Cavalcata dei Magi

Procession of the Three Kings: now and then

Deirdre Pirro
December 4, 2014

On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, a cavalcade led by the Three Kings, also known as the Three Wise Men, or Magi, protectors of kings, knights, travellers and merchants, winds its way through the historic streets of Florence. The event they are re-enacting is from the Christian tradition, in which the Three Magi bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus, following a bright star to the manger where he rests. They are also reviving a long-ago Florentine tradition.


Many of Florence’s pageants go back centuries. This one, however, is a mere 19 years old—in its current form (see 'The Cavalcata then' at the foot of this article). The ‘new’ annual cavalcade of the Three Kings is organised by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore under the auspices of the Archdiocese, the Capitolo of the Duomo (senate of bishops) and the municipality of Florence. It both revives a cortège celebrating the Festa de’ Magi (Festival of the Three Kings) last held in the fifteenth century and commemorates the 700 years since the laying of the first stone of the cathedral and the year the Opera was constituted.

 

Now the biggest street procession in Florence and the only one to leave from the Oltrarno, this ‘new’ cavalcade involves up to 700 participants, many dressed in lavish medieval and other costumes. The Three Kings, for example, are dressed in sumptuous costumes copied from those in Benozzo Gozzoli’s famous fresco, Procession of the Magi, housed in a tiny chapel in Palazzo Medici Riccardi. (The fresco was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder in 1459, and he appears in it, along with his son Piero the Gouty and possibly his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent as well as other well-known public figures of the times.) Today, as in the fresco, the three magnificent potentates lead the procession on horseback.

 

cavalcata

Ph. Marco Mori, New Press Photo

 

Among those parading are members of the Historic Parade of the Republic of Florence, familiar to Florentines and tourists alike (they appear at many major festivities, like the football matches in costume). Others in the cavalcade, and displaying their banners, are members of historic cultural associations from other nearby municipalities, in particular, the Alfiere of Bagno a Ripoli, who have been present at every cavalcade since its rebirth in 1996.

 

For the fourth consecutive year, representatives of Florence’s ethnic communities also feature in the procession, among them Albanians, Filipinos, Peruvians, Nigerians and Eritreans, in colourful national dress.

 

The event begins at 2pm, when the Renaissance dance group of the Alfiere entertains the crowd assembled outside Palazzo Pitti. From there, the procession starts at about 2.30pm, slowly winding its way along via Guicciardini, Ponte Vecchio, via Por Santa Maria and via Lambertesca, passing the Loggiato of the Uffizi until it reaches piazza della Signoria. Here, it is joined by the historic parade, which has reached the piazza della Signoria from its headquarters at Pelagio di Parte Guelfa, together with the bandierai (flag throwers) of the Uffizi, who await them.

 

From there, the entire procession moves to piazza del Duomo where, outside, a children’s choir has been singing. As host, the captain of the historic parade greets the archbishop with the saluto alla voce, or presenting of arms. After the traditional firing of the canon, the Three Kings place their presents before the ‘Christ Child’ in the live Nativity scene set up that morning in the piazza, between the church and the Baptistery. Following speeches, readings from the Bible and the freeing of balloons containing children’s messages, a solemn mass is celebrated inside the Duomo, bringing proceedings to an end.

 

The Cavalcata then…

 

It is not known when the Cavalcade of the Magi first began in Florence, but documents show it already existed by 1390. Every three years (after 1447, every five years), the wealthy powerful lay confraternity or ‘company’ of the Magi (also called ‘The Star’) organised a lavish pageant on Epiphany, also celebrated as the day, John the Baptist, patron saint of the city, baptised Christ in the Jordan river. The confraternity, which met regularly at San Marco, a church dear to the Medicis, included high-ranking members of that ruling family, which especially venerated the Magi; influential community leaders; and distinguished men of letters. Financed after 1417 by the Signoria of the Florentine Republic through a tax it imposed on the Jews, the original procession took a different route: the separate groups converged from three different areas of town, met in front of the Baptistery (from 1429, in piazza della Signoria) and went together to San Marco church. However, in 1478, the procession was suspended, probably because, the previous April, the Medici had suffered the aggression of the Pazzi conspiracy, and undoubtedly Lorenzo the Magnificent had no intention of providing other occasions for potentially angry crowds to mill around the city. It was resumed a decade later. However, when the Medicis were banished in 1494, Savonarola, despite having taken part in the procession in the past, suppressed it, now considering it a perverse ‘creature of the Medicis.’

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