In Florence, the tradition of the Scoppio del Carro—the exploding cart—at Easter is the big hit, literally.
Scoppio del Carro, or ‘the explosion of the cart’, is a ritual that dates back to the First Crusade. The Crusaders took Jerusalem on July 15, 1099 and, according to local tradition, Florentine Pazzino di Ranieri de’Pazzi was the first to raise the Christian banner above the holy city. Pazzino was justly rewarded for his flag-waving: Godfrey IV de Buillon bestowed upon him three chips of stone from the Holy Sepulcher of Christ. Carefully stored until they were brought to Florence in 1101, these chips were put in safe-keeping by the Pazzi family and used during Easter to kindle the first spark of a fire symbolizing new life.
As part of the Easter festivities, a cart was used to distribute the holy fire fueled by Pazzino’s chips. The fire was blessed, carried to the church and then distributed throughout the town. Traditionally, all fires were extinguished on Good Friday, in honor of the suffering Christ, and then re-lit on Easter Sunday to symbolize his resurrection. Today, this death and re-birth is remembered in a different way. The church bells ‘die’ on Good Friday and remain silent until their chimes are released at midnight on Holy Saturday.
Over the years, the traditional cart has developed into a highly decorated emblem of splendor. In 1494, gunpowder was first added to the cart and set off twice: once in front of the Baptistery, and then again on the corner where the houses of the Pazzi family stood. When Leo X became pope, another essential element was added to the fanfare: the colombina, a rocket shaped like a dove grasping an olive branch, which symbolizes the Holy Spirit and peace. According to popular legend, if the spark caught and the Scoppio del Carro went smoothly, the Florentines could safely expect a good year, both in their harvests and their personal lives. (Of course, now that the Scoppio del Carro attracts as many tourists as locals, the cart and colombina never really fail).
White oxen adorned with flowers pull the cart from S.S. Apostoli to the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The scoppio is set off right after mass on Easter Sunday. (Until 1957, the scoppio always took place on Easter Saturday).
Chocolate eggs and colomba cakes
After the ceremony, the Easter feast, centered on eggs and lamb, officially begins. The eggs symbolize life, renewal, and fertility, while the lamb represents new birth and the shepherd. The colomba pasquale is another Easter tradition in Italy. It’s a panettone-like cake with candied orange peel; this dove-shaped treat is topped with sugared and sliced almonds.
And let’s not forget the chocolate eggs. Not to be confused with run-of-the-mill Cadburys, the uova di Pasqua of Italy are unique. The secret is in the sorpresa: from car keys to silver frames, plastic cars to engagement rings, tinker toys to elegant watches. But the importance of Italian Easter eggs does not stop with their tiny trophies. Ranging from 1/3 oz. to 18 pounds, the uova di Pasqua are an essential element of Italian Easter tradition. In fact, in many areas of Italy, each member of the family brings boiled or chocolate eggs to mass on Easter Sunday, to be blessed and eaten before the start of the Easter lunch.
A traditional saying, Natale con i suoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi reminds the Italians that Christmas is to be spent with family, but Easter is with your own choice of friends. This saying especially refers to Pasquetta, the Monday after Easter, an official holiday in Italy. Pasquetta is a time for friends, family and la gita di Pasquetta, or Easter Monday outing. Generally, people take a trip to the countryside to lounge about and enjoy the company of others, eating leftovers from Sunday’s feast.
Because of its proximity, most Florentines adventure somewhere on the coast: Maremma, Chianti and Versilia (Massa, Viareggio and Carrara) are popular destinations. Because of the splendor and fun of the scoppio, many locals go to the mountains until Sunday morning and come back to Florence for the explosion. After it’s over, they head right back to the mountains to return to their own Easter festivities.