By Michaela Papa
After three full months I like to think I have adapted well to the various customs of Italy. I learned to dress like a ninja in order to blend in with the slue of Italians garbed in dark blues, blacks and browns. I learned that what I deem a leisurely stroll to them is a determined power walk. I learned how to avoid the crimson cow flesh lining the aisles of the market. Overall, I have become accustomed to the ways and workings of Florence.
With the feeling of acclamation, I figured Easter would be a relatively normal event. Having seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding and having grown up with a large Italian family, I figured a fusion of the two things would, more or less, be a Florentine Easter. Assuming lamb on a spit was the strangest tradition of the day was a large, large mistake by the silly American study abroad student.
Curious about the ceremonies taking place in this highly religious country, I went where all people go—Google. It was there that I discovered Florence is all but normal when it comes to "Pasqua" (Easter) traditions.
"L'Esplosione del Carro" is an event all Florentines gather to see. "L'Esplosione del Carro" is exactly as it sounds—they literally explode a giant cart in Piazza del Duomo, the vast cathedral in the heart of Florence.
The cardinal of Florence ignites the Colombina, a dove-shaped rocket, inside the Duomo and it shoots down a string outside to ignite the giant brindellone—the wooden cart structure. The Colombina returns back into the church as a 20-minute firework explosion begins outside.
According to legend, if the dove ignites the cart and returns unharmed, it's going to be a good year. An overall successful display of the Esplosione del Carro guarantees a good harvest, civil stability and good business. During this entire festivity the bells of Giotto's campanile resound throughout the piazza.
Now, another thing I have learned after 3 months in Italy is that Italians do as they please. A store that is open from 10-1 and then from 4:30-6 here is more or less comparable to American hospital hours. They have little regard for when things should take place. If they want it to happen, it will…probably…eventually. That being said, I had absolutely not idea when this cart explosion would take place.
Wandering towards the Duomo around 10:30 am I was confronted with a solid mass of people who had beaten me to it. Apparently, if nothing else, the Italians take their cart explosions very, very seriously. I couldn't budge anybody. Typically, I can weasel myself and my camera to the very front of any and every event. In Italy I have done this for parades, rallies, panoramic views—you name it—but this was different. I could not get closer to this enigmatic cart in front of the Duomo.
After a few anticlimactic "songs" by trumpeters, the fireworks finally began. Now, from where I was standing all I could see was massive clouds of smoke and stray sparklers as I heard, what sounded, like incessant gunshots. Incredibly bizarre. The spectators clapped and yelled and whistled, despite only about 10% of the attendants being able to see anything.
Utterly intrigued by this spectacle, I did some research. Like everything in Italy, nothing just begins—everything is rooted in deep tradition. On Easter Sunday the cart, which has been used for over 500 years, is dragged to the Duomo by a team of white oxen covered in flowers and herbs. The 30 foot-tall cart is then escorted by 150 soldiers, musicians and Italians in 15th century attire. As I said, nothing just starts in Italy; everything is because of a tradition of yore.
In 1097 Pazzino de Pazzi, a Florentine from a rather wealthy family, was the first man to scale Jerusalem's walls. This took place during the First Crusade as the Europeans laid siege to Jerusalem in an attempt to claim Palestine for Christianity.
Due to Pazzino de Pazzi's brave act, he was awarded three flints from the Curch of the Holy Sepulchre. He carried these flints back to Tuscany where they are still kept in the Chiesa degli Santi Apostoli.
To light the "holy fire" it is tradition to use these flints. Men with torches then carry the holy fire around Florence. By the end of the 15th centure the Scoppio del Carro is as it is today.
As a foreigner, this was a fantastically odd experience. Though, in not being in America for Easter I realized how utterly absurd our traditions are as well. I had to explain Easter and it was rather difficult not to sound like a crazy person.
It's like most childhood memories…doesn't seem weird until you actually repeat it to those not involved. No, no—cart explosions are just nonsense. Bunnies carrying around eggs are normal. Why the bunnies have eggs to begin with, as they do not lay them as far as I know, or why no child actually receives eggs on Easter are questions we just ignore.
The Easter bunny hops around and magically children end up with baskets full of chocolate, socks and underwear. Oh, America. You get it. And so, though I still think setting fireworks off of a 500-year-old cart in front of a massive cathedral in the center of town is absurd, I have come to have a certain fondness for it.
Perhaps America should consider this tradition and nix the bunny. On that note, I'm pretty sure most cultures eat rabbit on Easter…is that right? That can't be right.