Every year on Easter Sunday, Florence‘s Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) is filled with a crowd eager to see the “Scoppio del Carro” (Explosion of the Cart) ceremony and anxiously following the movement of the colombina which ignites the Carro, from which the country folk used to predict the success of the harvest and every other spectator the fulfillment of his most ardent desire.
Inevitably, such an important ceremony for the people of Florence must be intertwined with their city’s long and magnificent history.
This famous tradition dates back to the First Crusade, called by Pope Urban II as a belated defence to protect all of Europe and Christianity from the centuries-long attack of Islam. Muslim invasions and atrocities against Christians had been increasing in the decades before the First Crusade was declared in 1095.
In that year Pope Urban II, from whom the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos had requested military aid, held a council in Clermont, France, at which, addressing a large crowd, he asked Western armies to help Byzantium against the invasion of the Seljuq Turks, who had taken nearly all of Asia Minor (the ancient name of present-day Turkey) from him.
The Pope urged all to go to the aid of the Greeks and other Christians living in the east, who had been attacked by Muslim Turks and Arabs. The latter had conquered Romania, which was part of the Greek empire, and had arrived as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean. The Crusades were a delayed and limited response to the bloody Islamic jihad that was stopped only when it was about to conquer Europe as well.
The First Crusaders also tried to free Palestine and Jerusalem, once Byzantine and conquered by the Muslims, and to recover the Holy Sepulchre from their hands. The Holy Sepulchre is the place where Jesus was laid down after His death and where, after three days, He resurrected. It is Christianity’s holiest place in the world.
It was the young Florentine Pazzino de ‘Pazzi, founder of the noble and ancient Pazzi family, who first climbed on the walls of Jerusalem with bare hands and bravely was the first knight to enter the Holy City, defeating the Muslims he found on that stretch of walls and forcing them to escape, opening the way to the conquest of the city by the Crusaders. Pazzino raised there the Christian standard.
For this feat, the commander Godfrey of Bouillon gave him three stones of the Holy Sepulchre.
When Pazzino returned to Florence on 16 July 1101, welcomed with solemn honours, he brought back the three flints from the Holy Sepulchre. These sacred relics, initially kept in the Palazzo dei Pazzi, the family’s ancestral home, and then in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Porta, were in 1785 finally transferred to the Church of the Holy Apostles, where they are still jealously preserved, not least for their role in the Florentine celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.
These stones are of enormous symbolic value for the city because every year, on Easter Sunday, they are used to light the fire that burns the “Brindellone”, the decorated cart, during the feast of the Explosion of the Cart.
The Brindellone, which was first created in 1622, looks like a tower about 10 metres, or 2-3 floors, high.
Today, the ceremony you can see still bears a strong resemblance to the way in which it has been celebrated for centuries. Historians relate that after the liberation of Jerusalem, on Easter Saturday, the Crusaders gathered in the Church of the Resurrection and, in devout prayer, they delivered the holy fire to all as a symbol of purification. From this ceremony descends the custom of distributing the Easter holy fire to the Florentine people.
After the return of Pazzino, every Holy Saturday the young of every family went into the Cathedral, where they lit a small torch from the holy fire that burned there, and then went in procession through the city singing hymns, to bring the purifying flame in every home. The holy fire was lit just with the sparks scintillated by the rubbing of the three fragments of stone of the Holy Sepulchre.
Over time, it was decided to transport the holy fire on a cart where the coals burnt on a tripod. It’s not known when the tripod was replaced by fireworks for the explosion of the cart, but the most probable time is the late 1300s.
Originally the Pazzi family was entrusted with the organisation of the cart and the payment of relative expenditures. This ended in 1478, when a decision of the Repubblic exiled the Pazzis from the city due to their famous conspiracy against the ruling Medicis.
In the morning, starting around 10am, a priest rubs Pazzino’s three flints together until they spark and light the Easter candle; this, in turn, is used to light some coals which are placed in a container on the Brindellone cart.
The cart moves from the city gate Porta al Prato, near the main train station of Santa Maria Novella, through the city streets, pulled by two pairs of white oxen adorned with garlands of flowers and escorted by flag throwers, drummers, musicians and other figures all dressed in historical costumes, and arrives in the usual place, Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), in the small space between the Baptistery and the Cathedral. The oxen are disengaged and a wire is stretched, at a height of about seven metres, from the cart to a wooden column placed for the occasion in the middle of the Cathedral’s choir.
The procession then delivers the Holy Fire to the Archbishop of Florence in front of the majestic Santa Maria del Fiore, which is the Duomo of Florence (the Cathedral).
In the meantime, from the Church of the Holy Apostles, in the square of Limbo, the historical procession has started, preceded by the banner of Florence and the flag of the Pazzi family, with clergy and city officials, heading for the Baptistery where the religious service begins.
Then the procession moves into the Cathedral and at eleven o’clock, at the end of the Easter Mass, during the singing of Gloria in Excelsis Deo inside the church, the Archbishop uses the fire to light a squib looking like a dove with an olive twig, which is mounted on the wire(called the “colombina” and symbolising the Holy Spirit).
The colombina “flies” along the wire from the high altar to the cart in the square outside. The fuse which is attached to the dove ignites the cart with a symbolic sparkle. Hissing, this sets fire to the colourful fireworks and firecrackers hidden by festoons and arranged on the Brindellone all along its height, setting off a spectacular firework display.
Then the colombina goes back to the high altar, from where it started, along the same path.
With a crash the succession of explosions and firework spectacles starts, and so does, albeit in a symbolic way, the distribution of holy fire to the entire city. It lasts about 20 minutes, illuminating the Cathedral Square and the city skies with colored lights. The imposing bulk of the ancient cart is regularly wrapped in clouds, smoke and explosions, as if the air itself emitted increasingly bright sparks. Sparks which all of a sudden will not appear like small and distinct lights but like a shower of purple, pink, red, green, white and blue.
The cart crackles all around. Its silhouette completely disappears in this kaleidoscopic play of colours. The fireworks, cleverly distributed, ignite each other, going up the different circles of which the Brindellone is composed, until the top where is the Catherine wheel, which explodes in all its power and, going out, raises many small flags. The ceremony is over.
Slowly the smoke and the noise dissipate, making the marbles of the Baptistery, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto’s Campanile, the vast monuments of this priceless square, visible again.
If everything proceeds regularly and all the fireworks explode, then a good harvest and good luck for the city and its citizens are predicted.
The two pairs of candid oxen are led away to their shelter. The crowd disperses.