04/28/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Firenze Fireworks: Easter Explosions in Florence

I am happy to be back in Firenze, celebrating spring.

Pasqua is the Italian word for Easter, and, ironically, it also means Passover (think Paschal lamb on the seder plate), so the word originally refers to both important spring holidays. In Italy it is safe to say that most people think only about Easter (there are only about 44, 000 Jews in all of Italy, I have heard) and not about Passover.

So, on Pasqua/Easter, springtime shone brightly here in Firenze, and the whole city of Florence, as it has done for at least the past 500 years, held its Scoppio del Carro ('explosion of the cart') in the beautiful Duomo piazza. The celebration is a combination of pagan noise, light and religious music and ritual. Every one of my senses was awakened and expanded.

First came the parade, a procession of men bearing drums and trumpets and flags and in full Renaissance costume, including many red shoes and many plumed helmets. They performed their traditional flag-throwing routine and then announced loudly (with their instruments) the arrival of the oxen-pulled Carro (cart). The carro in use now is about 150 years old, was donated to the city by the once-wealthy Pazzi family (now the family line has pretty much died out, I read) and is a contraption about three stories high and made of wood and brass and full of explosives and fireworks.

The spectacle is fantastic -- first the procession of the carro pulled by six Tuscan white oxen with wreaths of spring flowers and herbs intertwined in their horns, then the procession of the religious celebrants in full dress regalia who go into the church to celebrate Pasqua with prayer and blessing. And then, as a final wish for good harvest, good business and stable civic life, the bishop of Florence, from inside the Duomo, lights a mechanical dove with the fire made from flints from Jerusalem.

This dove flies across a wire from the altar inside to the carro (cart) outside, and, upon impact, the fireworks inside the carro explode and create a fabulous show for all. I found the whole experience incredibly sensory -- the bells were ringing, the smoke filled the air, and the daytime fireworks display was awesome. Supposedly, Florence holds the 'Best Daytime Fireworks' award from somewhere; I do wonder if they have ever had any competition!


I was also astounded that this very loud, very exciting, very hedonistic ritual took place in the midst of the crowded Duomo Piazza, with no visible protection for anyone except a small ring of space around the exploding cart and with a solo firetruck standing by. The embers were raining down, the smoke was pervasive and the spinning wheels of the cart were shooting fireworks everywhere. During all of this chaos, children are sitting on top of shoulders, elderly folk are leaning on family members' arms and the rest of us are all standing captivated and captive. Amazing!


The belief is that if there is a 'successful' explosion of the carro, then the coming seasons will be bountiful and prosperous; farmers, I have heard, still travel in to Florence to celebrate this holiday and ritual to guarantee a good harvest. Although, happily, the 'success' of the explosion is guaranteed these days by the use of a mechanical (and pretty reliable) dove instead of a real (and pretty unreliable) dove to light the explosions, the crowd certainly voted it a success! It's a great way to celebrate spring, Easter, Passover, rebirth and renewal and resurrection. And I loved the fact that so many people, including so many families with kids, came together to celebrate; it felt like a big field trip and not a big religious trip. The Italians love to celebrate, and this is a big one, and is most likely followed by a big meal. Christmas is a holiday spent with the family; Easter is a holiday spent with friends (and family, if possible).

Unfortunately, daytime fireworks don't show up so well -- only an in-person viewing will do!

And the Italian celebrations continue.... Monday, the day after Pasqua/Easter was the holiday of Pasquetta ('little Easter'), which doesn't seem to have a logical reason for existing. A friend told me it was just another reason for Italians to have a festive family dinner!

And then:
- on April 25, the Italians celebrate Liberation Day, marking the downfall of Mussolini and the end of the Nazi occupation
- on May 1, the Italians celebrate Memorial Day
- banks, schools and businesses will be closed on each holiday, giving the Italians yet another more and more opportunity for feasts and pomp.