I’ve experienced many an Easter Sunday, but none more elaborate, celebratory or filled with joy than that at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. In fact, I have never experienced the grandeur of the celebration of the resurrection of Christ as I have on Easter Sunday in Florence.
Much of what is most exciting and amazing during Easter week at the cathedral happens in the space known as ‘paradise,’ between the doors of the Baptistry and the front doors of the Cathedral. Here, are lit the large fires from which the ashes are kept and blessed for the next year’s Ash Wednesday, the day Christians mark as the beginning of Lent, 40 days before Easter.
From Good Friday until Easter Sunday morning, the cathedral and other churches in Florence mourn the death of Christ by silencing their bells. Then, on Easter Sunday, the fireworks begin. Literally.
On Florence’s most special days throughout the year, the pride of the city’s past is on full display. The Gonfalone, the banner bearing the city’s symbol, the lily, is carried through the streets as members of the city’s oldest associations parade in full and colorful Florentine historical dress. It is a sight to behold-and hear, as drummers and blaring trumpets set the pace of the stately shuffle-march along the cobblestone streets.
However, on Easter Sunday the show is even grander, for it includes the Scoppio del Carro (‘explosion of the cart’). Drawn by two enormous white oxen, a large cart, Il Brindellone, makes its way through the city streets, through the piazza della Repubblica, and to piazza Duomo to the space directly in front of the church. The cart is loaded with enough fireworks for a 15-minute display of the crack, smoke and whistles of a magnificent show.
How the display is ignited is a matter of ingenuity and tradition. A 140-meter wire is stretched from the altar of the church to the center of the cart and a large wooden dove, the colombina, is affixed to the altar end. At the moment the archbishop proclaims, ‘He is Risen,’ the dove is lit; it rockets along the wire to the cart-and toward the enormous crowd waiting outside. In a carefully designed sequence (and amid gathering smoke), the ‘dove’ sets off the reactions: fireworks ascend from the cart, gizmos on the cart spin, sparklers fizz.
The sequence includes a charge that sends the ‘dove’ back on the wire to the altar from whence it came. Tradition has it that if the colombina reaches the altar, the year’s harvest will be a bountiful one.
As I viewed all of this from a place just past the main altar, I stood in shock. The spectacle is thrilling; the sound reverberating through the cathedral is deafening. I was not prepared for the joy and wonder despite all of the descriptions I had heard.
Through the noise, I heard the voice of a man in the pew behind me, saying to his wife in his Florentine drawl, ‘Look at this guy! His jaw has dropped open.’ I quickly realized it was true. I stood in amazement at this unique demonstration of pageantry, faith and tradition.