Today is the Feast of the Epiphany (Festa dell' Epifania) and Florence celebrates the day in style with the Cavalcata dei Magi, a grand and colourful procession, which snakes its way across the city from the the Palazzo Pitti to the Duomo.
The feast celebrates the manifestation of God to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi, who are called in Greek Magoi (Latin Magi: ‘magicians’ or ‘astrologers’). The only Gospel to mention the event is that of Matthew (2: 1-12). In the tenth century the three Magi (number not specified, but deduced to accord with their three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh) began to appear as kings. The three kings came to be known by a variety of names, standardised in the Middle Ages as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar.
The Cavalcata dei Magi is a fairly recent (1997) revival of a tradition which goes back to the 15th century when it was organised by a group known as the Compagnia dei Santi Re Magi, also known as 'La Stella' (the Star).
To celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, 'La Stella' organised lavish pageants and processions, which involved hundreds of people on horseback and many more on foot. The Medici family were active members of 'La Stella'.
Nowadays, the cavalcata is held every year. However in the 15th century it was first held every three years and, after 1447, every five years. It was suppressed in 1494 with the exile, in that year, of the Medici family.
The Cavalcata dei Magi was originally made up of three separate processions, which met up at the Baptistery before making their way, en masse, to the church of San Marco.
The modern version is a single procession and, unlike in the 15th century, only the three Magi are on horseback.