Over one thousand years ago, the first crusade culminated in the capture of Jerusalem by an army of Europeans. A young Florentine, Pazzino di Ranieri de’ Pazzi, was the first to scale the city walls and raise the Crusader banner there. As a reward, he was given three flakes of stone from the Holy Sepulcher.
He carried the stones back to Florence in 1101, where every year at Easter time they were used to light the “new fire,” a tradition with roots in Pagan spring rituals and also symbolizing the resurrection of Christ. The fire was transported throughout the city in a cart, and given to each family to light their own hearth fires. When gunpowder made it to Italy in the 1400’s, it made an exciting addition to the cart ceremony. If the ceremony went off well, it was supposed to ensure a good harvest for the year.
During the 1500’s, someone had the idea of adding in a dove-shaped rocket fired from inside the Church doors to ignite the cart. Sometime later, the gunpowder had been replaced by even more exciting fireworks.
We found ourselves at this historic event yesterday morning. At about nine o-clock we crossed the bridge into the older side of the city and soon began hearing drums. Following the noise, we arrived in a large piazza where several dozen men dressed in Medieval garb were twirling flags emblazoned with the emblems of the ancient families of Florence.
Just down the street, a large crowd was already gathering on both sides of a cordoned-off area between the Duomo and the baptistry. We joined it, managing to secure a place near the front. Axa crept between legs and installed herself directly behind the barrier.
We had not long to wait. The flag twirlers had been joined by a full Medieval parade, including noblemen, fair ladies, and plenty of soldiers dressed in both metal and leather armor.
The only one not dressed Medievally was the Mayor of Florence, who was wearing a black suit and a sash with the colors of the Italian flag. A true politician, he didn’t miss a chance to do his baby-kissing. He spied Axa in her secret spot between the legs of the front row viewers, and complimented her on her cleverness in securing a perfect vantage point for the proceedings.
Amid drums and trumpets, the parade heralded the arrival of a 500-year-old cart resembling a towering pagoda. It was pulled by four fantastically large bulls of the local snow-white Chianina breed (the largest cattle in the world). Their horns were gilded, and they wore head-dresses fashioned from spring flowers and herbs.
The cart was immediately followed by a fire truck, which parked directly in front of us, to moans of disappointment from the crowd. Fortunately, the fire truck soon had to retreat, due to the agitation it was causing the bulls, so we had an unimpeded view of the show.
And it was quite a show. Apparently, a solemn Easter mass was going on inside the Duomo, although it seemed to me that it must be difficult for the church-goers to hear anything over the pealing bells, frequent trumpet fanfares, large young band of drummers, and general noise of thousands of onlookers.
Outside, at least, all attention was focused on several men with tall ladders balanced on the sides of the cart, who were putting the finishing touches on the fireworks’ setup. The Cardinal of Florence also walked around it with his entourage, sprinkling it with holy water.
Soon it was time for the moment of moments. The bells began pealing again and a little dove did indeed fly out on a wire from the doors of the Duomo, lighting the first round of fireworks on the cart. (Tony caught it on video, where later we saw what we hadn’t noticed at the time: the dove makes a beeline retreat after lighting the fireworks).
The fireworks (including abundant colored smoke bombs) lasted a good fifteen or twenty minutes, and were made all the more dramatic by their close proximity to so many irreplaceable artifacts. How that little wooden cart has survived 500 years of fireworks is beyond me. Up at its very top were three large parcels on sticks, which I was sure must be the most dramatic fireworks, saved for last. I was surprised and charmed at the very end, when with a flash and a puff of smoke, they unrolled into three little flags.
Tony and I were both sick, but we were very pleased to have dragged ourselves out of bed for such an interesting historical display. We came home and spent the rest of the day curled up in bed watching Conference. Now I’m really excited to go to the Palio, which I’ve been wanting to attend ever since I read the Marguerite Henry book Gaudenzia, Pride of the Palio. Now if I could just hunt up the book to read to Axa beforehand, that would be great. I’m afraid it’s out of print, though, and not easy at all to find in Italy.