Gatherings & Celebrations: Easter in Florence - #120

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  This is the city of Florence, and I have come here to celebrate Easter.  Now, there are thousands of cities around the world in which Easter is celebrated, but I have chosen Florence because this city has a very special historical relationship with Easter.

The ancient Etruscans settled in this area about two thousand five hundred years ago, but the official date for the founding of Florence is usually given as 59 B.C. That was the year that the Romans built an old soldier’s retirement home on a patch of land that is now the very center of the city.  For the next thousand years or so, the region was a minor agricultural community, but in the 11th Century things began to pick up.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Unfortunately, during the 11 and 1200’s the wealthy guilds and powerful families became extremely competitive. They also got into the bad habit of expressing that rivalry by murdering each other.  Not good for the general commercial climate.  And so a new form of competition had to evolve, and that became  “business”  -- still very competitive but a lot better than murdering each other in the street.  Over the next hundred years or so, the old challenge, “My Sword Is Bigger Than Your Sword,” slowly became “My After-Tax Earnings Are Considerably More Substantial Than Your After-Tax Earnings.” And that evolved into the most acceptable  form of challenge, which was “My Basilica Is Better Than Your Basilica.”  Slowly, military might gave way to artistic competition.  And it was that artistic competition that was responsible for a lot of  the great art during the Renaissance.  By the 1300s Florence was the richest and most artistic city in Europe.

The works of Donatello, Brunelleschi, Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, the magnificent paintings, the frescos, the sculptures, the extraordinary architecture of Renaissance Florence all came into being as the result of the unusual relationship among the City Council, the church, and the business community.  The City Council or the clergy would decide on a specific undertaking.  The City Council would raise the funds for the project by setting up a tax.  Then the council would give a particular guild or commercial organization the responsibility for executing some aspect of the project.  One group might be responsible for the doors. Some other association would be given the roof.  The council also gave the guild most of the money for the project. The guild would hold a competition for the best artist with the best idea.  The guild would then coordinate with the Cathedral’s Office Of Works in order to get the task done properly.  The Cathedral’s Office Of Works was set up over 700 years ago and it’s still doing its job.

It was the guild devoted to items of luxury that took care of the world famous doors on the Baptistery.  A guild also oversaw the creation of Brunelleschi’s dome on top of the cathedral.  This unusual relationship involving the church, the trade associations, the aristocratic families, and the artists produced some of the most powerful graphic images of the Christian tradition.  The pictures that come to mind when we think about almost every story in both the Old and New Testament Bibles are images that were originally created by artists working in Florence.  And that makes it an ideal place to take a look at the gatherings and celebrations, rituals and recipes of Easter.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Most ancient societies that had a barren winter and a rebirth in the spring also had some kind of a celebration to mark the return of the growing season.  The ancient Greek goddess of agriculture had a daughter.  During a period each year that daughter was held in captivity.  When she was released, and only then, did the growing season begin.  The idea of the resurrection of a beloved child as a mark for the return of spring goes back to our earliest information about religion.  Easter is part of that tradition but it also has many of its roots in the Jewish holiday of Passover.

An equinox is a 24-hour period when the length of the day’s sunlight is the same as the length of the day’s darkness.  There are two of them each year.  One in the fall and one in the spring.   Passover is held on the night of the spring equinox.  It reminds the Jews of their escape from slavery, and their passage out of Egypt. It tells the story of the last of the Plagues, which struck down the first-born of the Egyptians but “passed over” the children of the Jews. The passover meal is a meal that brings together lamb, which is a symbol of the nomadic life, with yeast-free bread, which  is a symbol of agriculture. It makes a unity.  The Last Supper, which begins the Easter feast, was originally a Passover meal, attended by Jesus and his twelve disciples.

Timothy Verdon is an American priest in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Florence. He’S also a Yale-trained art historian and very knowledgeable about the art of Florence.

FATHER TIMOTHY VERDUN:   In this room,  the dining hall, the refectory of the Benedictine Nuns of Sant Apollonia, Andrea Del Castanio painted  the meal... the last meal, the last supper of Jesus Christ.

BURT WOLF:  This was actually the room in which they ate three times a day, and were confronted with that painting.

FATHER TIMOTHY VERDUN:  Exactly... and when they ate, they sat at tables arranged around the room exactly as you see the table arranged here.   So that, for example, on the inside of the table, where we're standing, in the middle of the room, no one sat.  Just as there you see almost everyone seated on the far side of the table. When Castanio put Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ, on the wrong side of the table, it was a way of clearly identifying him and a way of suggesting that these women, like all human beings in any form of social relationship, also had to be aware of the possibility of coming over to that “wrong side of the table,” of betraying the common life symbolized in the food they took together.

BURT WOLF:  They're using real bread in the painting as opposed to unleavened bread which would have actually been at that Passover meal.

FATHER TIMOTHY VERDUN:  That's right.  The use of real bread is part of an effort to strike a balance between the evocation of a liturgy, whether Jewish or Christian, and on the other hand, the convincing presentation of something that looked like the actual meal that the Benedictine Sisters are taking in this room.

BURT WOLF:  And always reminding us,  “are we committed... do we believe?”

FATHER TIMOTHY VERDUN:  I think that is the underlying question. You know, when people enter upon a life of formal and demanding commitment it is, as it is for all men and women in whatever their commitments may be, the recurrent and even daily question: can I get through this day without betraying what I have committed myself to do?

BURT WOLF:  On every level. 

FATHER TIMOTHY VERDUN:  On every level, whether you're a  husband, a wife, a parent, a priest, a nun... can I get through today without betraying what I am committed to?

The gatherings, celebrations, and rituals that make up the Easter feast in Florence take five days.  It starts on Holy Thursday and continues through to Easter Monday. 

FATHER TIMOTHY VERDUN:  On Good Friday, the day of Christ’s death, the altars are stripped in all the churches, and fires are put out in all the churches.  The next time there will be a lighted candle will be in the dark of night between Saturday and Sunday, preceding the new light of Christ’s resurrection.  And in Florence it’s very dramatic, because we do it in the vast cathedral under the fourteenth-century vaults.  As far as one can get from the altar, a fire is lit, a kind of bonfire.  The bishop and all of the clergy come from the altar to this fire in a completely darkened church.  At the fire, the bishop blesses a monumental candle -- often it’s about six feet high -- which symbolizes Christ, which symbolizes the column of fire that led the people of Israel through the Red Sea, through the desert and to their safety.  And at that point, the bishop takes fire from the bonfire, on a wick, and illuminates the new Easter candle.

SINGER:  “Lumin Christi...”

FATHER TIMOTHY VERDUN:  “Lumin Christi.”  The light of Christ.  And the deacon then carries the column of fire, the light of Christ, the candle symbolizing the risen Christ.  At that point, other assistants -- acolytes -- using wicks, take flame from the single flame of the candle and begin to light the candles of the faithful in the church.  The faithful each have a candle in hand, and as the great candle proceeds down the nave of the church, in the hands of each believing man and woman, this light takes shape, this light comes alive.  So that by the time the deacon brings the great candle, the pascal candle to the altar, the entire church is a kind of ocean of points of light drawn from the single light, which is Christ.

On Sunday morning, a grand procession of people dressed in period costumes fills the streets of Florence. 

Pairs of white oxen drag a wagon through the streets of Florence until they reach the front of the Cathedral.  The wagon is nicknamed the “Big Old Bum” because of the way it teeters into the piazza.  The cart that is being used today was originally built in 1764.  It is a pyramid set on top of a box and covered with decorations.

At about 10 o’clock, the fire arrives at the Cathedral. The fire was struck from three flints in a nearby church.  The flints are said to have come from the Holy Sepulcher, the tomb of Christ.  They’re reputed to have been given as a reward to Pazzino de’ Pazzi for having been the first knight to scale the walls of Jerusalem during a Crusade in the Fourteenth Century.  The Pazzi were a powerful Florentine family at the time. They instituted this ceremony, which has taken place in front of the Cathedral for six hundred years.

A wire stretches along the central nave of the church starting at the top of a column that is standing in front of the Easter Candle.  A rocket in the shape of a dove is attached to the wire.

FATHER TIMOTHY VERDUN:  The explosion of the cart is fully heard inside the cathedral, where at the same time, bells, both the great bells of Giotto’s Campanile, the bell tower, and about fifty smaller bells -- cowbells, altar bells, bells of every kind are being rung, and the explosion coming in from outside, the rocket shafts of light passing in front of the door, the smoke rolling into the cathedral, and the joyous cacophony in the cathedral itself are a spectacular expression of the jubilation of the church of believers before the event of Christ’s resurrection.

There’s some very powerful symbolism here.  The dove came out of the darkness and brought light in the form of the fireworks.  The thunder of the fireworks is a symbol of Christ breaking out of His tomb.  The thunder leads to rain,  the symbol of the baptism.  Fire and water, dark into light, silence into noise, death into life.

The ritual that takes place in the Cathedral of Florence is for people who believe that Christ meant that he would continue to be present in the world, to be eaten as bread and drunk as wine in the course of a sacred meal.  This ceremony, called The Eucharist, is the most meaning-filled food ritual ever devised. It is literally sharing the life of God by eating His flesh and drinking His blood.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the ways to understand the message of this celebration is to take a look at the simple acts of eating and drinking.  We must eat and drink in order to stay alive.  The food exists outside us.  We must find it and bring it inside.  It’s a very simple way of learning that there are things outside ourselves that we must discover and bring inside in order to survive.  And that is one of the central messages of the Eucharist, the communion. God becomes food.  We eat the food and become one with God.  Because bread and wine are used in the communion, they are the most important foods of the meal.  But there are other foods on the Easter table that also have the sense of the holiday. 

This is the kitchen of the Villa di Capezzana, a wine and olive estate just outside of Florence.  It’s the home of Count Ugo Contini Bonacossi and his family.  Countess Lisa and her chef are preparing their traditional Easter dinner.

The Easter Lamb is a very important element in the meal. It recalls the Passover lamb, which was originally the animal sacrificed in the Temple of Jerusalem.  The lamb is also a reference to Christ, who was the “Lamb of God” and Himself became the sacrifice, in order to take away the sins of the world.  Lamb will often come to the Easter table in the form of a roast. It is the main course of the meal and can be very elaborate -- or very simple -- in its presentation.

A leg of lamb which has been cut into chunks is dredged in flour.  It goes into a roasting pan with a little oil, slices of leek and garlic, and sprigs of fresh rosemary.

A little seasoning... the lamb gets browned on all sides... a cup of white wine.  Then into a 450-degree Fahrenheit oven for an hour.  Along with the lamb comes a dish that is made by sauteing some pancetta, fresh garlic and peas.   After about five minutes of cooking, a cup of chicken broth is added.  The cover goes on for ten more minutes of cooking.  The peas are a local sign that spring has arrived.

The main course of the meal is served to Count Ugo and his family from a single dish, as opposed to having individual plates brought to each place.  It symbolizes the central unity of the family, from which each individual person -- or in this case, portion -- is derived.

The dessert at Villa di Capezzana is La Colomba, a sweet bread presented in the shape of a dove.  For tens of thousands of years the dove has been a symbol of the return of spring and for almost the last two thousand years, a sign of the Holy Spirit of Christianity.  In Italy, La Colomba has became an almost essential part of the foods of Easter.  Countess Lisa serves it with a Zabaglione sauce.

Then there is Pan de Ramerino.  It’s Italy’s Hot Cross Bun.  Originally a Florentine specialty, it was made on Holy Thursday and eaten on Good Friday. It is baked with raisins and rosemary, and has a shiny top which is sometimes marked with a cross. Rosemary is a sign of spring and sacred to the Virgin Mary.  Rosemary is also a symbol of remembrance.  The bun says, “Remember the meaning of Easter”.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Of all of the gatherings and celebrations in the Christian tradition, none is more clearly associated with wine than Easter.  At the Last Supper, which was the very beginning of the Easter tradition, Christ made the association between wine and his blood.  And in doing so, he made wine an essential element in the rituals of the Catholic church. 

The Romans had developed vineyards throughout Western Europe, so it was not difficult for the early Christians to find wine for their services.  However, with the fall of Rome the cultivation of the vineyards in many places became the responsibility of the Church.  The church kept the skills of winemaking alive through the Dark Ages.  Many monasteries acquired large properties and developed new winemaking technology.  Local royalty could donate valuable vineyards in exchange for continual remembrance in the prayers of the monks.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the Middle Ages the church was part of the feudal system and had extensive land holdings.  Like other feudal landlords, they collected rent  from the people who lived on their land.  Often that rent was paid in the form of wine.   They liked wine, because unlike most agricultural products, wine lasted a long time and, in some cases, even improved with aging.  The monks would teach people who lived on the land how to grow grapes and how to make wine, and take a portion of the vintage in exchange.  There were also wealthy landowners who just gave wine to the church in the hope of someday receiving “celestial privileges.”

When Spanish explorers headed for the New World, members of the clergy were part of the expedition and they established vineyards in the earliest Spanish colonies.  The original vineyards of California and South America were the work of Catholic missionaries.

All of the wines served by Count Ugo are wines that were made at his family winery, Tenuta Di Capezzana.  To call this a family winery is about as descriptive as you can get.  His son Filippo is an agricultural economist who looks after the vineyards.  His daughter, Benedetta, handles the public relations.  Her husband is a designer who designed the labels for the new wine.  Countess Lisa oversees the property and the daughter Beatrice is in charge of sales.

This is the earliest written document dealing with Capezzana.  It is a lease in which the local Church of Saint Peter rents the lands of Capezzana to a farmer named Petruccio.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In exchange for the use of the land, the church got half the wine, half the olives and half the olive oil produced on the land.  It was a good deal for both parties.  The date of the document is 16 December in the year 804.  During the Middle Ages, the wines of Capezzana were exported to England by the Di Medici family, a group that clearly knew a good thing when they saw it.  The vineyards are up in the hills, about fifteen miles west of Florence.  The area is surrounded by the Chianti region, but the wines of Capezzana are produced under a different set of regulations.

In 1716 The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de Medici III, marked off this district as special; its wines are similar to Chianti but wine authorities describe Capezzana as more refined.  Today Capezzana produces several outstanding red wines, but it is renowned for its Villa Di Capezzana Carmignano and Carmignano Riserva.   Wine authorities believe that their elegant smoothness comes from the addition of wine that is made from a grape called Cabernet Sauvignon.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  We couldn’t really talk about the foods of Easter without talking about the Easter Bunny; not actually part of the meal but essential to the celebration. Originally the Easter Bunny was the Easter hare, an animal sacred to the moon.  And for centuries people talked about “the hare in the moon,” not the “man in the moon.”  Next time you see a full moon, take a look; I think you’ll be able to spot the outlines of a hare.   A hare is a highly productive animal and associated with fertility, and for many centuries it was used to show the power of life returning from the darkness, like the moon.

During the last few hundred years the hare has turned into the Easter Bunny, usually made of chocolate and carrying an egg, which can also be made of chocolate.  As a matter of fact, the Italians have really gotten into the business of the chocolate Easter Egg.  Many people have them made to order, with a specially-chosen gift in the center.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The egg yolk is a symbol for the sun; the rabbit is a symbol for the moon.  When you see the rabbit and the egg together, you see the sun and the moon together.  It’s an example of out age-old desire for unity:  Sun and moon, day and night, life and death, the rebirth of spring and the rebirth of Christ.  In one form or another, the egg is always part of the Easter meal and it takes on its ancient symbolism as a wish for eternal life.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That’s a brief look at the gathering and celebration, rituals and recipes that are part of Easter in Florence.  Like most holidays, it marks a series of passages -- darkness into light, winter into spring, death into life.  Because food is so essential to our life, it is a powerful symbol for any celebration that deals with rebirth or return of the growing season.  The religion may change, but the message is the same:  life, in one form or another, will always have the power to renew itself.  Thank you for joining me; I’m Burt Wolf.

ANNOUNCER:  The history, folklore, recipes and other information presented in this series is available in a companion book... with over three hundred and fifty pages, explaining the rituals that mark the passages of our lives.  It includes one hundred and fifty color photographs and one hundred recipes.  A copy of BURT WOLF’S GATHERINGS AND CELEBRATIONS may be ordered for $39.95, which includes postage and handling.  The number is 1-800-424-9090.