It is a tradition that dates all the way back to the First Crusade, when Florentines marched under the command of Pazzino di Ranieri de’ Pazzi, a leader from the noble Florentine family known well for their failed Pazzi Conspiracy hundreds of years later. It was Pazzino who, it is said, was first to the wall of Jerusalem and raised the Christian banner when the army successfully took the holy city. As a reward, he was given three flints (stone chips) that were taken from the Holy Sepulcher of Christ itself.
These flints are used to light the ‘new fire’ each year in Florence for Easter. Every light and hearth fire would be extinguished on Good Friday, to commemorate the death of Christ. On Easter Sunday, the holy fire was illuminated to represent that Christ had risen again; a symbol of new life that coincides with the Spring. The fire was taken to be shared throughout the city on a cart, beginning of course with the home of the Pazzi family. This ritual became more elaborate over time, with the cart becoming ornate and spectacular. The current version is over 150 years old and stands at thirty feet. It is pulled by white oxen laden in flowers from Porta al Prato to Piazza del Duomo.
It was during the pontificate of the Medici Pope, Leo X, that the famous mechanical dove was introduced into the ritual – the colombina. The symbol of the Holy Spirit, the mechanical dove holds an olive branch in its beak and is designed to ‘fly’ down a wire that leads it through the open doors of the cathedral. It arrives at the alter where it ‘collects’ the holy fire, lit during the Gloria of the Easter Mass. The mechanical dove then flies back out the doors and comes to land on the elaborate cart, where the flame ignites an explosion of fireworks. It is a spectacular daytime pyrotechnics display that is not to be missed.
April 16 at Piazza del Duomo: 10am for the Procession, and 11am for The Explosion of the Cart.