‘Le Petit Prince’: Easter in Florence

This morning I went to see the Scoppio del Carro, an old Florentine tradition in which, at the end of Easter Mass, the Cardinal of the city lights a rocket-propelled dove to set off a large cart fitted with rings of pyrotechnics in the Piazza del Duomo. It is a raucous version of the Resurrection: the snagless completion of this long chain of ignitions, encircling the cart several times, is supposed to bring prosperity, wealth, and a good planting season. 

I planned to get there early, so that I could attend the mass and then see the dove flying through the cathedral along its wire, but at seven I found the piazza already roped off and ringed with people pressing up against the barriers. A pre-show had already started with flag-twirlers and trumpeters dressed in Renaissance costumes in front of Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. In its white and green marble facade, figures carved and set in its huge vertical acreage — shapes, saints and scenes — proliferate across the stone as one watches, and wake up fully in the flying lights of the scoppio itself. It is an overwhelming structure and as frightening as it is beautiful. The gold frescos over the doors were still in shadow when I got there, but were glowing at the edges by the time the drums of the procession came around and the giant cart wobbled over the cobblestones out from behind St. John’s Baptistry. 

The carro was huge and tottering, like an imaginary weapon of antique wars; something to be wheeled out in front of a city wall and blown apart, with several layers of ornamental roofing. It was wrapped up and down in metal wire laced with hundreds of cylinders of gunpowder.

At its arrival people packed in tightly, the streets perpendicular to the cordoned off Piazza filled with heads and suspended kids. A German raised his daughter on his shoulders an inch in front of me. I thought of pushing her over, or saying something mean. Like the largest, most embarrassing child was a billboard covering a building under renovation directly across from Giotto’s tower, on which a squinting man was wearing wet jeans in knee-deep water at the beach, with the logo LIU JO. I could feel the crowd on my side straining to ignore it, or willing it to disappear. Tourist or not, you want to forget these things for an old Easter ritual; there’s the idea that it could as easily be 1200 as 2023.

Waiting near me also was a couple who I guessed were Boston Irish. Still an hour to go before the explosions, they tried holding their little son, a small bony kid in an Under Armour shirt, up to see the cart and the dancers, but they could not sustain him longer than a few seconds. Back on the ground he could only see backs and probably a little white sky. He was patient — listening to the choir from his little hole in the ground. He paced out a small circle and grabbed his dad’s pants. I decided ultimately that was as it should be. That is what childhood is about anyway: confusion and obscurity, waiting to see. A telling projection.

On the roof of the cart, three bronze fish held up an ornate wheel, which rotated slightly as the cart was moved into position, exactly between the Cathedral and the Baptistry. Once parked in the piazza, it was mounted, by cherry picker, with an additional spiral pyrotechnic: a crowning wheel five feet above the first. When this was added, people started to shout and push forward, even though the firefighters were still hanging over the cart and the priest remained outside, and I saw no fire from the famous Jerusalem flint. Sand was mounded around the cart; additional fireworks were fitted on and encircling it. Real pigeons spiraled and investigated.

Large speakers projected the choir from inside the cathedral, mounting in excitement; long major chords meant to suggest ecstatic thoughts. When the choir crescendoed, the crowd pressed forward again until it became clear it wasn’t the moment. This several times, with still plenty of ceremony to go. My legs got electric and stiff — I was dressed for a seated New England Easter and the loafers offered no support. But the preliminary rituals of deprivation should be half the deal, so I figured I was doing it right. 

Last weekend, through Stanford, we all happened to meet the Count and Contessa of an ancient Florentine family, very powerful during the Renaissance. They had run into us accidentally while we toured a home of theirs. The remnants of their empire of relationships exist in such palazzos strewn across Tuscany, and their crest can be found in windows in all the landmark churches, but my impression of the people themselves was pretty pitiful.

The Count had greeted us in perfect English, with an aristocratic British accent; he wore a worn tweed suit. The Contessa was furtive in her pink silk and had a foot in the next room. The son was introduced then with a bit of ceremony. The word “heir” came up, and his course of study in France. But he was young and balding, with a pocked face and limp fingers that he wiped over his cheeks in shyness. He didn’t want to look at us. I thought they might soon, this generation or next, go the way of the Medicis. The family crests would stay up and in their turn speak of the lost world.

In this city, it’s already clear, the Renaissance is always around. The myth of the rebirth has a life of its own. You do it again — scrub the walls, turn the scholarship over, restore and reconsider. The chapel art is covered in shrouds of purple silk for Lent. 

I was bothered, and daydreaming about the dramatic darkness which had startled me in the Capella Medici, where I mistook covered statues for real people, when finally the Colomba, the rocket-dove, flashed through the bronze doors, spitting sparks. 

The flaming bird represents a Holy Spirit extra juiced on Love, and she ignites the show instantly, setting off several minutes of choreographed thunder and gold fire. By the time it hit, the crowd was desperate. The Boston child jumped up for as long as he could be held, then returned to waist height. Under the sound of detonations, he asked his mom “How are people not crying?” He winced but held himself together.

Then the German lifted his daughter again in a ball of fleece, and her mother hoisted another, revealing a twin. They formed a wall in front of a squat Italian woman, who shouted and shook her fist at them. The girls, wearing matching sweaters, didn’t notice. They were looking up where big green sparks were starting to clear the top of the marble facade.

Nearby, at the Church of Saint Michele and Gaetano, the Gloria would be ending and in the side-chapels, shrouds would be swept from the paintings and sculptures. Suddenly the church would be surrounded again by its stage-lit scenes and leaning marbles. The explosions boomed through the piazza in broad steps, and other loud sounds came down the narrow streets, and bells from all the cathedrals. Now the sleeping grandmothers, and the programmers at the University, and the awful couples from Nashville in the Airbnb’s, and those who still observed and had until today sworn off alcohol, sex, or television, would all be startled awake, and find that it was spring again.

The giant wheel of sparks faded, and huge clouds of smoke drifted in the sun. The square was silent for several minutes after. It was beautiful, but I also felt like I’d been shot at for a joke that didn’t quite translate, missing just slightly the sublime thing at which the scare was supposed to point. The giant, precise thing that you can apparently only call back by putting on renaissance pantaloons, covering your white cattle in irises and ferns, and blowing up a cart — utterly foreign. But still, there is the idea you could rebirth yourself with understanding, above the crowd of careless visitors.

The Renaissance myth is a central one. The world, the works, are beautiful, and how dark it was before! It’s a great story; it’s for suffering.

I fled in my loafers on my stiff legs, and beat the families to a good restaurant. A few glasses of wine, fresh sardines with butter, pork chops and an iced carafe of limoncello closed the day around 2. I write from bed. 

Originally posted 2023-04-24 03:02:29.