By 9am the beating of the drummers and the sounding of the trumpets can be heard all over the city centre. If you follow the sound you’ll find your way to Palazzo Pubblico where flag-throwers toss their brightly colored banners of heraldic arms high into the air and seem to challenge their fellow lofters to outdo them. Before long a pageant of musicians, armored knights, and “noblemen” and women decked in Renaissance dress of flowing velvet reds, gemstone greens and other rich colors come two by two along the street from the Arno. Although their faces are friendly their carriages are proud. This is not the kitch parade of Disney but a long Florentine tradition (even if the clothes have become costumes in honor of a more golden age). Behind them two oxen draw a tall wooden cart.
This is the Fire Cart which has been processed through these streets since the 12th century increasing in size and decoration until the 15th century when the Pazzi family provided for the extraordinary one that is basically what we know today. Like so many other things in Florentine culture, it had reached its peak by the 15th century and none since have felt the need to improve upon it. With the fire cart at their tail these exquisitely dressed Florentines process past the grand Palazzo Strozzi with its base of massive stone masonry into which horse rings are still set, the original owners of which would have been participants of the scene these modern men seek to recreate. The city’s preservation of Renaissance buildings and churches, cobblestone streets, and urban design that causes bright light and dark shadow to fall upon an ambulating crowd, lays the perfect backdrop for this ancient procession. If Florence is a relic city preserved aesthetically almost exactly as it was in its greatest era then this is the day in which the spirit of those ghosts comes most vividly to life.
Several streets over a more solemn procession takes place. The company starts from the Church of Santa Apostoli, with its fully retained Medieval features and a stone on the facade attributing its foundation to Charlagmagne (Italy being one of those quixotic places where in discovering that most scholars date it instead to the 11th century one feels disappointed at its “false” antiquity) it fits the program of the day splendidly. Carried aloft in this parade is a fire lit from stone flints purported to be from the Holy Sepulchre. This brings us to the origin of these Easter processions so loyally adhered to over the centuries.
When the crusaders (yes, the explanation does not disappoint) captured Jerusalem in 1099 the first soldier to make it over the walls of the city was Florentine Pazzino de’ Pazzi and for his grit and valor he was rewarded with three flints of stone from the Holy Sepulchre. These were triumphantly brought back to Florence and used every year on Holy Saturday to light a fire which was brought first to the cathedral and then in somber procession through the city. Over the years the cart on which the fire was displayed became more grandiose. Today this fire is brought to the cathedral on one route, its procession belying the sanctity of its history and the cart on another in the more joyous march of celebration.
The fire cart ends its journey in front of the Duomo, nestled between the baptistery and the cathedral. The crowds form around it at a slight distance and on every balcony and from every window, whose old worn shutters have always seemed part of the elaborate stage set of Florence rather than the three dimensional aids of its inhabitants, lean men and women resting upon its ledges. There is a quite anticipation in the crowd. The chatter around is almost whispered as if not to disrupt the communal sense of impending excitement. The Easter mass within the great edifice ends at 11am and within seconds the archdeacon lights a dove shaped rocket with the sacred fire processed there that morning. It shoots off down a wire from the high altar through the huge open doors and flies right into the fire cart setting off a spectacular firework display. What look like sparklers shoot out from all sides and begin to whirl and whiz, shoot, twirl and explode. A dripping fountain of fire dots sparkle in the air and as finale four flags unfurl at the top amid a siren and a boisterous cheer from the crowd.
Slowly the gathered onlookers disperse just in time for lunch. Happily, Spring could be considered the time when weather in Tuscany is at its loveliest. It’s perfect for a picnic and within a 10 minute walk you can be at one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe, the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace (on the other side of the Arno). You can stop in at one of the little shops on the side streets selling fresh bread and cheeses, fruits and wine. Florentines don’t decorate hard-boiled eggs but they do heartily rejoice in chocolate eggs. In fact, these sweets fill the display windows of countless cafes, pastry shops and chocolatiers. Exhibited with great care and beauty they are of every size imaginable, often with elegantly crafted decorations. Many say “Buon Pasqua!” which is the Italian for “Happy Easter!” and almost all contain a tiny surprise inside. I received one with a piece of costume jewelry that befitted the cheer of the day. It is hard to resist nibbling one on your way to a picnic spot but it is a fun treat to save for the end of your meal.
As you cross the Arno toward the gardens you can stop and look out at the slowly flowing currents glistening in the sun, on which you often see newborn ducks dutifully following their mother. Once inside the garden there are endless places to perch. There are secluded spots behind hedges, benches facing fountains draped in moss, hills blanketed in purple flowers and others a quilt of yellow, old shady trees, and even a side grotto. If you sit on higher ground you have the advantage of seeing the city and the small mountains behind it. They appear blue from the distance as they delve into one another, coasting and dipping along their tops. The sound of the birds is regularly accompanied by the ringing of church bells in the city below.
After your picnic, a perfect day’s contentment could be spent strolling and exploring these gardens. If you wish to change location but remain in the fresh Spring air, you could take a long walk along the Arno, or climb up to the Fortezza del Belvedere, a fortress built in the late 16th century by the Medici grand dukes. On a hill above the gardens, it retains much of its original appearance and would be a fantasy land for children. It often houses contemporary art exhibitions and the views from its roof are breathtaking. There are sprawling lawns around it on which young Italian couples often recline.
Another option is to climb the hill up to the Piazza de Michelangelo. This spot affords incredible views as well and there is a replica of Michelangelo’s David in its centre. The crowds of tourists that surround you here are more easily avoided at the other spots but it does have the advantage of being very close to Bardini Garden, one of the most exquisite spots in Florence. Incredibly lush, its Baroque staircase leads you down this leveled oasis, with each elevation enjoying its own unique atmosphere and view of the sparkling city beneath. Trellises overhung with wisteria, hidden mosaic fountains, rich rose borders, and dwarf fruit trees are just a few of the delights you encounter as you descend through it back to the level of the town.
If you take any of these walks you will be deposited near Ponte alla Grazie which is the closest bridge to the Piazza di Santa Croce, so named for the magnificent church around which it is ringed. After the day’s excitements and exertions this is a perfect spot to relax for a glass of Chianti. A little bar on its north side has tables outside from which you can take in the church and people watch.
There are several classical concerts held in churches (and other venues) throughout the city on Easter evening. The larger churches may have better acoustics but the smaller, off the beaten –path churches have an intimate charm all of their own. There are also evening masses, which given their solemn piety, the ancient sound of the Latin, and the intense reverence of the participants, can have a mesmerizing affect. To experience a religious holiday in a land where it is not yet commercialized and where religiosity is far from faint can be touching and is at the very least, interesting.
When you have gotten a good night’s rest, you can awake upon the morrow and be ready for …the art!