Tag Archive | architecture

VIENNA – A TRYST WITH VERDI

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On July 21st, Philippe Léopold Louis Marie became the seventh king of Belgium when his father King Albert II of Belgium abdicated citing age and failing health. Minutes later, the father and son appeared on the balcony of Palais Royal in Brussels in the presence of Queen Paola, Philippe’s wife Queen Mathilde (d’Udekem d’Acoz), their four children and former Queen Fabiola, while a huge crowd cheered and shouted “Long live the king” from below. The new sovereign vowed to strive for the unity of the nation. Promise is a big word. Promises bind us to each other, and to a common commitment for the future.

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The sight of Palais Royal resurfaced memories of our visit to Belgium few years ago in fulfilment of a promise I made to Carina.  Of the many attractions we saw there – the Grand Place (Grote Markt) and the baroque and gothic guildhalls and Town Hall surrounding it; the Sablon Square (De Zavel or Le Sablon); the Cathedral of St Michael and Saint Gudula; the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Basilica of Koekelberg); the 1619 bronze fountain statue of a little boy by Jerome Duquesnoy called Mannekin Pis; to name a few, we had also taken time to see the Palais Royal from outside even though it was a wet day.

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6Then again, few years prior to that visit to Belgium, we went to Vienna (Austria) to fulfil yet another promise I made for her birthday – to take her to the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper) to enjoy Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata(1).

Now, “La Traviata” initially came to my attention when I purchased the album “Favourite Arias” of Spanish soprano Victoria de Los Ángeles (Victoria Gómez Cima, 1923-2005) back in the late eighties. This re-issue of excerpts from complete operas included Bizet’s “Carmen”, Gounod’s “Faust”, Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and “Madama Butterfly”, among others.

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Classical music was always close to my heart. In a way, all music tends to become classical as time goes on. Although living in Cochin didn’t offer the chance to go to a ballet or opera or jazz concert, European classical music was not inaccessible to me during my teens owing to radio broadcasts of Voice of America, or audio cassettes or gramophone records.

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9Then there were opportunities to listen to it during visits to the friendly houses of a Fernandez or a Rozario or a Ferrero located in the vicinity of the Infant Jesus Church in Cochin or at Fort Cochin where, almost certainly, on my way to the Santa Cruz Cathedral or back on a Sunday morning I could also be elated over the ebullient and melodious classical repertoire wafting from the houses of the Anglo-Indians – pieces of music which I could not identify then, but gave me the impulse and motivation to learn by ear.  All I had to do was open my mind to it.

Although I have not seen as many operas as Carina, we have over the years enjoyed few performances at Teatro La Fenice de Venezia and Teatro alla Scala in Milano where I would have also loved to enjoy some performances by the great Maria Callas (1923 – 1977) during those remarkable years when she sang there.

As for La Traviata, in spite of our many visits to Europe and England, it’s dates had always eluded us until we decided to fly over to Vienna to see director Otto Schenk’s version at the Wiener Staatsoper, reputed to be the house with the largest repertoire performed under the direction of talents of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm, Lorin Maazel and many others.

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Having booked our tickets online through the Vienna Ticket Office, we had opted to collect them from their office at Brucknerstraße, instead of having them send to India or to Room no: 414 of Hilton Vienna Danube where we would be staying or to pick them up at the Box Office at the venue.

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It was my first visit to Austria though I had long association with that country from 1993 onwards owing to my involvement in purchase of ship loads of Austrian Sawn Softwood for delivery at Hodeidah in Yemen where I was working for many years.

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For us, the opportunity to watch an opera at the Wiener Staatsoper (VSO) was a wonderful experience. It is an imposing building in the corner of Kärntnerstraße and Vienna Ringstraße (Opernring 2) in the very heart of cultural Vienna. It was constructed in Renaissance style during the years 1861-1869 to the plans of Viennese architect August Sicard von Sicardsburg (1813-68) with interiors designed by Edward van der Nüll (1812-1868) using the Viennese “city expansion fund”.

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How wonderful it must have been to witness the arrival of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) in their phaeton (Mylord) to inaugurate the Imperial Opera House on May 25, 1869 which was followed by the staging of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. This event had happened 250 years since Aleotti’s Teatro Farnese, claimed as the first proscenium-arch theatre of the Continent, was set up at Parma in 1618 although the first public opera-house was opened only in 1637 at Venice by composer Cavalli.

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Originally called the Vienna Court Opera (Wiener Hofoper), it was renamed Vienna State Opera when the Habsburg Monarchy collapsed and Austria emerged as a republic. The VSO guided tour offers the opportunity of an extensive tour of the building including the entrance foyer, central staircase, Marble Hall, Schwind Foyer, Gustav Mahler Hall (formerly “Tapestry Hall”), the auditorium and Tea Salon (formerly the Emperor’s Salon) on the first floor. We can also see the medallions of the original designers, many paintings symbolizing the ballet, the opera and the ceiling painting (“Fortuna, ihre Gaben streuend“) adorning the staircase in addition to the allegorical statues featuring the seven liberal arts: architecture, sculpture, poetry, dance, musical art, drama; etc.

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Apart from the impressive structural aspects of the building and its popularity for being a venue of the Wiener Opernball for many decades and certainly, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; the opera house owes its progress to the artistic influence of its original directors: Franz von Dingelstedt (1867–1870), Johann von Herbeck (1870–1875), Franz von Jauner (1875–1880), Wilhelm Jahn (1881–1897) and Gustav Mahler (1897–1907).

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During World War II, the city suffered fifty-two air raids in which about twelve thousand buildings including St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), the Burg Theatre, etc, were destroyed and nearly eleven thousand inhabitants of Vienna were killed. The ugly reality was the auditorium, stage and almost the entire décor and props for more than 120 operas with around 150,000 costumes were destroyed in the bombings of March, 1945. Given that the theatre occupied a privileged position in Vienna and united public interest on it, the building was rebuilt based on a plan of Erich Boltenstern, the winner of the Opera House’s architectural competition who kept his design similar to the original. Hence, the façade, the entrance hall and the foyer that we see remain in their original style.

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20On November 5, 1955, the Opera House once again opened its doors to the public with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Karl Böhm (1943–1945 and 1954–1956). Over the days in Vienna, we could enjoy glimpses of the grandeur of the building; the two statues of riders on horseback (representing Erato’s two winged horses that are led by “Harmony and the Muse of Poetry”) on the main façade of the loggia; the artistic marble staircase; the numerous statues and figurative embellishments inside and outside including “Die Zauberflöte” series of frescoes on the veranda and in the foyer credited to Schwind; the completely re-built horseshoe-shaped auditorium and the well-protected stage that stretched its entire width; the orchestra pit that could hold about 110 musicians; the ring of built-in ceiling lights made of crystal glass; the seating in traditional colours of red, gold, and ivory; the reinforced concrete side boxes covered with wood for acoustic reasons; and the largest pipe organ with 2,500 pipes – the core centre where Wiener Staatsoper had created a world-wide reputation for its first-class opera performances by nearly all great singers of international rank in the course of the past hundred years.

The Turkish taxi-driver, with a head full of dark wavy hair, who took us to the opera house, appeared to be an eternal sunny optimist – always smiling and cheerful. Right this moment when we went past the Wiener Prater (2 Bezirk), the theme from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” filled the taxi. The one that followed was from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”. Obviously, opera means so much to the people of Vienna and also to those who came and made it their home.

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Indeed, music gives Vienna its core, and that is the beauty of this City of Music. It’s a city truly in love with artists. In its heyday, it had a string of greats such as Hayden, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss – enriching it with their contributions. Beethoven owed his first success to his piano-playing in Vienna. Vivaldi died in Vienna (2). A staff of FNAC, Milano once told me that the Viennese operetta is the chief root from which American musical grew. And then, Vienna is the birthplace of waltz. Wherever you go, you hear ‘the sound of music’.

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Although music is the main factor in opera, its effect and success depended on a combination of other arts and factors, namely, literature, poetry, design, costume, stage, painting, sound, lighting; and essentially the singer or the impresario, conductor, orchestra, chorus, etc. Human drama underlined the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), Verdi’s successor.

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33With a repertoire of about 26 to 28 operas, Giuseppe 25(Fortunino Francesco) Verdi (1813-1901) is undoubtedly the most successful and popular composer admired by audiences, critics and music scholars alike. Following the successful adaptation of French novelist/playwright Alexandre Dumas’ (Dumas fils, 1824-1895) novel “The Lady of the Camelias” (1848 – “La Dame aux Camélias”) as a stage play in 1852, Verdi immediately put music to the libretto (text) by Murano born Francesco Maria Piave (1810 –1876), transforming it into an opera titled “La Traviata” (The Fallen Woman). The female protagonist, Marguerite Gautier (3) (based on Marie Duplessis, (aka Alphonsine Plessis, 1824-1847), the real-life lover of Dumas) was also renamed as Violetta Valéry.

Verdi’s “La Traviata” in three acts features a wonderful poignant story laced with scintillating, tragic music. Since its first appearance on March 6, 1853 at Teatro La Fenice, “La Traviata” has held the stage continuously, just as “Rigoletto” (1851) and “Il Trovatore” (1853). “La Traviata” was not unfamiliar to us owing to a DVD in our collection – the Glyndebourne Festival Opera version (1988) directed by Peter Hall featuring Marie McLaughlin and Walter MacNeil (4). (Images from this version are reproduced under the “Synopsis” mentioned below).

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At the Wiener Staatsoper, the Maestro has by now stepped into the orchestra pit and the theatre reverberated with joyous shrieks and applause of the marvellous Vienna audience. Suddenly he turned to face the orchestra. Hush fell in the theatre as he raised his arms, readying for his electrifying volatile and expressive gesturing. A beat – and the performance began.

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Synopsis: Paris and environs, around 1850. During a glittering party at the reformed courtesan Violetta’s house to celebrate her recovery from an illness, Gastone, the Vicomte de Letorieres, introduced Violetta to a clean-living young bourgeois Alfredo Germont whom she has long admired. Following a fiery drinking song (Brindisi “Libiamo ne’lieti calici”) by Alfredo, having felt dizzy and occasionally caught coughing, Violetta nudged the others, including her ‘protector’, the wealthy Baron Douphol, to proceed to the ballroom next door for dancing.

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Soon Alfredo joined her and confessed his love for her (duet. ‘Un di felice, eterea’’). He had been living with this secret love for some time. Although Violetta wanted them just to remain friends saying that she cannot bear the burden of such heroic love, she nevertheless gave him a camellia which he should bring back to her when it has died. Alfredo realised that it would mean tomorrow. Evidently, his love has taken quick steps towards her heart.

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Once Alfredo had left and the dawn started to appear in the sky, all the others bid her thanks and took their leave. Alone, in the quite of the room, she felt that she can’t outrun the darkness of her life and the tumult of lust and festivities surrounding it, even though she longed to fill it with light from the happiness of pure love which had eluded her till then (E strano! E strano! Ah, fors’è lui che l’anims ……. Sempre libera). Act I ends here.

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Act II opens at Violetta’s country house outside Paris where Alfredo and Violetta were living together for some time. When Alfredo learns from Annina, their servant (De’ miei bollenti spiriti) that Violetta is to sell the property in order to support herself, thereupon, he proceeded to Paris to resolve this issue. Before long, she was visited by Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont who asked her to give up his son since his humiliating relationship with Violetta will adversely affect the reputation of his family and marriage of his daughter (Pura siccone un angelo) who is as pure as an angel.

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Once Germont has left, having persuaded her to renounce her lover (duet ‘Un di, quando le veneri’) due to social disapproval, the heartbroken Violetta wrote two letters – one addressed to Alfredo. She hides the letter for Alfredo when he took her by surprise on his sudden return from Paris. Veiling her feelings behind a passionate embrace for a moment, she broke away from him and she ran out of the room. Her letter was subsequently delivered to Alfredo through a messenger. Heartbroken from learning that she’s leaving him, the depressed Alfredo was consoled by his father who has just arrived. (‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol’) ……..

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What a day that has been! Right up until the end, excitement had thrummed through us even though the performance was not long. The success of Verdi’s operas is resultant to his unique talent to establish character and feeling through melody, which the listener was able to quickly understand and feel. Immensely popular, “La Traviata” is today a staple of the standard operatic repertoire.

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35The Italian version of “La Traviata” we saw was the 248th 36performance in this production and conducted by Hungarian classical conductor Michael Halász who had taken over the post of resident conductor at VSO in 1991. The Chorus was led by Ernst Dunshirn.

Our seats nos: 3 and 4 in the seventh row, right in the front, provided us with a clear view of the performance, the costumes, interior decorations, hand props, modes and manners though this vantage point didn’t allow us to catch some interplay between the conductor and musicians.

The opera music demands more vocal range and techniques. A considerable degree of musicianship is also required of the singers. Albanian soprano Inva Mula, with her beautiful, robust voice that cut through the orchestrations, led the cast as Violetta Valéry, the “Dame aux Camélias” with her self-sacrificing devotion in the face of tragedy.

Although Verdi has given some spectacular music to Alfredo (portrayed here by tenor Roberto Aronica), it is Violetta who dominates the show. The sort of spiritual quality Verdi injects into most of his heroines is also evident in Violetta.

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38I can understand why the character of Violetta, who lived in her tender and morbid world, is a difficult one for any soprano, as some critics have pointed out. As British soprano Josephine Barstow expressed, “You have to sing Verdi with heart.” The brilliant opening act “Sempre Libera” requires great agility just as the other acts which also demand considerable dramatic vigour. Besides, there is the problem of attempting to portray a dying person, without compromising the musical aspect of the role. These are aspects of this opera that allows you to delve into its deeper 39depths. However entertaining an opera was, it would be meaningless if it serves only to entertain but failed to educate and stimulate the brain.

While the costumes were based on designs by Hill Reihs-Gromes, the credit for stage design went to Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The other members of the cast were: Zsuzsanna Szabó (Flora Bervoix), Waltraud Winsauer (Annina), Franco Vassallo (Giorgio Germont), John Wiedecke (Baron Douphol), etc. The main cast jointly appeared during all the three performances of this opera during that season, while Winsauer was almost a constant figure in the role of Annina from 1984 till 2008.

40Like Joseph Losey’s “Don Giovanni” (1979) and Francesco Rosi’s “Carmen” (1984), “La Traviata” has also spawned its film versions. Besides “The Lost One” (1947, original title: “La signora dalle camelie“) in English by director Carmine Gallone starring Nelly Corradi; and the 1968 film musical of Mario Lanfranchi, starring Anna Moffo and Franco Bonisolli; Franco Zefferilli’s production of “La Traviata” came out in 1982 starring Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo backed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Like millions of feature films, there are good, bad and undistinguished operas. The excellent amongst these provide us with the true satisfaction of what opera is all about. There are millions of connoisseurs of opera, ever-increasing, who care for the arias, duets, ensembles, choruses, marches, ballets, and finales of the operatic spectacles. Its grand and exuberant style, its traditions and culture, its conventions and law have survived and still thrive on with encouragement from millions. Maria Callas reportedly did so much to build interest in this lyric drama.

In spite of the public interest in all things operatic, opera remains unawakened in many countries. It is also viewed with prejudice by some young and adults who would not go to symphony concerts or ballet performances or operas as they get easily stimulated by glossy mass entertainments, for instance, pounding music and the kind of dances that is rather physical exercise, in colourful clothes, for which most kids of today can easily display their forte.

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Expansion of opera into developing countries where opera remains ignored offers great potential. Hindrances due to language have already been bridged in France, Germany, Russia, England, America, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, etc. It also exists in varied forms in Japan, Korea, Thailand, China, ….

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43Like many States of India, Kerala, not unfamiliar to the magic of theatre, has a wealth of traditional ethnic performing art forms featuring ancient, religious and contemporary themes. In addition to Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Kalaripayattu, Oottan Thullal, Oppana, etc, there are also other versions of dramas including, the vanishing art, the colourful “Chavuttu Nadakam” (The Stomping Drama) which mainly features European history or Biblical stories, mostly centring on Emperor Charlemagne.

This coastal traditional art of Kerala with elaborate costumes, abrupt body movements to music, which owes its origins to the Christian missionaries who came to Kerala in the 16th century, virtually resembles the opera.

But progress in the field of performing arts like opera face hindrances since, nowadays, concern for culture takes a back seat while certain commercially viable disciplines are favoured in some countries.

As for India, the growth of traditional performing arts like Chavuttu Nadakam, and also opera, ballet, etc, should have had better chance of progress with the entry of corporate bodies into the global show biz. Besides, encouraged by thriving business, entertainment sectors like film industry, music promoters, etc, presently envisage tremendous improvement from global expansion. Yet another contributing factor is the spending power of the growing middle-class of India.

Keeping in tune with this, more avenues of opportunities are emerging as an increased number of TV channels, radio stations and print media are sprouting all over the place, triggering aggressive clamour for news, sensational and exclusive – especially from entertainment shows, celebrity gossip and catchy advertisements to fill the thousands of slots in television/radio and in pages of print media.

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Some of the people I have spoken to here have not seen an opera and are ambiguous of its characteristics. Opportunities to enjoy such arts are not part of the itinerary of travel packages on offer for the vast amount of Indian tourists visiting Europe. Nevertheless, the encouraging part is that they are interested in knowing of it. Maybe those with vibrant operatic culture should more vigorously shoulder the task of making firm footing for global promotion of such traditional performing arts also and create opportunities for people to get acquainted with it – to generate interest in them to understand and enjoy those arts. But forget the disappointments – it is heartening to see that institutions like JT Pac, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, etc, are trying to bridge this setback.

45Late into that night, in the comfort of Hotel Hilton Vienna Danube, I sat by the window of our room writing down every detail and idea that came my way about our joyful tryst with Verdi, before the performance recedes into memory. As the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein said, “Opera is not exclusively for the elite”. Like Luciano Pavarotti, and Mirella Freni, I cannot read music nor do I know how sentences work in Italian. Nevertheless, having seen the DVD and closely studied written materials of this opera and other classics in our possession innumerable times, the hindrances were easily surmounted, though I still find Wagner a bit heavy to stomach. Then again, for an occasional clarification, there was the expert sitting next to me, though her handkerchief was frequently making its short journeys up to her face to wipe away the emotions generated from the show on stage.

Now with our extensive collection of books, DVDs and other audio/video recordings of operas and its excerpts, our operatic adventure is still continuing.

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Hilton Vienna Danube is the only waterfront hotel in Vienna. It has large rooms with all amenities, superb service, and offers stunning views from the right bank of River Danube (Donau), the trade highway stretching from the German Black Forest and snakes through Central and Eastern Europe to touch the Black Sea on the coast of Romania.

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From the window I could see the silhouette of the six-lane Reichsbrücke (Empire Bridge) cutting across the charming Danube to my left. The sight of Danube conjured up excerpts from Johann Strauss II’s “Le beau Danube bleu” in my mind.

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Even in the night, I could see light and heavy boats plying through the river time to time, even though swimmers, rowers and surfers and boats of Hundertwasser Tour or Grand Danube River Cruise were missing now. Beyond the river, I could see a string of lights of an incessant number of aircrafts in the dark sky, possibly somewhere above Pillichsdorf or Aderklaa, following an invisible path to make their U-turn, to position for landing at the Vienna International Airport (Flughafen Wien) to my right, which often induced queries from Carina about how “I am directing the air-traffic from my seat by this window”.

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Tomorrow, despite the threat of rain, our daytrips would cover some ladies shopping at Mariahilfer Straße, and explore the book shops on Wollzeile near Stephansdom, followed by Sacher-Torte and Glühwein at Café Sacher Wien, a delightful place to be in and enjoy the original torte or an apple strudel or their good variety of cakes, coffees, food items, et al, in great ambiance and with friendly service.

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It’s time to call it a day. Perhaps I would stay awake for a while before sleep hits me – as I sometimes do after reading a book or enjoying a movie past the zero hours. But then, I wouldn’t find it a reason to complain. As legend says, when you can’t sleep at night, it’s because you are awake in someone else’s dream. There goes my heart…. Until next time, Servus, Jo

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31)     Wiener Staatsoper is closed from July 1st until August 31st and reopens with a performance of “La Traviata” on September 3rd, 2013.

2)    Other major Composers who died in Vienna and their year of death: Antonio Vivaldi (1741); Christoph Willibald Gluck (1787); Franz Joseph Hayden (1809); Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791); Ludwig van Beethoven (1827); Franz Schubert (1828); Johann Strauss II (1899); Johannes Brahms (1897); Anton Bruckner (1896); Gustav Mahler (1911), etc.

3)    Actresses who had performed on stage in the most coveted role of Marguerite Gautier include Lillian Gish, Tallulah Bankhead, Isabelle Adjani, dancer/Impresario Ida Rubinstein and of course, the great Sarah Bernhardt, who also schooled Ida in this role.

4)    DVDs and other audio/visual media of “La Traviata” including the Glyndebourne Festival Opera version (1988) directed by Peter Hall (from which images are shown under the “Synopsis” above) are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc.

5)    Reproduction of photos credited to “WienTourismus” appearing in this post was made possible through the permission of Vienna Tourist Board, Vienna, Austria.

6)    Photo of “Café Sacher Wien” was reproduced here with the kind permission of Hotel Sacher Wien.

7)    The three uncredited photos of Hilton Vienna Danube: courtesy of Hotel Hilton Vienna Danube.

8)    This illustrated article is meant for the promotion of the opera. Please refer to “About” of this website for more details.

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A glance backward: This article is dedicated to the memory of Maria Callas,

one of the towering figures of opera.

(© Manningtree Archive)

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Viva Italia 3: Scoppio del Carro, Florence

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 calledMy 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.)