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