Peter's Square

Annual tradition takes place in Rome and across Italy

On Friday 17 January Italy celebrates the feast day of St Anthony Abbot, the patron saint and protector of animals.

Each year, for the last seven consecutive years, an open air stable is assembled by the Italian Association of Livestock Farmers (AIA) at Piazza Pio XII in front of St Peter's Square in Vatican City. This traditional exhibition of animals, which includes cows, sheep, goats and hens, takes place from 09.00 until about 15.00 and is open to all. As in previous years, pet owners are invited to bring their cats and dogs for a free check-up from veterinarians provided by the farmers' association.

At 10.30 a Mass will be celebrated for the farmers and their families by the Archpriest of St Peter's, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, who later imparts a blessing on the animals present. At midday a procession of horses belonging to the Italian police goes from Largo Giovanni XXIII to Piazza Pio XII, along Via della Conciliazione which will be closed from 11.30 to 13.30. The popular event will result in street closures in the immediate area, and a number of public bus detours, between 09.30 and 15.00.

In addition to animals and farmers, St Anthony Abbot is the patron saint of basket weavers and grave diggers, and is believed to protect against skin diseases, especially shingles. The saint, who died in Egypt in 356, has always enjoyed a widespread following among Italy's agricultural communities.

According to an ancient legend from the Veneto in northern Italy, on the night of 17 January animals acquired the ability to speak. On this night each year, it is said that people were kept away from stables because to hear the animals talk was considered a bad omen.