According to a tradition
mentioned by the medieval Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, the
venerable ceremony called the "scoppio del carro" (explosion
of the cart) is related to the First Crusade, preached in Florence by
the then bishop, Ranieri. Two thousand five hundred Florentine citizens
enrolled under the command of Pazzino di Ranieri de'Pazzi.
On July 15, 1099, the crusader army took Jerusalem after a lengthy siege.
Pazzino is said to have been the first to hoist the Christian banner on
the walls of the holy city, and to have received from the 'commander-in-chief',
Godfrey IV de Buillon (whom the Italians called 'Buglione'), a reward
in the form of three chips of stone from the Holy Sepulcher of Christ.
These were carefully set aside and brought to Florence in 1101.
Originally kept by the Pazzi family, these stones were used to kindle
the first spark of the 'new fire', a symbol of the new life that began
with Easter. After it was blessed, this fire was distributed to other
families for their household needs (all lights and hearth fires were extinguished
on Good Friday, in commemoration of Christ's death, and relit on Easter).
Florence thus adopted a custom known to have been developed at Jerusalem
during the crusades: the distribution to clergy and laity of 'holy fire'
in sign of Christ's resurrection; in Jerusalem this rite was performed
in the Basilica of the Resurrection ('Anastasis') itself.
in a miniature conserved in the Vatican Library.
The stone chips were entrusted
to the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Porta, later called San Biagio. When
that church was suppressed in 1785, the Holy Sepulcher stones were transferred
to the neighboring church of Santi Apostoli, the parish priest of which
still has them in his charge.
For centuries the fire kindled from them, once blessed and carried to
the Cathedral, was used on Holy Saturday to light the Paschal candle,
the candles of the clergy and people, and the lamps of the church.
On this occasion, a cart brought the new fire to private houses as well:
first of all to the dwellings of the Pazzi family, which long kept this
privilege (along with the burden of organizing the entire ceremony).
The cart gradually became more and more splendid, and the custom developed
of 'charging' it with explosive powder, which - at least as early as 1494
- was set off first in front of the Baptistery (where the ceremony takes
place today), and then a second time at the "Canto dei Pazzi"
(the street corner where the Pazzi family had their houses). This second
'explosion of the cart' ended in 1900.
During the pontificate of Leo X (Giovanni de'Medici, 1513-1521), the 'colombina'
- a rocket shaped like a dove, with an olive branch in its beak - was
used for the first time. The dove is an evident reminder of the Holy Spirit,
"Lord of life" and symbol of Easter peace). At the Gloria
of the Easter morning Mass, the deacon uses the holy fire kindled from
the stone chips from the Holy Sepulcher to light a fuse attached to the
dove, which shoots down a wire extended from the Cathedral choir to the
cart, brought early on Easter morning into the small square in front of
the Cathedral. The cart, laden with fireworks, explodes, the dove-rocket
igniting pyrotechnic devices of different kinds.
With the liturgical reform
of the Easter Vigil in 1957, this ceremony was moved from noon of Holy
Saturday to Easter Sunday morning. On that occasion, the Archbishop and
Cathedral clergy go to the Baptistery to receive the holy fire brought
from Santi Apostoli. The fire is accompanied by a cortège in historical
costumes, with representatives of the City and people bearing the heraldic
insignia of the Pazzi family.
The Archbishop then blesses the fire and sprinkles those present, and
the crowd assembled in the piazza outside the Baptistery, with holy water
blessed the night before during the Easter Vigil liturgy. Then the clergy
and above-mentioned official representatives return to the Cathedral and,
as the Archbishop intones the exultant tones of the Gloria, the centuries-old
tradition of the 'scoppio del carro' is celebrated.