Easter in Florence, Italy

Easter in Florence  (photo from firenzecuriosita.blogspot.com)

Easter in Florence
(photo from firenzecuriosita.blogspot.com)

Today marks the start of Holy Week, the run up to Easter Sunday on April 20th, 2014.

It also sees the start of a range of interesting religious and cultural Easter-time customs in Italy.

‘Pasqua’ is the Italian word for Easter, followed by ‘Pasquetta’ (Easter Monday).

Olive branches are common around Easter time in Italy. Instead of palms, Italians will give gifts of a (small) olive branch to each other.

In my parts of Italy, it is common to see statues of Jesus and Mary paraded through the towns in religious processions. It is likely they will be accompanied by an entourage of hymn singers who, if held in the evening, carry candles. Locals whose houses are along the procession route will often put out either signs, olive branches, or candles in red class containers  in their windows. There may also be costumes involved of religious figures or renaissance outfits being worn.

Obviously one of the most famous Easter extravaganzas is at the Vatican in Rome. On Easter Friday, Pope Francis will follow the Via Crucis (stations of the cross) to just by the Coliseum. A gigantic cross will be lit by torches to light up the night as the Pope gives his blessing. The next day, Pope Francis will then hold an Easter mass at St Peter’s Basilica.

Easter in Florence rather is celebrated with the Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart) spectacular involving a fantastic pyrotechnic display.

Like an Italian version of Groundhog Day, the Florentines release a (nowadays mechanical) dove out of the Florence Cathedral, Il Duomo. The dove is said to predict the quality of the upcoming crops, trade and the general well-being of the locals.

Upon the release of the dove, a mass of fireworks held in an ornate cart (Carro) is ignited and explodes in a series of bangs and colourful smoke.

Florence’s Piazza del Duomo is witnessed by hundreds of locals packed into this stunning square of Florence.

This Easter tradition in Florence has its origins dating back to the 16th century. The custom is based on a tale from  the 11th century when a local boy, Pazzino di Pazzi, was sent to join the crusades. He was said to be the first to have scaled the walls of Jerusalem – with his bare hands – and entered into the Holy City, chasing away the Muslims he encountered along the way to open the roads for his fellow Christian Crusaders.

His reward for doing so was three flint stones said to come from the empty tomb of Christ, with which he was expected to light  a Holy Fire at Eastertide. The flame would then be used to light torches to be carried throughout the city by local torchbearers.

Medici Pope Leo X decided to add even more flair to this Florence Easter tradition by transporting the flame in an ornate cart, named ‘Il Brindellone’*. For good measure, he also added the Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit and of peace – the dove.

Today, the same flint stones, now held in the Chiesa di Santi Apostoli, are still used to light the flame.

As to the ceremony, not much has changed since the 1600s.

At 10am, at Porta al Prato, the three Pazzi flints are used to light a candle. The candle then lights coals placed at the bottom of the cart. Led by a procession of locals in medieval outfits, the cart is towed all the way from Porta il Prato to Piazza del Duomo, a band of musicians leading the way.

The Archbishop awaits the procession at Il Duomo. At around 11am, he lights a (mechanical) dove that travels along a wire, hits the cart and lights the fireworks. A spectacular display ensues.

Then there is the mass, which ends just in time for another favourite Tuscan tradition…. LUNCH!

Small-group Vatican tours and private Vatican tours are available through Artviva, as are small-group Rome city tours.

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* Brindellone is a term also used in the Florentine dialect for someone who asks like a jokester.

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Best places to see art in Florence, Italy

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Florence, Italy is home to a lot of the world’s greatest artworks.

Much of that is due to Florence being the birthplace of the Renaissance, which brought to life an artistic culture that has never died.

The best places to see famous artwork by master artists in Florence is in the two most famous museums, the Uffizi Gallery and Accademia.

However, there are also many ways to see modern art – and indeed meet the artists too – around Florence.

Some artists in Florence set up little stalls on the streets and in the piazzas of Florence. They sit out in the Tuscan sunshine, painting splendid views of the cityscape or dreamy Tuscan landscapes, stopping to chat with passers-by and to sell their wares.

There are also many open studios that look like mini-museums in themselves, where local artists paint and sell their works directly to those who wander in.

Art is a great thing to buy in Florence, and one of our favourite ways to buy artworks is directly from the artist, an experience that adds extra significance to the work.

Lots of local coffee shops and bars also regularly host exhibitions of local artists. There is normally a launch party for the exhibit, where the artist is usually also present mingling amongst the guests.

In the many markets in Florence, you may find stalls from which to buy artworks and oftentimes meet the artist too. There are also occasionally second-hand paintings available, some already in lovely frames.

Once you have your artwork hung on your wall, looking at it brings back wonderful memories of your trip to Florence.

And who knows – in decades to come, you may just discover the artworks are worth more than just sentimental value.

Like the Italian factory worker who bought two works at a lost-property auction in 1970 for around 23 euro (19 pounds) and hung them on his kitchen wall for the next 40 years. Just this week, it was discovered that they were long-lost artworks by Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard.

It turns out they were works stolen from a London home in 1970, only to be left on a train in Italy, before ending up at auction. Today, these works have been valued at around 10.6 million euro (£8.8m).

For now however, our own kitchen wall boasts a collection of works that hold not only aesthetic value, but also sentimental value. And if life in Florence, Tuscany, teaches you anything, it’s the difference between value and price.


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Weddings in Italy: traditions and superstitions

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Getting married in Italy is enriched by great traditions (and some superstitions), many of which are still kept alive to this day.

In the past, marriages would often be arranged by the families of the potential couple or even through the use of an official matchmaker, with engagements being based more on agreements than romance. Today of course, it’s all about amore!

The groom’s family would have paid a dowry to the bride’s family. The bride rather would have, over the years, collected household items, linens and clothing (even clothes for her husband-to-be) that would be placed into a fancy marriage chest – known as a cassone. The cassone would remain a prized possession, often being so elaborately carved that they were more valuable than the actual contents within.

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Obama to meet Pope Francis in Rome, Italy

Obama's visit to Italy, 2014

Obama’s visit to Italy, 2014

Obama is set to meet Pope Francis in Rome, Italy tomorrow, 27th March.

In Italy, Obama will also be meeting Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano, having already met Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the recent Nuclear Security Summit in The Netherlands.

Obama and Napolitano also met in 2009.

Obama and Napolitano also met in 2009.

But all work and no play can make even Obama a dull boy. So while in Rome, the President of the United States will also be playing tourist with a private tour of the Coliseum.

As to what Pope Francis and Obama may have to talk about, there are many controversial issues on which the two are known to have differences in opinion to discuss, from gender equality, contraception, current world conflicts and gay marriage.

Or they could just play it safe and talk about the splendid spring weather Italy is currently enjoying and smile for what is sure to be a plethora of cameras nearby!

Next week, Pope Francis is scheduled to meet the Queen of England.


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Photo credit for Obama picture with Italian flag: studionews24.com

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The Art of Shopping in Florence – Artisan Crafts

Florence has a rich history in artisan crafts.

Besides offering great things to buy in Florence, stepping into the stores where artisans still ply their ancient trades is like stepping back in time – way back in time.

Considering that the first craft guilds were established in the 12th century, these traditions would have been already well-established even before this.

Florence became renown for the mastery of its woodworkers, silversmiths, ceramists, fabric makers, leather workers and weavers whose skill combined with the Italian love of beauty to create products that became sought out throughout the entire Europe.

These design skills also gave to the city of Florence itself an elegance unmatched by almost any other city in the world.

To this day, artisans still produce their traditional wares with techniques that were developed and perfected centuries and centuries ago, often using tools passed down through the generations.

Just off Piazza Santo Spirito, we pass a store where three men are seated in a circle on tiny stools. They chat as they hand-make men’s leather shoes. This particular store has a reputation for making classic styles which, due to their skills in creating top-quality products, ensures they literally last for years, if not decades.

We bought a painting from one of the amazing artists who have studios around the city centre. Taking it to be framed, we meet a father and son who have been working together for over 50 years in their store on Via Ghibellina.  With an expert eye, the father selects a wood that is perfect for the painting. Then the mount is chosen, which will be hand-cut together with the frame, before being painted to the exact shade desired. Once mounted, the back of the frame is lined with brown paper printed with the symbol of the city, the Florentine lily or, ‘il giglio’. Even the hook is elaborate, carefully attached to the back of the frame with two small nails. When we go to collect frames, they are wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with string. On the walls of our house, they look fit for museums.

Florence is also the best place to buy leather items such as hand-made leather jackets. Our favourite place is just a stone’s throw from the Duomo where the storekeeper and by now a friend, Adam, is like a leather jacket magician.

Other unique artisan crafts in Florence include the store where wooden forms for wigs are hand-chiselled at Bini Forme per Cappelli in Piazza Santo Spirito. You can buy the wig to match (as many a celebrity does when visiting Florence!) from  Via Verdi number 9, at Filistrucchi – the oldest family-run business in Florence, dating back to 1720.

Bronze and brass items, from the simplest doorknobs to the grand door knockers, right through to the larger-than-life statues and fountains can also be found in stores such as that of F.lli Ugolini Bronzisti on Via del Drago d’Oro (yes, that’s street of the golden dragon!).

And if you’re really looking to splurge…head to the Ponte Vecchio or to one of the many jewellery stores about Florence’s city centre to buy hand-crafted jewels in 18K gold or in silver.

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New Year in Florence… in March?

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Drummers on parade in Florence

A great travel tip for Italy is to check if any unique festivals and events are being held during the time of your visit.

For example, March 25 is the day of the Annunciation. It is also the Florence New Year’s Day.

Well, at least it was until 1750.

But being that Florentines do love a good tradition – not to mention any excuse to have a festival day – they continue to celebrate New Year’s Day… twice a year.

Festivities fit for a new year celebration will be held from 3pm on March 25 in Florence. Firstly, there will be a historical procession with lots of locals in Medieval garb beginning in Palagio di Parte and ending in Piazza Santissima Annunciata.

A great market will be held in the piazza, with lots of food and live music. And to ensure it’s all up to scratch on the special day, concerts and art exhibitions will be held as of 21st March in the Sant’Annunziata church.

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Inspired by…Michelangelo’s David

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American gun maker ArmaLite has received a lot of unexpected publicity in reaction to their ad featuring Florence’s beloved Michelanglo’s David holding a rifle.

The ad has caused a great stir, and not just concerning infringements on copyright protecting the famous statue. Angelo Tartuferi, director of the Accademia Gallery where David is housed, is quoted in Italy’s Repubblica newspaper as saying, “The law dictates that the aesthetic value of the work cannot be distorted. In this case not only is the choice in bad taste, it is also completely illegal.”

From a historic perspective, the Armalite ad is also quite ill-informed.

David actually rejected taking up arms when going into the battle with Goliath, declaring, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves.”

Rather David, just a young boy, defeated Goliath with just a stone and sling.

David has inspired many artworks throughout history, including by Poussin, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Donatello.

However it is Michelangelo’s statue of the biblical hero carved between 1501 and 1504 that has become one of the most famous artworks ever created.

Since then, Michelangelo’s David itself has inspired others.

Being that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, we thought we’d take a look at some other more unusual reproductions of this Renaissance masterpiece…


Meet Michelangelo’s David with our Original David Tour.

Artviva: experts in FlorenceTuscanyCinque TerreVeniceRome and beyond.

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Mimosa - International Women's Day 2014

Mimosa to celebrate International Women’s Day 2014

International Women’s Day started as a protest against women’s inequality.

And whilst it is certainly not yet time to stop fighting the good fight, we can still take the opportunity to celebrate the achievements that have been made so far.

8th March is also a day to celebrate and appreciate the wonderful women we have in our lives.

In Italy, International Women’s Day (‘Festa delle Donne’) is celebrated with the exchange of “mimosa” – bunches of bright yellow wattle. Ladies’ Lunches or Girls’ Night Out are also all the rage.

The UN theme for International Women’s Day 2014 is “Equality for Women is Progress for All”.

And so as to be able to say ‘Here, here’ to that, here is the recipe for the Mimosa cocktail: 1 part Prosecco (or other sparkling wine) plus 1 part orange juice served in a champagne flute. Mix well and serve amongst good friends.

Artviva: experts in FlorenceTuscanyCinque TerreVeniceRome and beyond.

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HIP TO BE (A SATOR) SQUARE – in Pompeii, Italy

Sator Square

Stunning Sator Square in Siena…

What is a Sator Square?

It is an ancient four-time palindrome* in Latin that can be read in every direction – that is, from  left-to-right, right-to-left, top-to-bottom and just to mix things a bit, even from bottom-to-top.

The oldest Sator Square was found in Pompeii, Italy.

Given that Pompeii was an ancient Roman city wiped out by Mount Vesuvius erupting in 79 AD, the contents found there within are certainly old indeed.

Other Sator Squares have been found around Italy, including in Rome (at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore), in the Siena Cathedral in Tuscany, at the Valvisciolo Abbey in central Italy and in Abruzzo.

Abroad, they have been found as far spread as in Syria (Dura-Europos), France (Luberon), Portugal (Conimbriga), in England from as far back as the 2nd century (in Manchester, Cirencester, Lancashire) and one in Närke, Sweden that dates back to the 14th century.

The words on the Sator Square are: “SATOR”, which can mean “sower” (from ‘to sow’) including in the sense of progenitor (usually divine); “AREPO”, whilst a bit of a mystery, may be a name; “TENET” is one who possesses or preserves; “OPERA” is a work or service; and “ROTAS” comes from rotate so could indicate a wheel or something that turns.

Is the Sator Square just really old (and very clever) graffiti? Is it perhaps simply a fun wordplay or something much more significant?

The letters on the Sator Square have variously been interpreted by scholars as reading,  ”The sower holds the works and wheels by means of water”, “The sower works for mastery by turning the wheel”, or even, “The farmer Arepo as works wheels”.

Scholars have argued that there were unlikely to have been many Christians in Pompeii in 79AD, hence it is dubious that it holds much Christian symbolism. Nonetheless, the lettering can be restructured to read, “Pater Noster” (“Our Father”, from the Lord’s Prayer).

Other interpretation on what the Sator Square could signify include that it has magical powers that can ward off the devil by making him so confused with its repetition of letters that he would just leave.

It is also believed to have healing properties for both humans and animals, being particularly good for jinxes and witchcraft.

If you prefer more simpler palindromes, here are a few about the every-inspiring Italy:

“A new order began, a more Roman age bred Rowena.”

“Anne, I vote more cars race Rome to Vienna.”

“Able was I ‘ere I saw Elba.”

“As I pee, sir, I see Pisa!”

“Amore, Roma.”

Our great private tour of Pompeii is an excellent way to see the ancient ruins of this lost city. 

Artviva: experts in FlorenceTuscanyCinque TerreVeniceRome and beyond.

(*Palindromes are words/phrases that can be read the same backwards and forwards, which explains why in Greek they are often called “crabs”.)

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What remains – dark discoveries in Florence, Italy

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Discovery of ancient remains by workers at Florence’s top museum – the Uffizi Gallery.

Many may have skeletons in the closet, but it has recently been discovered that one of Florence’s must-see museums has been hiding much more than a metaphorical dark secret.

An ancient mass grave holding around 60 skeletons has been found below Florence’s must-see art museum, the Uffizi Gallery.

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The Uffizi Gallery, one of Italy’s top museums.

The bones were found by construction workers during a project to install a new elevator into the museum.

The Uffizi Gallery itself has been there since the 1560s, however it is unlikely that the Renaissance builders even knew of the existence of those lying far below.

Yet to be officially carbon dated, coins buried with the bodies indicate they date back to the 6th century, with samples taken of the earth surrounding the bones showing they were all buried at the same time.

Being that there are no visible signs of foul play, theories are that they likely died of some form of plague.

Scientists are curious to ascertain if the bodies form part of a wider burial site in the area. It is though an unusual place to bury, given that the nearby River Arno is prone to occasional flooding.

Tests will also be carried out to determine if these people were passersby perhaps travelling along the river when they fell ill or if they were actually from the local area.

So often are ancient ruins, coins and other artifacts found in Italy that public works are overseen by on-site archeologists. This latest discovery is extremely unusual.

It is certainly an interesting find given the insight the bodies may provide into the lives of those living so many centuries ago, hailing from a period of decline that almost saw Florence wiped out.

Florence then came to be the birthplace of the Renaissance – literally, a “rebirth” from a period of darkness into one of light, culture and learning – during which the Uffizi Gallery and many of its most famous works were created.

It is thus quite fitting that this latest unburying could in itself lead to a rebirth of knowledge of an even earlier past.

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In Florence’s historical city centre, excavations taking place around the Uffizi Gallery.


Our Uffizi Gallery tour focuses on the great masterpieces within this world-famous gallery. For haunting stories of Florence, we have the Original Evening Walk – Haunting Florence tour.

Artviva: tours of FlorenceTuscanyRomeVeniceCinque Terre, Umbria, Naples, Pompeii and more.

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