A Florentine Easter Tradition
This morning I was up much earlier than usual for an Easter Sunday and it wasn’t because the boys had woken up early to see if the Easter Bunny had visited. I had a 6:30am appointment with some beautiful creatures as they got pampered and ready for one of their biggest days of the year. I was fortunate enough today to get an exclusive behind the scenes look at the Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart). This event is a festive Florentine folk tradition, dating back over five hundred years.
On Easter Sunday, a nine meter tall, antique cart weighing four tonnes and laden with fireworks is pulled through the city from Porta al Prato by four white Chianina oxen, decorated with garlands of the first flowers and herbs of Spring that represent the city of Florence. The cart, affectionately known as the Brindellone is escorted by 150 soldiers, musicians, and people in 15th century dress. Six hundred eggs are also blessed and carried on a cart decorated with beautiful Spring blooms during the procession.
The event of the Scoppio del Carro has its origins in the First Crusade, when Europeans took siege over the city of Jerusalem in a conflict to claim Palestine for Christianity. In 1097, Pazzino de’ Pazzi, a Florentine from a noble and prominent family, was the first man to scale the walls of Jerusalem and raise the Christian flag. As a reward for this act of bravery, his commander gave him three flints from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb where Jesus had been buried, which were then carried back to Tuscany. These flints are still conserved in Florence today at the Church of Santi Apostoli in Piazza Limbo.
It became the practice for a “holy fire” to be struck from these flints at Eastertide, which was then carried throughout the city by groups of young men bearing torches. In time, this tradition evolved to something similar to what is seen today where a cart bearing a large candle was rolled through the city to the cathedral, from where the holy fire would be distributed.
By the end of the 15th Century, the Scoppio del Carro assumed it’s present form after it kept being destroyed in the explosion each year. A stronger, more robust cart was required and the new design is the cart you see today.
Due to the great honour awarded to the knight Pazzino de’ Pazzi, the Scoppio del Carro carriage is decoreated with the coat of arms of the noble Pazzi family.
The explosion of the cart ceremony was stopped between the years of 1478 – 1494 when the Pazzis were banished from Florence for their role in the assassination attempt of Lorenzo il Magnifico and his brother Giuliano de’ Medici who was actually killed. The Florentines however, while agreeing with the banishment of the Pazzi family for the heinous act against their rival the Medici, missed their Easter fireworks festivities and so when the Medici were briefly banned from the city under Girolamo Savonarola, the Scoppio del Carro was brought back.
During Easter Mass, inside the Duomo while the Gloria is being sung, the cardinal of Florence lights a fuse (with the historic flints) inside a mechanical dove, (the Colombina) which symbolises the Holy Spirit.
The mechanical dove then travels along a wire at 60km/hour through the church to ignite the cart outside. The dove then flies back into the Duomo. The impressive fireworks display generally lasts about 20 minutes and traditional law states that if the dove which flies from the alter, reaches the cart without being obstructed and there is a successful “Explosion of the Cart” then this is supposed to guarantee a good harvest for the year, as well as good luck to the city and its citizens.
During all of these stages, the bells of Giotto’s campanile ring out.
I was fortunate to have met Gianfranco Bernardini who has been the principal caretaker of the Brindellone for the last thirty-seven years. This year will mark his last year with the antique cart before his retirement. It was fascinating listening to him as he proudly told me the history of the cart and the preparations involved on the morning of Easter Sunday. The same Chianina are used each year meaning they have a pretty pampered life, also ensuring they wont become the famous Chianina steak!
Below are some photos from the morning preparation. The oxen are washed and then their horns and hooves are painted gold. They then have their floral head-pieces attached and walk to meet the Brindellone. The flowers for the procession carts were also being prepared here and I have to also give a little mention to Silvio the donkey who behaved perfectly during his preparation too.
Next it was on to number 48 Porta al Prato where the Brindellone is housed for 351 days of the year. Hear is where the oxen are attached to the cart after it has been pulled out by a tractor. Once everyone is in place the procession begins it’s walk through the historic center to the Piazza Duomo.
On the way to the Duomo, we caught the Bandierai degli Uffizi performing once of their spectacular flag throwing exhibitions. The morning sun caught the flags as they threw through the air so beautifully.
Above left are some of the many fireworks before they are placed around the cart. and above right is Kirsten Hills interviewing Fulvio Soldi, whose family are responsible for the fireworks.
Inside the Duomo, the Colombine dove is attached to a large pole by a wire. The sponge you see at the end of the wire ensures the dove comes in for a soft landing, on the way to the cart and also on it’s way back into the Duomo.
The procession makes its way into the piazza followed by the oxen who position the cart in front of the Duomo where the rest of the fireworks are set up around and on the top of it which then makes the cart an incredible eleven meters in height.
The cardinal then walks around the whole perimeter, blessing the crowd, performers, eggs and last but not least, the Brindellone cart.
And then the real show begins. The Colombina is meant to fly out at 11am but this morning she was about 15 minutes late. The suspence was incredible but well worth the wait to see the amazing show that is the Scoppio del Carro. The colombina hit her mark and the explosion was a success. The smoke and debris that flew out from the cart was not something I had expected – being downwind certainly didn’t help!
Since first coming to Florence in 1993, I have never seen the Explosion of the Cart live. Today more than made up for my many years of leaving Florence for Easter and the memories and emotion will stay with me forever. I felt very proud of Florence, her history and traditions today and hope that I have conveyed some of the atmosphere in this post.
The Scoppio del Carro is a must see if you are in Florence for Easter!
Special thanks to the following people for making the day possible ; Kirsten Hills (friend & journalist), Fulvio Soldi (Fireworks Owner), Gianfranco Bernardini (care-taker of the Brindellone), Massimo (Owner of the Chianina oxen) and Andrea (preparation co-ordinator & flower-giver)
Here is Kirsten’s great Video from the day.
Take 2,500 fireworks, load them onto a 350 year old cart, drive (with oxen) into the city centre, and ignite. This is how this century-old tradition goes in Florence, by way of celebrating Easter. A wonderfully noisy experience. Unmissable.