Florence: a taste of Christmas during the Renaissance

Natale_Firenze 1

There’s always something magic about a city that “dresses up” for the season as Christmas approaches. Streets are lined with lights; tables are decked out with wreaths, candles, place cards. The weather, the people and even the atmosphere itself are different. It got us thinking here at The Medici Dynasty Show: how did people celebrate Christmas in Florence during the Renaissance?

Christmas in Florence during the Renaissance

To catapult us into medieval and Renaissance Florence, we’ll start with what was a standard, cross-cultural Christmas Eve custom of the time-burning a “Christmas log” in the fireplace.  The log symbolized the solidity and unity of the family and would burn all night to keep the baby Jesus warm. The type of firewood varied depending on the culture: the French preferred fruit trees, while the English opted for ash, pine or oak. In Florence, it was all about the olive tree (which was, after all, the same wood used to cook steak .) Sparks flitting up from the log were interpreted as a good sign or omen of things to come.

Ceppo di NataleAt the stroke of midnight, while the adults exchanged holiday greetings and wishes, the children would be sent to another room or blindfolded to allow their parents to set up their special “gift logs”, which would contain sweets, fruits, spruce twigs and decorations of various types. In contrast with contemporary customs, which are overhyped and tainted by materialism and the mad dash for gifts, it’s nice to note how the true magic of Christmas was experienced through the little things, rejoicing in it and enjoying priceless moments of celebration together.

A scene from the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”the-grand-budapest-hotel-cakes

Before receiving their gifts, the littlest ones would recite the “Avemaria del Ceppo:”
“Ave Maria del Ceppo,
Angelo benedetto!
L’Angelo mi rispose
Ceppo mio bello,
portami tante cose!”
a charming rhyme calling on Holy Mary of the Log to bless them with many gifts. 

The Presepe, or Nativity Scene

Sandro Botticelli – Adoration of the Magi, 1475 – Galleria degli Uffizi, Florencebotticelli_adorazione_dei_magi_uffizi

Alongside this tradition, in 15th century Florence, the iconography of the nativity really developed, particularly through the work of many great masters of painting.

In 1475, a young painter prized by the Medici was given a commission. The work was “The Adoration of the Magi”, which we can now admire in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The young artist? Sandro Botticelli, who depicted some figures from within the Medici family. The term “presepe” (nativity scenes) derives from the Latin “praesaepe,” meaning manger, trough, or even an enclosed area, within which one found sheep and goats. Some of the presepi of the time were even brought to life through special mechanisms, like the one carried out by Buontalenti for Francesco I de’ Medici.

One thing’s for sure: the Christmas tree (particularly the eco or synthetic ones) hadn’t yet been invented!

 

Featured photo credits © Il blog del marchese