Every year, sixty days
after Easter, the Church celebrates "Corpus Domini": a religious
solemnity in honor of the Eucharist (the 'body' - corpus - of Christ in
the sacramental sign of bread): an observance that first developed in
Italy the thirteenth century and in 1263 was extended by Pope Urban IV
to all of Christian Europe. In Florence as elsewhere, from that period
the feast has been celebrated in solemn fashion, with a majestic procession
in which the Eucharistic bread is borne through the city streets in a
glass container know as a 'monstrance', which allows people to see the
consecrated bread wafer. This procession acquired ever greater importance
with the passage of time.
Originally the celebration was limited to the interior of the Dominican
church of Santa Maria Novella. It took place after Vespers, with the participation
of the Bishop, the Cathedral clergy, the City authorities, the populace
and representatives of the lay confraternities.
After the Council of Vienne (1311-1312), held during the pontificate of
Pope Clement V, the City Government decided to make the celebration public,
increasing the solemnity of Corpus Domini by bearing in procession with
the Eucharist relics of the saints.
The church of Santa Maria Novella was then the biggest in Florence, the
new Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore being still under construction
on the site of the old duomo of Santa Reparata.
Even so, the number of people taking part became so great that the Dominican
church could not contain them, and the celebration was held outside, in
the city streets.
Circle of Bernardo
Daddi, Our Lady of Mercy. Detail, Cathedral Square with the new
duomo under construction. Loggia del Bigallo.
When the new Cathedral
was nearly complete, the Chapter of Canons began celebrating the rites
there, and insisted that the Eucharistic procession begin from the Cathedral.
There arose a lengthy dispute between the Dominicans of Santa Maria Novella,
supported by the Dominican Archbishop Saint Antoninus (+1459), and the
Cathedral clergy. The dispute ended in 1458 with a papal bull of Pius
II, who established that the procession should indeed start from Santa
Maria del Fiore. Emerging from the Cathedral, the cortège passed
through the Baptistery, went to Piazza della Signoria and thence to Santa
Maria Novella, where one of the Cathedral Canons said Mass, returning
finally to Santa Maria del Fiore. The tradition of Mass at Santa Maria
Novella lasted until 1920.
Fifteenth-century descriptions and illustrations attest to the splendor
of this event in the Early Renaissance.
The Corpus Domini
procession, in a miniature from one of the liturgical codices of
Santa Maria del Fiore (15th century). Fondi edili, Laurentian Library,
In the sixteenth century,
after the fall of the Florentine Republic, the Medici grand dukes took
part in the procession in their princely regalia, thus conserving and
increasing the magnificence of the occasion. They encouraged citizens
to adorn the facades of those houses before which the procession passed
with tapestries, ornamental hangings, flowers and garlands, and later
forbade the movement of pedestrian and carriage traffic along the processional
This solemn festival occupied the whole city. The preparations began three
days before the feast itself, when people hung the street awnings that
would shelter participants from rain or direct sunlight, and adorned the
shop facades with red and yellow bunting.
On the Feast Day, the procession unfolded with great pomp. First came
the children, then the lay confraternities, then friars and monks of the
different religious orders, then the clergy of San Lorenzo and of the
Cathedral. Finally came the Archbishop, carrying the Eucharist in a monstrance
under a baldachin (a portable canopy). The rich baldachin in cloth of
gold, called "of the Republic", used for centuries on this occasion,
was in fact made and paid for by the Florentine Republic. Several days
before the Feast, the City Administration entrusted it to the Cathedral
Chapter. Unfortunately the tragic flood of November 4, 1966, nearly destroyed
it. Since then it has not been used; the City has though restored it and
given it in charge to the Opera del Duomo.
All the city's magistracies and the heads of the guilds also took part,
accompanied by the soldiery and by musicians. The processional route was
strewn with flower petals and laurel leaves, which citizens sold in Piazza
del Duomo for the occasion. When the procession ended, the festival continued
in the city streets where stands selling sweets and drinks were set up.
This solemn festival has never been neglected by the people of Florence,
not even for very grave reasons such as inclement weather, wars and sieges.
Today the procession still leaves from the Cathedral, but the route and
destination-church are decided year by year. The processional route is
shorter, due to the problem of city traffic.