Easter in Italy is huge! It is celebrated with processions; dramatizations of the stations of the cross; men and women dressed in traditional ancient costumes; many family traditions; and palm branches and olive branches sold on the street and waved at processions and adorning churches.
And the food! Enormous hollow chocolate easter eggs (with a surprise inside), Colomba (a cake shaped like a dove, which is what colomba means), and dozens of local specialties like Schiacciata alla Fiorentina, Pastiera Napoletana, and marzipan in all kinds of shapes, like this one from Perugia.
This holiday is so exhausting that Italians take the next day off to recover! Called Pasquetta (little Easter), the Monday after Easter is a public holiday. In Florence, Easter traditions are especially elaborate and exciting.
Easter Sunday in Florence begins with the grand opening of two huge wooden doors, forty feet high, behind which is a thirty-foot majestic, antique cart (carro) built in 1494. Made of wood, this cart is ornately carved, three tiers high and nicknamed Brindellone, a nickname usually given to a sturdy, tall boy with an awkward gait.
Waiting to pull it through the streets of the city to the Duomo, are beautiful, huge, white Chianina oxen, adorned with flowers and herbs and the Florentine “Giglio” (Lily). They are brought from Valdichiana, a valley stretching from Arezzo to Siena, arrive about 6 A.M. and are immediately given a “shower” and dressed for the big day.
Leading the procession are members of the Bandierai degli Uffizzi, the official flag-wavers of Florence, musicians and soldiers in 15th century dress, and important Florentine families.
The story of the procession begins in 1099, when a young Florentine soldier of the Pazzi family, a family whose history is intertwined with the vagaries of Florence and the Medici, was rewarded for his bravery during the first Crusade to free the tomb of Jesus. Because he was the first soldier to scale the city wall, he was awarded three pieces of flint from the tomb. He brought them back to Florence and his family became the keeper of the “sacred fire.” The stones eventually made their way to the Church of the S.S. Apostoli, where they are still zealously guarded.
Each Easter morning, the flint is used to light a “sacred fire,” a symbol of purity, inside the carro. Once everything is ready, the procession begins at Porta a Prato and winds its
way through the streets to the Duomo, where it stops between the Cathedral and the Baptistry. The cart, adorned with 2100 fireworks, is then connected by a wire that stretches to the high altar inside the Cathedral. A small mechanical dove (La Colombina) is placed on the wire at the altar. After mass is said inside the Cathedral, the Cardinal of Florence lights the fuse and the Colombina races to the cart, ignites the pyrotechnics and flies back to the altar. The pops, lights, and smoke last about twenty minutes and the Scoppio del Carro (explosion of the cart) brings a good harvest and general good fortune to the city for the year.
The spectacular event was absent for four years during World War II and never skipped again until 2020, when it was cancelled due to the pandemic. Last year was the first time Florence has missed it since 1944.
So what happens if the dove doesn’t make it to the cart or back to the altar? Bad luck! That has happened only twice since the war, in 1966, the year of the terrible flood that brought massive destruction to Florence, and in 2018. I’ll let you figure that one out!
Here’s to hoping that the Scoppio del carro goes off without a hitch in 2021 and that all of us will be able to see the celebration in person al piu’ presto! As soon as possible!