Explosion of the Cart, Scoppio del carro
On Easter Sunday, the Archbishop in the cathedral lights a dove-shaped fuse which flies out, hits the cart and unleashes fireworks. If it successfully passes the route back and forth, it guarantees a good year for Florence. Many people come to watch the big bang
Italy is strongly Catholic, so it is no wonder that before and during Easter there are many religious rituals, processions and reconstructions of events concerning Jesus' life.
In every parish, Maundy Thursday is dedicated to the memory of the Last Supper, to the Eucharistic adoration and the visit to the Sepulchres which symbolically contains the Body of Christ. Good Friday is a day of mourning; the streets are crossed by candlelight processions. On Holy Saturday, at midnight, the bells ring, announcing the Resurrection, the celebration of which culminates on Sunday.
In addition, many towns and villages have their own history-based customs. In Florence, it's the Scoppio del carro, Explosion of the Cart. On Easter Sunday, in the centre they set off fireworks on an antique carriage, packed full of pyrotechnics, and according to the explosion, they predict what the coming year will be.
Florence is a city of art and you can see it everywhere. I don´t mean only the world-famous architectural treasures, but also the little things that contribute to the atmosphere: huge baskets of purple rhododendrons adorning the streets; niches with statues of saints on the corners of houses, pictures on facades; even metal doors in the wall are decorated to not spoil the good impression. There are many street painters, who surprisingly are not disturbed by the hordes of tourists observing them in the midst of an attack of creativity; and they keep painting portraits and landscapes on canvas or sidewalks. But also groups of amateurs with brushes who paid for a course - they may not become Michelangelo, but for sure it is amazing to stand behind an easel amidst so much historical beauty and capture it on paper.
You can find here well-known brands, but also small boutiques with original clothes, where you may discover a little treasure. A shop with beautiful coloured glass, huge chandeliers that would suit in any national theatre; or another one where you can buy a perfect copy of the statue of David, a chubby baroque angel as if stolen from a church and a naked woman in a provocative pose. These people have a good taste.
You feel like you´re in the past; sometimes a carriage driven by a coachman in livery rattles down the street or a lady in a renaissance robe passes you… even though it is only a foreigner who paid for a picture in a period dress in front of the massive background installed beside a studio. On the square, a cello player is bringing out soft tones from her instrument; and not far from her, a living statue - Cupid cherub with a bow and arrows– lustfully winks on passers-by.
Well, Florence is a city full of creative energy where many writers, painters and sculptors grew; and it is no wonder that the rest of the world keeps coming to see what they have created.
In the 13th century, the mayor allowed the construction of apartments and shops on the Old Bridge (Ponte Vecchio). Soon it was full of "boxes" of various sizes, where the craftsmen lived; but also butchers and fishmongers who threw their waste directly into the river Arno. In the 16th century, such an unpleasant smell spread around it that Grand Duke Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewellers could settle on the bridge; and this is still true today.
It was very hard not to look into the shop windows brimming with gold, although I had no plans to invest in that direction at all. There was a variety of glittering jewellery, some pieces as if from a historical movie and some hypermodern; simple or inlaid with colourful gemstones. Metal is processed here exactly as in the Middle Ages; the local artists are the best of Italy and it is typical of them to combine gold, silver and copper shadows. I think that for many men with partners, walking along the Old Bridge is the Way of the Cross, a relationship test. I didn't see any woman who would resist stopping and admiring shiny treasures...
In the middle of the bridge there is a bust of the most famous local goldsmith (also sculptor, writer, musician), Benvenuto Cellini. It is protected by a low fence, bedecked with locked padlocks. For sure you know this habit, but did you know that it probably came from Florence? More than 50 years ago, the students of the Costa San Giorgio School of Medicine used to attach a lock from their locker on the railing of the Old Bridge after graduation.
But the tradition became famous in the country in 1992, thanks to the Federico Moccia´s novel I want you (Ho voglia di te), later successfully adapted into a movie. According to this, if a couple in love attaches a padlock with their initials on any bridge and throws the key into the river, they will never leave each other and their love will last forever. In 2004, this ritual spread across Italy; first they only used the Roman Bridge Milvio, later also the others. The romantic superstition caused problems, some railings were decorated with so many locks that their weight was threatening the construction and they had to be cut off (the Pont des Arts in Paris carried almost seven hundred thousand locks and due to the load one of its side parts collapsed into the river). Nowadays, putting love locks on the bridges in some cities is strictly forbidden, in others they found an alternative solution.
I am not going to write about world-famous monuments; of course, the cathedral, the Palazzo Vecchio (the Town hall) or the Uffizi Gallery are worth seeing. But try to find a mysterious head sticking out of the wall near the Dome! It is located on the street de’ Cerretani, her name is Berta, and there are several stories about how she got there. For example, this: When astrologer Francesco Stabili was led along the road to be burned at the stake for heresy and begged people for water, the woman peeked out of the window and beseeched the crowd to give him nothing, because the sorcerer can use everything to regain power. In return, the condemned astrologer cursed her: "May you never lift your head from there!' And it happened, Berta turned to stone…
Florence, however, is also full of smaller sights; you just have to look well. I liked the most the church of Santa Maria Novella near the centre - there are many paintings that look freshly painted, but the artists took incredible care about every single corner, wall and chapel; and the whole interior is flooded with warm light penetrating through stained glass windows…
In the square in front of the house of God, there are stands, smelling of good food; and I didn´t resist the pici pasta with wild boar sauce and Chianti wine. Enjoying every bite, I realized that this is Florence - here, the mental experience weds with the physical, the artistic pleasure with the culinary; this is the feast both for the eye and the stomach.
This was then confirmed in the marketplace, where the meat is not sold just as a bloody piece laying on the counter. The butchers' stalls are also decorated as if they expected somebody to come to paint them. The flowers wrapped around the structure were falling down like a green curtain, creating elegant scenery for a furry boar's leg, headcheese and a gutted piglet hanging on a hook.
You can have lunch there, but the choice is not easy because they produce fresh pasta and mix delicious sauces right in front of your eyes. They also offered "orgasmic sandwiches" and typical beefsteak Florentine style, queen of Tuscan cuisine. "Fiorentina" is obtained from a cut of the sirloin of a calf, has the classic T-shape and weighs more than one kilo. Imagine a divine aroma, a hissing of the juices on the grill... oh, there was such a long queue as if they were giving it for free.
For coffee and cake, I went to the Caffé Giacosa, owned by fashion designer Roberto Cavalli. As I looked at the pictures of the famous models in his dresses on the walls, I listened to a background babble-noise. I learned a bit of Tuscan dialect when I discovered Leonardo Pieraccioni's movies. This screenwriter, director, actor and sweetheart conquered Italy in 1996 with a very human comedy Il Ciclone (The Cyclone) about a normal guy whose fate is changed forever by sexi Spanish flamenco dancers who are unexpectedly forced to spend a night in a small Tuscany town. It became the most successful film of all time, later surpassed only by the Oscar-winning Life is beautiful by Roberto Benigni, another Tuscan actor and director. Since then, Pieraccioni shot many other films, always in his native dialect. It is pleasant and soft; but the letter K is often pronounced in such a way that it sounds like H.
There is a joke about it - if you order a cold drink at a local bar, they may bring you "Hoha Hola".
The Italian Easter inherently includes a colomba, dove-shaped cake and, of course, chocolate eggs. Those in pastry shops are literally the works of art, decorated with flowers, sprinkled with nuts, transformed into turtles, rabbits or scenes from famous movies. That's the reason why the confectioners display them for at least a month in the shop windows; and there is a lot to see. Some are empty, others hide sweets or jewellery. The biggest one I saw in Florence weighed 11 kilos and cost 580 euros!
In the neighbourhood of San Frediano, there was a small market which I would call eco-artistic. People were selling everything from shamrocks in a pot to lavender lemonades and earrings with feathers. I was most impressed by a “mad hatter”, who offered really crazy headwear. She proudly wore a model for Easter - with eggs and chicks in a nest.
However, straw hats are a part of Florence's history. Here they knew best how to process dried cereal stalks. In the years 1924 – 26, they produced up to 142 million hats a year, but they were able to obtain from straw also fibres to weave fabrics. For that reason, during the war they could make new clothes, while not violating the ban on imports from abroad.
Speaking about fashion, the Gucci Museum is a trap for tourists, where they exhibit a few handbags and five dresses; the entire tour with the purchase of a ticket took me five minutes… Let’s hope they have changed.
At least I had more time to climb up the hill to the Basilica San Miniato al Monte, standing atop one of the highest points in the town. From there it is probably the most beautiful view of Florence. Below, there are two gardens - Rose and Iris, the first one was already in bloom. Pleasant place, where people can sit, lie on the grass, read, lick ice cream, kiss - or check their mobile phones...
But I came to Florence mainly to see the Explosion of the cart that decides what the coming year will be. This tradition has its roots in the First Crusade, whose aim was retaking the Holy Land and Jesus’ tomb from Muslims. After a cruel and bloody fight, the knights finally succeed to recapture Jerusalem in July 1099.
The first one to scale the city walls and raise the white-red flag on them was the Florentine nobleman Pazzino de‘ Pazzi. As a reward for the act of courage, his commander Godfrey of Bouillon gave him three flints from the Holy Sepulchre.
After returning home in 1101, Pazzino was celebrated as a hero and he kept the relics in the family palace. Later they were moved to the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Porta, then to the neighbouring San Biagio; and since 1785 they have been preserved in the Church of Santi Apostoli.
According to legend, after the liberation of Jerusalem, on White Saturday, crusaders gathered in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre; they prayed, blessed the fire and distributed it to all as a symbol of purification. Pazzi decided to spread this custom at home. On White Saturday, a priest in the cathedral rubbed three flints together until he struck a "holy fire" and young people from all over Florence came to light their torches, which they then carried throughout the streets while chanting hymns. The procession brought cleansing lights to every household, into every fireplace; to rich and poor.
Over time, torches were replaced by a hay waggon with a cauldron of burning coals, from which the holy fire was distributed to the believers gathered in front of the cathedral. Probably in the 14th century, this tradition somehow evolved in the so-called Explosion of the cart,
"Scoppio del carro", associated with fireworks. The carriage was built by the Pazzi family, which was in charge of the entire organization. Their members lost the privilege briefly in 1478 when they were accused of conspiring against the Medici (another wealthy family), but after their expulsion in 1494, all rights were restored to the Pazzi.
Explosions and heat damaged the cart; it had to be repaired several times, until finally around year 1600, the Pazzi family let built a new one, more durable, which has been used till today. It is 10 meters high and 4 wide, adorned with ornaments; locals tenderly call it a "brindellone" - a tatterdemalion, a vagabond. This is because once the feast of John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, was celebrated with a parade, where one of the participants was a neglected poor man in the camel's hair clothing sitting on a cart with straw, representing the holy hermit. Since then, people of Florence call a brindellone every carriage passing through the city…
So, how does it work? ,,Brindellone”, filled with pyrotechnics, arrives in front of the cathedral where they connect it to a high altar inside the temple with a steel wire. They also prepare a detonator, called colombina – shaped like a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak, symbolizing the Holy Spirit.
The Archbishop then serves the Mass and at 11 am, at the singing of the Gloria in excelsis Deo, he lights a fuse in the colombina with the Easter fire. The dove speeds with a swish through the long church aisle, flies out, hits into the wagon, and unleashes fireworks. But that's not all! It has to return to the altar in the same way! Only if it successfully passes the route back and forth making the cart bursting, a good year is ensured for Florence. The last time colomba failed was in 1966, and in November there was the historic flood... No wonder that the ritual still attracts the Florentines themselves and also farmers of the Tuscan countryside, who are eagerly awaiting the big bang. It guarantees good luck and rich harvest.
On Saturday evening, the historical parade went for the flints from the tomb of Jesus. It was quite the same as in the Medici´s period; the elegant ladies in renaissance costumes, gentlemen in short trousers and bicoloured stockings, trumpeters, drummers, halberdiers, colour bearers passed through the narrow streets. They looked exactly like their ancestors in paintings in galleries.
They entered the Church of the Holy Apostles together with the Mayor. After Mass and blessing, they took the reliquary with three fragments and solemnly departed to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. At the forefront of the procession, bearers with a city flag, consisting of a white field with a red lily, walked proudly.
The Cathedral square was ready; the entrance gate of the church was lined with men in colourful costumes and caps adorned with long feathers (every time a man in front of me moved his head, it tickled me). The organizers brought out a three-legged cauldron, inside of which it was a small pile of wood; and abundantly poured gasoline on it.
The ceremony began at 10 pm. The Archbishop had a short speech, then, in a complete silence, he struck the fire. It burned slightly at first, but then the flames rose high, blazing into the night like yellow tongues and cracking reassuringly. It was strange to see such a huge bonfire right in front of the massive Gothic cathedral... The priest blessed it, lit a candle as a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus, and went back to the Dome.
The holy fire ashes are stored until the next day when they are used to launch the dove.
The explosion took place on Sunday at 11 am, but the locals advised me to be there at least 3 hours in advance. The square in front of the Cathedral is relatively small; half of it is occupied by the Baptistery. I arrived at 8 am, and I wasn't the first one; but I caught a great spot right next to the fence. At that time, the "the wagon of fire" was just leaving out of the depository in Prato and along the way gradually the people creating a historical procession of the Florentine Republic joined it again.
At 10, the parade arrived at Piazza Duomo. Drummers first, then squirelets, soldiers, musicians, flag throwers, ladies in richly embroidered dresses and velvet adorned with pearls and the dandyish gentlemen with heavy cloaks over their shoulders.
And behind them, finally the "brindellone" appeared, clattering across the cobblestones; visible from afar due to his height. Swaying strongly from side to side, it was slowly approaching. Pulled by a pair of white oxen which were decorated with garlands and apparently not enthusiastic about their role. The coachmen had to drag them, and when they stopped and refused to move, they pushed them by hand until they managed to park a museum exhibit opposite the gate to the Dome. Animals were outspanned and a modern technology, a crane emerged. The pyrotechnicians set to work; the construction had come already packed full of explosives, but they installed some more rockets at the top and aside.
But all at once, out of the blue, the Town hall community friends and relatives as well as the buddies of all the organizers appeared inside the enclosure; the square, until then empty, was suddenly crowded, and those who were waiting there for three hours, almost did not see the "brindellone"!
After the prayer, the Archbishop went out among the crowd and sprinkled us with holy water; he blessed also the florists who participated in the parade and their carts full of greenery, olive halves and baskets of boiled eggs. Girls then distributed flowers and blessed eggs (as they called them) to people. He said the burst would happen in ten minutes and returned to the cathedral while we were eagerly counting, staring at the mobiles and watches.
A moment later came the high point of Easter in Florence. At the sound of the Gloria in excelsis Deo, the bishop lit a fuse and the dove set out on its journey. For me, this was the most amazing experience, because colombina arrived with a loud swishing noise from the church, banged into the prepared cart and ignited the fire (only later on television I saw that it really immediately flew back to the altar).
The show began. The explosives were sophisticatedly divided to be launched gradually. First, a couple of salvo and rockets flying up. Then sparkling spinning circles formed on the structure. Green fireworks up over the cathedral. Roar and rattle. In the closed square, it sounded like the Second World War. The pyrotechnics were artfully lighting up one after the other; "brindellone" was wrapped in thick white smoke which slowly ascended to the sky. Radiant spirals were spinning, the golden rain was pouring, until even the beautiful Gothic cathedral disappeared in a fume... In the end, it banged three times and the flags opened up on the cart.
The masterpiece of pyrotechnicians was supposed to last for twenty minutes, but it seemed to me that it was only ten; maybe I was so excited I stopped feeling time. The fireworks symbolically distributed the blessed fire to the whole city. The fog slowly dispersed, and a white veil revealed again the Dome, the Campanile bell tower, and the Baptistery…
After the city officials, clerics and figures in historical costumes left; the "brindellone" set out for the way back. Squealing and swaying from side to side, pulled by stubborn oxen (which were replaced by a tractor beyond the centre) it headed out of the town; to rest in the depository for a year...
There is a lot to see around Florence too; cities of. Luca, Siena, Pisa... The famous tower is really impressive. It seems like a hallucination; you go down a narrow street and suddenly at the end of it, a huge cupola of the cathedral and a strangely leaning tower appear.... Even though I saw it a thousand times in the photos, it surprised me. Experiencing it live is something against common sense.
It is forbidden to enter the surrounding lawn, but everyone walks on it and takes those famous pictures where they pretend to hold the tower. Someone gracefully, someone pretends effort, someone with one finger. It's funny, because if you are not standing in a place from which this effect is visible, people pose in front of you in strange bended positions with extended hands. By the way, I read somewhere that since they managed to stabilize the tower, it is leaning a little less than it used to. Maybe you should go to see it before it straightens completely…: )