For many Florentines the highlight of the Easter celebrations is the Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart), a special display of fireworks, which takes place outside the cathedral on the morning of Easter Sunday. And for almost a millennium the ancient church of Santi Apostoli has played a central role in this event.
The Scoppio del Carro has its origins in the First Crusade. In 1097 Pazzino de' Pazzi, a member of one of the leading families of Florence, was the first man to scale the walls during the conquest of Jerusalem. As a reward for this act of bravery, he was given some flints from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On his return home Pazzino donated the pietre del Santo Sepolcro (stones of the Holy Sepulchre) to the church of Santi Apostoli, where they remain to this day.
It soon became the practice at Easter for a ‘holy fire’ to be struck from the flints. The fire would be carried through the streets of the city by groups of young men bearing torches.
Over time, this tradition evolved into something similar to what we see today. A cart bearing a large candle was rolled through the city to the cathedral, from where the holy fire would be distributed. By the end of the 15th century, the Scoppio del Carro had assumed its present form.
On the morning of Easter Sunday an ancient wooden cart laden with fireworks is hauled from the place where it is stored (Via Il Prato) to the Cathedral by a team of four white oxen. The horns of the oxen are decked with garlands of spring flowers and the cart is escorted by musicians and people dressed in period costume. The cart, which is known as the Brindellone, has been in use for over 500 years.
Meanwhile at the church of Santi Apostoli the flints are used to strike a flame, which is carried in procession to the Cathedral. During the celebration of Mass, at the singing of the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, the Archbishop of Florence uses the 'holy fire’ to light a fuse in a mechanical dove (the colombina), which sends it speeding along a wire to ignite the fireworks outside.
A successful explosion is supposed to guarantee a good harvest.