April 8 – Easter Sunday. 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) with Filippo Brunelleschi’s octagonal dome crowning the skyline. It had rained during the early hours of today when we returned to our rented apartment in Via degli Alfani after the midnight Mass at the cathedral, something we had inadvertently given a miss for the last couple of years. However, 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. The jewel of the Italian Renaissance, it is adorned with piazzas, monuments, galleries, frescoes, priceless collection of art and literature, the enogastronomic tradition of Tuscany pioneered by the Etruscans, and in the midst of all this rests its giants – a montage of remembered faces – the Medici, Giotto, Verrocchio, Donatello, da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli, Galileo, …….. the one and only Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Climb up to Fiesole or Boboli Gardens (Giardini di Boboli) or Piazzale Michelangelo, and your eyes could feast on the splendor of Florence – its monuments of history stretching before you 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 see the 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.
Whilst the tourist season starts, Florence, a prime holiday destination, is one big happy family. Despite the loss of privacy and quietness, with a fairly good grace, the locals know 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 now Madrid, is unique for us. Each year we loved to be in Florence for a certain period of time, to live with the Florentines, enjoy the pleasures of art, the nature and the marvelous food which reflects all the warmth, vitality and charm of Italy. Florence, whose rediscovered energy endures to this day is, without doubt, a city created for the sake of beauty.
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 which represent the religious centre of Florence. Based on a design by Arnolfo di Cambio, the Duomo’s construction had begun on September 8, 1296, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Verrocchio completed the lantern in 1468 at his modified design based on the original plan of Brunelleschi, a man of extraordinary genius who made the octagonal Cupola 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 designed by Giotto and completed by Taddeo Gaddi, in the place where the Church of Santa Reparata stood at the ground-level of about 1,7m below the present street pavement on which we were walking.
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”) and dedicated to the patron saint of Florence. The Baptistery is championed as a Roman temple dedicated to Mars in order to establish a line of continuity with Rome and Florence.
The colourful crowd 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) – when a firework laden cart is placed before the cathedral and set off after a religious ceremony. Of the many times we had been in Florence, this is a Florentine tradition held on Easter Sunday, every year we had always missed.
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 to the city of Jerusalem. The armies had initially encamped before the walls of the Holy City on June 7, 1099. As regards the heavily fortified walls, it was found that only the south-west where it cuts across Mount Sion and along the length of the northern wall offered favourable positions to 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, until 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, he 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, Pazzino, fruited on the Pazzi family, a prestigious family of influential Florentine bankers, was said to be the first among the soldiers who scaled the walls of Jerusalem to raise the flag on July 15, 1099. Godfrey had rewarded Pazzino for his bravery, with three pieces of flint from the Tomb of Jesus at the Holy Sepulchre.
These three shards of flint were brought to Florence on July 16, 1101 by Piazzino himself. It was an occasion for great celebrations when the Florentines started to venerate the flints affirming great symbolic value to the city and also elevated him 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 again 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.
A 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), after the liberation of Jerusalem, when they lit the holy fire as a symbol of purification.
In view of that, every year “holy fire” is lit from the sparks of these flints during Easter and these small torches (fecellina) were carried through the city of Florence by young men and brought to the front of the cathedral. The organization and its cost was 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 grandsons, 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 was first recorded by Florentine banker/chronicler Giovanni Villani (died 1348) in the New Chronicles (Nuova Cronica) about the history of Florence he wrote, having inspired by the jubilee celebration under Pope Boniface VIII in Rome in 1300 and the historical significance of that city as written by Virgil, Lucan, etc. Through the course of the years, the modus operandi of Scoppio del Carro had changed and it was during the reign of Pope Leon X (1513-1521), that a dove with an olive branch in his beak was featured 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 that people were still coming in droves to the Piazza. Having 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, civic authorities and descendants of distinguished families led by the Banner of the City of Florence, entered the Piazza del Duomo from Via Roma.
The procession which looked somewhat similar to the traditional parade held as part of the annual celebration of La Festa di San Giovanni on June 24, had originated from Piazzale del Prato and had moved through various pre-assigned points, meeting up with additional reinforcements. A Finnish tourist with a glittering row of jewelry on his left ear told me that there was a display of flag-bearers and musicians at Piazza della Repubblica also.
In a little while, soldiers dressed in red and white striped medieval costumes lined up before the cathedral, with a formation of the musicians in red and white costumes to their right side. Another formation of musicians positioned near the Campanile cut a dash in yellow and blue costumes. The Piazza resonated with the sound of the drums and the shouts of the men and women in the procession in unison with the delighted 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 during the Palio games held in Siena.
Following this, the 30-foot tall wooden chariot of fire affectionately called by the Florentines as il Brindellone (the present cart with wagging pennants was built by the Pazzi family in 1765) hauled by four decorated oxen with gold-painted horns and hooves was positioned right before the main door of the cathedral.
The oxen were taken away and a wire was connected from il Brindellone to the high altar of the cathedral on which a mechanical dove (Columbina) is fitted by a team of pyrotechnicians. Before long, il Brindellone, already fitted with firing units, was ready for the final event. Meanwhile the distribution of the holy fire struck from the Jerusalem flints took place before the cathedral.
Once the initial ceremony is done, the clergy moved into the cathedral for the main ceremony. When the Gloria in Excelsis Deo was sung, Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, Metropolitan Archbishop of Florence (elevated to cardinal less than two months ago) lit a trigger that lit the fuse of the mechanical dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit. An officer of the guards told us of the presence of Mayor Matteo Renzi. Mr. Renzi is regarded as a potential aspirant for the prime ministerial chair of Italy.
Il Columbina rushed from the altar through the string, went hissing past the great doors of the cathedral and hit il Brindellone, igniting the fuse of the explosive pyrotechnic device set inside it. Once the prearranged mission is accomplished, 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 had theoretically assured a boomtime 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 that year.
Boom, boom! The Piazza reverberated with the deafening sound of the bursting fireworks and explosions. 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 could move away from that packed crowd though some of those in the back sought refuge inside Café Monarico facing the Piazza.
The fire show from the cart and around it 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 to the entire city of Florence. When the explosions finally died out and the silvery whiteness and smoke cleared, the rain had already disappeared. 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 concluded perfectly, bringing a cheerful finish to the Lent. The crowd separated, scattered, having enjoyed the high moments of the sights and sound of the procession and the precision fireworks. Reverence for the past and traditions are important.
Food is the centre of celebrations. We could see lunch crowds starting to file into restaurants. It is time to meet up with our reservation for the Easter Sunday lunch at Trattoria 4Leoni (The Four Lions) at Piazza della Passera – 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. Tonight, we would have a quite dinner at our usual trattoria near Cappelle Medice attached to Basilica di San Lorenzo.
Tomorrow we will catch the train from Firenze Santa Maria Novella Station to Roma Termini, and this meal here would be a perfect ending to yet another delightful stay in this unique and ancient city of Florence. Till next time. Ciao, Jo.
(Photos: © JS-CS-Bianca Celine Diane-Andrea Lalis Sebastine/Manningtree Archive.)