It is Easter in Florence and we shall go to the parade. If 10,000 onlookers think that the explosion of an ox-drawn chariot outside the Duomo is the highlight of Pasqua, then so do I.
I don't like crowds and I'm not fond of soulless historical re-creations, but I'm hoping that something on this return trip to the city will dazzle me as my first visit did four years ago. Back then, I booted up on the train from Rome for the afternoon. On my way to see both Michelangelo's David and the Uffizi Gallery, I followed directions for the Piazza della Signora. It was a grey day, a week or two before Easter, before the tourists would pour in. As I emerged from the robust maze of streets, I arrived in what felt like a celestial place. Towering over me were giant bronze and white marble compositions somehow more emotive in the sudden, intense sunlight – there were virile warriors cradling lifeless bodies, naked lovers entwisted like snakes, faces dreamy and holy, anguished and melancholy, heads thrown back, hands reaching for the sky. I walked around this open-air gallery spellbound, as a man played Puccini's Humming Chorus on a violin. It was one of those rare moments in life that feels touched by divinity, when everything comes together, an immense harmony of senses.
This time when I visit in April, the weather is just as changeable. The Piazza della Signora, when I show it to my husband, isn't the same. We want to squeeze in as much art as possible, but I am getting a curious case of Stendhal syndrome – becoming oddly faint and dizzy when experiencing the art of Florence. Time to escape the crowds up at the Piazzale Michelangelo, with a cappuccino and a little pan di ramerino (raisin and rosemary Easter bread) in hand. The view from up here is a Florentine postcard come to life. This could easily be all the art, and all the Easter, I need.
But I have heard there is a work of Michelangelo – a wooden sculpture of the crucifix – in the church of Santo Spirito. We set off early on Holy Saturday and discover the church on the other side of the Arno River, in a neighbourhood of dog walkers, elderly ladies combing produce markets, and coffee that's one price whether you drink it standing or sitting. The church is open, and, better still, empty, except for a pastoral assistant. My husband talks to him in Italian, then breaks the bad news to me. The room that houses the Michelangelo is closed to the public today. It is tradition to shield the crucifix from view until its unveiling after the Easter Vigil later in the day. My husband expresses my disappointment. The young man looks around nervously then pulls out keys. "Come," he waves us to follow him. Inside the dark room, he switches on some lights. "You have one minute," he tells us in a fluster.
The door is closed and we are alone with Michelangelo's Crucifix. Believed to have been made in 1493, when the artist stayed at the convent, the statue is perhaps a metre tall, and the body appears almost detached from the small wooden cross. I am mesmerized by his head that droops forward, his knees that are gracefully contraposto (in opposite directions) to his chin. His humble, peaceful face, eyes gently closed as if in sleep. For the second time in this city, I catch myself banking an experience, with its unspoiled and out-of-the-ordinary details, in my memory. "Come on," my husband tugs me from my trance. "Minute's up."
Easter Sunday is parade day. We leave our guest house, Il Bargellino, at 9 a.m. Already a crowd is amassing in the piazza outside the enormous candy-coloured Duomo. The tradition of Scoppio del Carro dates back to the First Crusade when a native Florentine soldier climbed the city walls of Jerusalem. As his reward, he was given flint stones from Jesus's burial site after the Crucifixion. When he came home, he used the stones to light a flame that would be carried through the city on Easter Sunday. A cart was later built to transport it from the church of Santi Apostoli to the Duomo. Over time, the cart was covered in fireworks and a new tradition was born: The bishop would release a dove-shaped rocket across the piazza and "blow up" the cart at the exact hour of the Resurrection.
An hour into the wait, there are crowds as far as the eye can see. We watch the cart being hauled in front of the Duomo by two immense white oxen decorated with flowers. A gathering of flag-bearing men in medieval costume takes its place behind it. The cart must be about nine metres tall – an unstable-looking contraption that has been blown up (and repaired) about 500 times. Impossibly, more people press around us. The 10-year-old girl beside me is squirming in anticipation and keeps dancing on my feet in an attempt to see above heads. The oxen are led to safety, a fanfare of cathedral bells marks the procession of church and civic dignitaries. The little girl jumps frantically up and down. She must know the drill. It'll happen any minute. Sure enough, at 11 a.m., the mechanical dove slides on a zipline toward the cart. If you blink, you might miss it. But you can't miss the explosion. It practically blows you off your feet. There are crackles and bursts of lights for 10 spectacular and deafening minutes. Then a bubblegum-pink fog blankets everything, swallowing up the Duomo.
"You think it was worth that long wait?" my husband asks as he gives me a Happy Easter kiss. His hair is full of gunpowder particles. My answer is yes: surprisingly, definitely, worth it. But nothing could top yesterday and my one-minute, two-person audience with Christ in the Church of Santo Spirito.