For my money, however amazing it might be to witness an Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square, I’d rather spend Easter in Florence. The customs may be no less rooted in history, but they also seem so imbued with whimsy that I find them utterly delightful (not to mention improbable).
If you’ll recall, last week when I told you about how Easter is celebrated in Italy, I mentioned Florence’s explosive tradition – but a couple lines aren’t adequate to really convey what goes on Easter morning in the Tuscan capital, so here I am talking about Easter again. And this time, there will be video.
On Easter Sunday, after the services in the gorgeous Duomo are complete, a wooden tower covered in firecrackers is lit, producing a fountain of fireworks and sparks. It’s called the “Scoppio del Carro,” or the “Explosion of the Cart,” and it’s a custom that has its origins the 11th century.
But let me back up a bit.
During the First Crusade in 1097, a Florentine soldier was rewarded for his service with three flints from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. He brought them back to his home city, and during Easter it became traditional to light torches with these flints to be paraded through Florence. Later, the torches were replaced with a large candle lit with that “holy fire” carried on a cart through the city. Today, those same flints are used to light coals carried on the cart.
Like I said – there’s some history here.
The Scoppio del Carro as we see it today dates back to the late 1400s. The festivities begin on Easter Sunday morning, when a team of white oxen pulls a 30-foot-tall tower-like cart through the streets of Florence, in a parade with hundreds of musicians, flag-throwers, and others in medieval garb. That cart is the same one that has been used for more than 500 years (contrary to the festival’s name, they don’t actually blow up the cart itself). The cart is covered with firecrackers, and it also carries the container of coals lit by those 11th century flints.
When the cart arrives in the square in front of the Duomo, it is positioned in front of the Duomo’s main doors. A thin wire, stretched from the high altar inside of the cathedral, is attached to the cart, and a small rocket in the shape of a dove is attached to the wire. (It’s called a “Colombina,” or “little dove.”) At a particular point in the Easter Mass, the colombina rocket is lit at the altar and then shoots out of the Duomo on the wire to land on the rocket – which lights the firecrackers, and starts the fireworks display.
It’s all so impossibly wonderful, and words don’t really do it justice, so here’s a selection of videos of the Scoppio del Carro. I promise you, I am not making this stuff up.
This short montage from 2009 shows you all the things you’ll see on Easter morning, in brief, including the historic flints and the colombina. (Added bonus – spot then-local Florentine politician, now-Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi at the end of the video!)
This one shows the various stages of the cart’s fireworks going off – and it was obviously made by someone with great access to get beyond the crowds, so it’s pretty easy to watch. Between explosions, you can hear the bells of the adjacent campanile ringing throughout.
This vantage point overlooking the square gives you a good sense of the placement of the cart in between all those famous buildings.
I’ll spare you the annoying bits of this video by saying you should fast-forward to about the 1:12 mark, and then keep an eye on the fireworks inside the cathedral, followed by the colombina flying out through the open doors.
And in this one, you can see the colombina come out through the doors into the square to light the cart’s fireworks.
For even more history, check out the Duomo’s official page on Easter – in English.