Starting in 1997, during the year-long celebrations marking the VII Centenary of the Cathedral’s foundation, the Chapter and Foundation (‘Opera’) of Santa Maria del Fiore decided to resurrect an ancient Florentine tradition, the “Cavalcade of the Magi”.
The liturgical calendar, in both Eastern and Western Church tradition, has – since the early Christian period – consecrated the twelfth day after Christmas, 6 January, to the celebration of the ‘Epiphany’.
This word, of Greek origin, means ‘manifestation’. In this context, it is used to identify the event narrated in the Gospel of St. Matthew (2:12): the visit of certain ‘Wise Men’ or ‘Magi’ to the newborn Jesus, who, despite the fact that they were pagans, ‘manifested himself’ to them as Messiah of Israel and – at least indirectly – as Son of God.
In fifteenth-century Florence, a celebration was sponsored by the lay confraternity or ‘sodality’ dedicated to the Magi (called ‘Confraternity of the Star’ in reference to the heavenly body that, in the Gospel account, guided the Wise Men). Every three years (after 1447: every five years), the Confraternity organized a solemn cavalcade with figures in magnificent costumes, meant to evoke the arrival of the three Wise Men from afar in the little town of Bethlehem, in search of the Messiah-King.
The earliest mention of the sodality is found in a document of 1417, the year in which the government of the Florentine Republic decided to underwrite the expenses of “the Confraternity of the Magi, which meets in the Florentine church of San Marco”, run by the Dominican fathers. Documents moreover show that, in the golden age of Medici influence, all the family’s male components were members of the Confraternity, along with other important citizens having links to the Medici, such as the humanist scholars Cristoforo Landino and Donato Accaiuoli, the poet Luigi Pulci and, in all likelihood, the writer and Cathedral Canon Angelo Politian.
The Cavalcade of the Magi, by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459), in Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence. Detail.
A further proof of the veneration which the Medici had for the Magi is the famed allegorical ‘journey’ or cavalcade of the Wise Men which Cosimo de’Medici had painted in fresco in 1459 in the chapel of the family mansion in Via Larga by the artist Benozzo Gozzoli. In the chapel frescoes numerous Medici family members are depicted, including Giuliano and probably also Lorenzo the Magnificent. And when Cosimo withdrew for brief periods to share the friars’ life at San Marco, he was housed in a cell frescoed by Fra Angelico with The Magi Presenting their Gifts to the Christ Child. Some years later, in 1482, Marsilio Ficino, a philosopher and Cathedral Canon closely linked to the Medici, composed a treatise entitled “The Star of the Magi” (De stella Magorum).
In common speech, the word ‘Epiphany’ – difficult and probably not really understood – became ‘Befania’ and, later ‘Befana’. On the Feast of the ‘Befana’ the Carnival began, with parades of masked revelers inspired by the cavalcade of the Magi.
In Florence, the Confraternity of the Magi or ‘of the Star’ organized an allegorical evocation of the journey of the Wise Men-an event really more worldly in character than religious. Three separate cortèges came together in front of the Baptistery (from 1429 onwards: in front of Palazzo della Signoria), proceeding together to the Dominican church of San Marco where, reciting religious texts, they all paid homage to the Christ Child. The Confraternity of the Magi was suppressed in 1494, after the expulsion of the Medici family from Florence-probably as a result of Savonarola’s severe judgment of the Medici and of the Confraternity of the Star as their creation.
Thus, as already stated, every year since 1997, on January 6, Feast of the Epiphany, the Cavalcade of the Magi again takes place. It starts at the Pitti Palace, wends its way through Piazza della Signoria and arrives finally in Piazza del Duomo, in the area between the Cathedral and the Baptistery formerly known as ‘Paradise’.
The three Magi on horseback, wearing Renaissance costumes inspired by those in Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes, are preceded by a cortège of hundreds of other costumed personages, among whom the members of Florence’s Historical Football Association and representatives of towns in the Province of Florence, along with horsemen, banner throwers, footmen and standard bearers.
The solemn proclamation of the Epiphany passage from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, with a brief reflection given by the Archbishop, is the frame within which the Magi, accompanied by the many children whose parents bring them to see the Cavalcade, present their symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child, who is the main ‘actor’ in a real-life crèche erected in the Piazza, with an ox and a donkey brought in from the Tuscan countryside.
During the whole Christmas period, up to the Sunday after the Epiphany (the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism), another crèche is on display inside the Cathedral. It was constructed by the Opera del Duomo in 1995 with the approval of the Cathedral Chapter, and consists in an architectural structure – an open pavilion inspired by that in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi – erected in the central nave of the Cathedral. In this structure are placed eleven terracotta statues derived from sixteenth-century originals by Benedetto and Santi Buglione and modeled in clay by the contemporary Florentine craftsman Carlo Reggioli. At the end of the solemn Midnight Mass at Christmas, the Archbishop, accompanied by the Cathedral clergy, symbolically places the figure of the newborn Redeemer in the manger.
The Adoration of the Magi (15th century), by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Foundling Hospital, Florence.
“I make all things new”, Christ says in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21,5). Fifteenth-century Florentine art often illustrated this truth by situating the Saviour’s birth in the midst of ancient ruins, or – as in the case of Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, mentioned above and on exhibit at the Foundling Hospital (Spedale degli Innocenti) – in a pavilion or hut constructed on the ruins of a classical building with elegant pilasters. He who is Son of the “supreme Father and Architect”, as the Florentine Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola called God – He who “makes all things new” – builds, amidst the ruins of a dying pagan world, the “new Temple” which is his own body, born of the Virgin Mary.