For many years the enchanting land of Italy played host to us during our yearly visits. Such frequency is ample proof how irresistible the charm of “Bel paese” is to us. Italy perfectly fitted our idea of a beautiful panoramic tapestry running its length and width – endowed with all manners of fine features: nature, history, religion, tradition, arts, architecture, cultural heritage, romance, wine, cuisine and enthusiastic people. Giuseppe Verdi rightly praised it when he said: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”
But at these times, the mood is sombre. Italy is in the news for the wrong reasons – just as in the case of numerous countries. Many of us are on self-quarantine observing sanitised lifestyles, keeping social distancing day-to-day as precaution against a deadly virus hell-bent on wreaking havoc across the planet. The airports, railway stations, streets, stadiums, theatres, Malls, gridlocked traffic – all remain empty.
But what we see around us is love in action – the proclamation that the truest thing about us by this isolation is not our brokenness, but our belovedness. Our adherence to self-quarantine is the most remarkable act of human solidarity to conquer this daunting virus and it inspires me to remain confident of our people’s ability to rise to any challenge.
During this Eastertide when there is time for quiet reflection, I focus on our past visits abroad, especially to Italy when we had the pleasure to witness Scoppio del Carro at Florence during Pasqua 2012. The relevant post is reblogged below. Jo
Easter Sunday in Florence. The sky was overcast with dark clouds, as we walked up Via dei Servi, bound southwest towards Piazza del Duomo. Of all the beautiful names this city is called, especially Firenze as we call it with our Italian friends, there are also those who lovingly use its most beautiful form, Fiorenza, for it is still considered the flower of all Italian graces. As regards this write up, I would rather refer to it in its simplest form: Florence.
Only few meters ahead, beyond the curve of the street, stood the magnificent cathedral of Santa Maria della Fiore (Il Duomo) crowned with Filippo Brunelleschi’s soaring octagonal dome resting on a drum. It had rained during the early hours when we returned to our rented apartment in Via degli Alfani following the midnight Mass at this cathedral – something we had missed during the last couple of years due to unavoidable reasons. Indeed, as the Florentines say, an Easter Mass at Santa Maria della Fiore (Our Lady of The Flowers) is something not to be missed.
Nestled in the Apennines, in the center of the fertile region of Tuscany rests the noble city of le bella Firenze in a blaze of beauty. Lauded as the jewel of the Italian Renaissance, Florence, situated in a plain surrounded by hills and mountains, is adorned with piazzas, monuments, galleries, frescoes, priceless collection of art and literature, and enogastronomic tradition of Tuscany pioneered by the Etruscans.
Climb up to the northern hilltop retreat of Fiesole or to the Boboli Gardens (Giardini di Boboli) or Piazzale Michelangelo, one’s eyes can feast on the splendor of Florence – its monuments of history stretching before us with an airiness of ease and rightness: a jumble of red-tiled roofs and domes, Il Duomo and its magnificent Dome, the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, the Basilica di Santa Croce, the square tower of Bargello, Palazzo Vecchio with its belfry,…… Pure architecture! And down there you can see River Arno, streaming peacefully between high embankments segmented by the bridges, of which, Ponte Vecchio, built by Giotto’s pupil Taddeo Gaddi in 1345, stands out conspicuously with its cluttered squares of goldsmiths’ shops.
When the tourist season starts, Florence, a prime holiday destination, becomes one big happy family. Despite their loss of privacy and quietness, the locals know, with a fairly good grace, that a tourist cannot help being a tourist – they have to see things, understand things, take photographs, enjoy the culture, the cuisine…..
Memories could get jammed with impressions from constant travel to various places – but Florence, like Rome, and Madrid, is unique for us. It has an energy peculiar to it. Each year we schedule to be in Florence for a certain period of time, to live amidst the Florentines, to enjoy the pleasures of art, the nature, the tranquility, and the marvelous food which reflects all the warmth, vitality and charm of Italy. We did the sights, walked everywhere – without the help of a cursory glance on the city map – and liked the idea that we are walking the very same ground as the various Medici, Giotto, Verrocchio, Donatello, da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli, Galileo, …….. the one and only Michelangelo Buonarroti.
The beautiful Square where Il Duomo is situated, is divided into Piazza del Duomo (named after the cathedral) and Piazza San Giovanni (named after the Baptistery). Collectively called Piazza del Duomo, this area represents the religious center of Florence. The Duomo’s construction had begun on September 8, 1296 based on a design by Arnolfo di Cambio. That day marked the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Andrea del Verrocchio completed the lantern in 1468 by topping it’s summit with “Palla del Verrocchio,” his modified design keeping line with the original plan of Brunelleschi – a man of extraordinary genius who made the octagonal Cupola (Il Cupolone) possible for the Florentines. Covered with pale grey, green and rose marble, Il Duomo is an imposing edifice, flanked by the tall Campanile with multi-coloured marbles which was designed by Giotto and completed by Taddeo Gaddi. It stands on the spot where the Church of Santa Reparata once stood about 1,7m below the present ground level.
As we walked across the harsh stones past Astor Café, we could hear the roar of the excited crowd assembled before the cathedral and near the Baptistery of San Giovanni (Battistero di San Giovanni), one of the oldest buildings in the city (which Dante once called “My handsome San Giovanni”). Dedicated to the patron saint of Florence, the Baptistery is championed as a Roman temple to honour Mars in order to establish a line of continuity between Rome and Florence. How truly Dante wrote in Il Convivio: “Rome’s most beautiful and celebrated daughter, Florence.”
The colourful crowd gathered here from four quarters of the world was impatiently waiting for the procession to arrive and kick start the events leading to the “Scoppio del carro” (The Explosion of the Cart). As part of this event, a firework laden cart is brought before the cathedral in a colourful procession and it’s fireworks are set off following a religious ceremony. Of the many times we were in Florence, we had always missed this Florentine tradition held on every Easter Sunday.
The tradition of the Scoppio del Carro goes back to the period of the First Crusade (1096-1099) when its armies laid the long siege on the city of Jerusalem. These armies had initially encamped before the secured walls of the Holy City on June 7, 1099. As regards the heavily fortified walls, it was then found that only the south-west where the wall cuts across Mount Sion and along the length of the northern wall offered favourable positions to mount an attack against the defense of the Fatimid governor, Iftikhar ad-Dawla. Owing to the fierce defense put up by Iftikhar, the initial attempt resulted in failure.
The crusaders had to undertake massive preparations and gather necessary resources, built great wooden siege towers, before they were ready to launch the main attack on the night of July 13-14. All the same, it would be by midday of July 15, 1099 (Friday 22 sha’ban 492) when the wooden siege tower of the army, led by Frankish knight Godfrey of Bouillon (c. 1060-1100), Duke of Lower Lorraine and his brother Eustace, Count of Boulogne, was ideally positioned and the soldiers were able to climb onto the north wall (close to the present Gate of Flowers, Sha’ar Haprahim) and subsequently into the city, thus establishing the legend of Godfrey. Considered remarkably valiant in nature, Godfrey is acclaimed as one of the nine exemplary heroes and role-models in the poem of the Middle Ages, Les neuf preux or The Nine Worthies (the others being Hector, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Joshua, King David, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne)
According to the Florentine tradition, soldier Pazzino of the Pazzi family (a prestigious family of influential Florentine bankers), was said to be the first among the soldiers to scale the walls of Jerusalem and raise the flag on July 15, 1099. For his bravery, Godfrey awarded Pazzino with three pieces of flint from the Tomb of Jesus Christ at the Holy Sepulchre.
Those three shards of flint were brought to Florence on July 16, 1101 by Pazzino himself. It was an occasion for great celebrations. When the Florentines started to venerate the flints, it affirmed great symbolic value to the city. The grateful public elevated Pazzino to an honoured place in the history of Florence. The flints were kept in safe custody by the Pazzi family in their Palazzo dei Pazzi and used by them to light the sacred fire (fuoco novella) during the advent of Easter. The sacred stones were handed over to the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Porta (Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra a Porta later renamed as Chiesa di San Biagio) in 1785 but during May of the same year, it was shifted to the Church of Holy Apostles (Chiesa di Santi Apostoli) where it is presently kept at the bottom of the left nave in a tabernacle designed by Giovanni della Robbia.
The tradition associated with these three flints might have originated from a ceremony held by the Crusaders on the day of Holy Saturday at the Church of Resurrection (Chiesa della Resurrezione), following the liberation of Jerusalem, when they lit the holy fire as a symbol of purification.
In view of that, “holy fire” is lit from the sparks of these flints in Florence during Easter and these small torches (fecellina) were carried through the city of Florence by young men in procession and brought to the front of the Duomo. The event’s organisation and cost remained the responsibility of the Pazzi family until they fell into disgrace for hatching up conspiracy (1478-79) against the Medici in which Cosimo de’ Medici’s grandson, Lorenzo de’ Medici was wounded, but escaped into the safety of the Sacristy while his younger brother Giuliano de Medici was killed. This failed conspiracy by the Pazzi family was connived when Florence was not only at the height of its Renaissance glories but also a seed-bed for conspirators and of fierce feuding.
Scoppio del Carro, once known as “Carro de Pazzi,” was first recorded by Florentine banker/chronicler Giovanni Villani (died 1348) in the New Chronicles (Nuova Cronica) about the history of Florence. Through the course of years, the modus operandi of Scoppio del Carro had changed and it was during the reign of Pope Leon X (1513-1521), that an artificial dove with an olive branch in his beak became part of it to symbolize peace and understanding as a preamble to the procession which culminated in the burning of the cart. In previous times, Scoppio del Carro used to be held during the Midnight Mass on Holy Saturday. That was changed to noon on Easter Sunday for the benefit of the tourists.
I could see many more people coming in droves to join the crowd already in the Piazza. After we had settled in the best vantage point available amongst the mass of crowd, it wasn’t long before the colourful procession lined up with the members of Bandierai degli Uffizi (official and historical flagwavers of Florence) waving bright coloured flags, musicians dressed in medieval costume and feathered caps, Entered the Piazza del Duomo from Via Roma. Behind them came civic authorities and descendants of distinguished families led by the Banner of the City of Florence.
To us, this procession looked somewhat similar to the traditional parade held as part of the annual celebration of La Festa di San Giovanni on June 24. Having started from Piazzale del Prato, the procession had moved through various pre-assigned points, meeting up with additional reinforcements on the way. A Finnish tourist with a glittering row of jewelry on his left ear told me that he had earlier witnessed a display of flag-bearers and musicians at Piazza della Repubblica also.
In a little while, Florentines dressed in red and white striped medieval costumes as soldiers lined up before the cathedral, with a formation of the musicians in red and white costumes to their right side. Another formation of musicians who were positioned near the Campanile cut a dash in yellow and blue costumes. The Piazza resonated with the sound of the drums and shouts of men and women in the procession in unison with the delightful crowd.
Once the members of Bandierai degli Uffizi converged on the area between the façade of the cathedral and the Baptistery, sporting a world of energy, they performed a display of “flag waving and throwing” to the rhythm of drums – rather reminiscent of a similar event we had seen at the Palio games held in Siena.
Following this, the 30-foot tall wooden chariot affectionately called il Brindellone (the present cart with wagging pennants was built by the Pazzi family in 1765) by the Florentines was hauled by four decorated oxen with gold-painted horns and hooves was positioned right before the main door of the cathedral.
The oxen were soon taken away and a wire was connected to il Brindellone which extended to the high altar inside the cathedral where a mechanical dove (Columbina) symbolizing the Holy Spirit is fitted on the wire by a team of pyrotechnicians. Before long, il Brindellone, already fitted with firing units, was ready for the final event. The crowd had grown still and silent when the distribution of the holy fire struck from the Jerusalem flints took place before the cathedral.
Once this ceremony is done, the clergy moved into the cathedral for the main ceremony. When the Gloria in Excelsis Deo was sung, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Florence lit a trigger that lit the fuse of the mechanical dove.
Promptly, Il Columbina rushed from the altar through the wire, went hissing past the great doors of the cathedral and hit il Brindellone, igniting the fuse of the explosive pyrotechnic device set inside it. Having accomplished this prearranged mission, the dove returned back to where it originated from. The seven bells of Giotto’s freestanding Campanile persistently rang forth happily, presenting us with their open mouths, swinging backwards and forwards, sounding how happy they were on this celebrated occasion. The successful return of the dove back to the altar without a hitch theoretically assured a boom-time harvest and prosperity for the city of Florence. It was strongly suggested that the dove failed in its mission in 1966 and Florence suffered from a flood on November 4 of that year.
Boom, boom! The Piazza reverberated with the deafening sound of the bursting fireworks and explosions. The next minutes were a bit of a blur. Il Brindellone disappeared from my view in a cloud of smoke and technicolour sparks, and almost immediately, the smell of gunpowder filled the air. Sometime ago, the heavens had opened and it had started to rain. Save for the protection from rain offered by few umbrellas which instantly went up, no one moved away from that packed crowd although some of those on the back pavement took refuge inside Café Monarico facing the Piazza.
The fire-show from the cart lasted for about twenty minutes, jetting fireworks into the sky in rapid succession, higher than the 84.7m high Campanile, creating a continuous flicker of radiating gold stars and raining down streams of sparks onto the Piazza, symbolically distributing the holy fire on the entire city of Florence. When the explosions finally died out and the silvery whiteness and smoke cleared, the rain had ceased. The grey sky had taken on a more cheerful countenance, as though the sun might step forward at any moment.
Yet another Scoppio del Carro has been concluded perfectly, bringing a cheerful finish to the year’s Lent. The crowd separated, scattered, having enjoyed the high moments of the sights and sound of the procession and the precision fireworks.
Food is an integral part of the celebrations. We could see lunch crowds starting to file into restaurants. By now we were footsore, and hungry. It is time to meet up with our reservation for the Easter Sunday lunch at Trattoria 4Leoni (The Four Lions) at Piazza della Passera – renowned for tasty, well-prepared food and excellent service. This is one of the restaurants we patronized with a certain pleasure. The last time we had been there, we had Bistecca alla Fiorentina, the Florentine specialty from Tuscan Chianina cattle and specially cut in a masterful way only Tuscan butchers seem to have perfected.
To celebrate Pasquetta, we had lamb, the symbol of Easter, for main course: Cosciotto d’agnello alle erbe aromatiche (Roast leg of lamb with aromatic herbs). It tasted delicious – the herbs tend to mellow and blend with the stronger taste of the lamb, and went well with a bottle of Terre di Franciacorta Rosso, the dry deep ruby red. Not a bad choice. Later that evening, we had a quite dinner and tipple few glasses at Il Porcospino, our usual trattoria, which Carina called Jo’s Place, near Cappelle Medice attached to Basilica di San Lorenzo.
The following day, we caught the train from Firenze Santa Maria Novella Station and whistled our way to Roma Termini, pleased that our Easter meal was a perfect ending to yet another delightful stay in the unique and ancient city of Florence. Till next time. Ciao, Jo.
(This article is dedicated to the memory of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Magnifico, who passed away in Florence on April 08, 1492)
(Photos: © JS-Carina-Bianca-Andrea/Manningtree Archive)