Saturday, 16 May 2015

Italy - Florence Part Two: An Easter Celebration

I’ve always had this image in my head of Easter celebrations in Italian cities.  I picture some kind of communal parade through the stone streets, some of the participants carrying a large ornately decorated religious shrine that’s deposited on the steps of the great cathedral in town, which everyone in the community gathers around to celebrate this holy day.  The image of these processions has always held somewhat of a romantic appeal to me, if that’s the right word, because where I grew up in the US, we just didn’t have anything like this.  I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be part of such a powerful community gathering that’s all centered on a common religious faith.  Well, now I know because I’ve seen a great Easter morning celebration in Italy in person. 

Before I continue, I must make a disclaimer here – I was not part of the community during this Easter celebration in Florence.  I was there as a tourist, plain and simple.   So I cannot attest to the true spiritual and religious community feeling of this event, but I can tell you that the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is quite a grand event in Florence and was full of some surprises for us.
10:00 am Sunday morning – we made our way down to the Piazza del Duomo where the great Cathedral sits.  The Piazza was already overflowing with people and more continued to stream in from all directions.  There was no way we were going to get even close to the front of the Cathedral, so we found some steps a little ways away and off to the side to stand on and try to observe the activities as best we could.  We weren’t that worried about getting as close as possible because we knew that what we were there to see was tall, 30-feet tall to be exact.  We were there to witness a 500+ year old Easter tradition in Florence – the Explosion of the Cart.

The antique Cart (this is the same cart that’s been used for over 500 years) is paraded through the streets of Florence and brought to sit in front of the great Cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo.  

Our first surprise that morning would be the four beautiful white oxen decorated in fresh spring flowers and herbs that pulled the Cart.  The oxen are huge when standing next to them.  It's hard to believe they can be so docile and willing tolerate this crowd with flowers tied to their faces.

Soldiers, musicians and people dressed up in 15th century garb accompanied the procession. 

Inside the Duomo, Easter mass is taking place and the service was piped out through speakers for the thousands of people gathered in the Piazza to hear as well.  The energy is the crowd is electric, with groups of people erupting in cheers every now and again as a big TV camera boom that’s parked in front of the Cathedral swings overhead pointing in their direction.  That was surprise number two for us.  Am I at an Easter celebration or an NFL football game?  Oddly, the crowds feel the same in many respects this Sunday morning.  A couple of TV announcers have seats high above the heads of the standing crowd giving them a perfect view of the front of the Duomo and the Cart where the show is about to take place.   

We laugh when we see them.  Their body language, their clothing, the head phones they are wearing – is that Matt Lauer and Al Roker up there?  No, not really, but I got the feeling a lot of people tune in from home in Italy for this grand tradition, not unlike the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day parade in the states. 

At 11:00 am inside the Cathedral, the cardinal of Florence lights a fuse on a mechanical dove that is connected to the beautiful cart outside by a wire.  Once lit, this mechanical dove is somehow transported on this wire to the cart outside that is now rigged with fireworks and a 20 minute long pyrotechnics show ensues, and that was surprise number three.  It’s hard to believe such a wonderful fireworks display can come from this old cart, and in such close quarters, but it does.  It’s loud and bright, flames and sparks are flying everywhere.  I’m stunned that the crowd is allowed so close to this display, especially those dressed up in the 15th century costumes with huge feathers protruding from their hats.  Some of the crowd closest to the cart scurry to back up at times, but it’s hard for them to move much because of the huge crowd.  I’m glad now that we couldn’t get very close. 

Some of the fireworks shoot up high into the air, and a after a few minutes, a cloud of smoke fills the Piazza making it hard to see.  The display seems to go on and on, but finally we hear the last couple of pops and the show is over.  Our hair is speckled with ash.  The crowd begins to disperse, but we head against the tide because we want a closer look at this cart.  The sight of a fully clad fireman climbing a ladder to make sure all the flames are out is such a juxtaposition next to this very old cart that has been pulled through these streets for hundreds of years.  I know I’ve mentioned this a few times in these posts about Italy, but I’m still caught off guard whenever I see a sight like this.

A lot of the people in the crowd were heading home for Easter celebrations with their families.  That wasn’t an option for us obviously.  We spent our Easter Sunday walking the streets of Florence and exploring the Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens), a vast formal Tuscan garden dating back to the mid-16th century that just lovely to stroll through, even on a chilly day in Florence.  It is with photos from this lovely garden that I leave you today.  But check back tomorrow.  There is more of Florence to share. 


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