Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1717/The Dove of Holy Saturday

From Macmillan's Magazine.


Saturday in Holy Week is a great holiday for the Florentines, and still more for the contadini or peasants, of all the country round. They come trooping into the city, all dressed in their holiday clothes, from miles and miles away. The streets are crowded with the easygoing, good-natured, laughter-loving people, who have jokes and proverbs on the tips of their tongues and know full well how to apply them. In old days spring and summer clothes were always bought on this day and the shops were decked out displaying their most tempting wares. This custom is a thing of the past, but the Colomba, or dove still speeds her fiery course down the centre of the old cathedral, and sets fire to the wonderful erection outside the great front door, of squibs, crackers, and catherine-wheels which are piled up on an old triumphal chariot, with four clumsy wheels, on the body of which traces of painting may yet be discerned. The dove will fly at midday, but by ten o'clock the environs of the beautiful old marble Duomo are crowded, and from every quarter a never-ceasing stream of people pours in that direction. Many are the conjectures and the hopes that the dove may fly straight and well, as that indicates a good harvest, an abundant vintage, and a fine crop of olives. There is a tradition though that in the days of Napoleon I. the archbishop of Florence and his clergy were threatened with heavy pains and penalties if the dove did not fly well, and that she sped like lightning down the cord in the church, and yet the crops failed. "Ma chi sa" said my informant, "se e vero? forse nò" (But who knows if this be true? perhaps not.) By dint of patience and good humor we at last got into the Duomo, which bore quite a changed aspect; every corner being crowded with people, save a narrow line down the centre, from the front door to the high altar, up which the archbishop, attended by all his clergy, was to pass, carrying the sacred fire. To get a chair was a labor of extreme difficulty, and involved an amount of diplomacy impossible to any but a Florentine. The possessor of the chairs was captured, promised many things, and disappeared in an unaccountable manner round the huge pillars. He then reappeared, bearing a pile of chairs, but the crowd separated him from us, and his chairs were seized upon by other applicants. After nine or ten frantic efforts we got our chairs, much to the amusement of an old contadino and his wife, who, with various small grand-children, had come to see the colomba. The old man had a wrinkled, expressive face, with very bright, acute eyes and iron-grey hair, much such a face as Massacio loved to paint. He looked at us well, and then said in vernacular Tuscan, "Chi ha pazienza ha i tordi grassi a un quattrin l' uno." (He who has patience gets the fat thrushes at a farthing apiece.)

We were so amused at his apt quotation of an old proverb that we made great friends, and took up his grandchildren on one of our chairs to see the show. The old woman was full of compliments and fears lest the children should be troublesome, but old Carnesecchi, as he told us his name was, had quite the old republican Florentine manners, respectful and civil, but perfectly self-possessed and valuing his own personality. He invited us to come up to his podere, or farm, near Settignano, close to Michael Angelo's house, where, he said, laughing, the air is so sottile, so refined, that all the people are geniuses, only the world in general is not disposed to think so.

A stir in the crowd now showed that the archbishop was coming out of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, opposite the cathedral, and all heads turned towards the main door, where we soon saw the great white flag with the red cross, the flag of the people of Florence, come waving in, followed by a long line of white-robed choristers singing, Other flags followed, then the canons of the cathedral in their picturesque long robes of dark purple, with white fur hoods, and lastly the stately and handsome archbishop, with a jewelled mitre sparkling on his head and a pastoral in his hand, all chiselled and set with precious stones, made by one of the famous old artificers of the fourteenth century. The archbishop Limberti, who died of apoplexy soon after this, at the early age of forty-three, was the son of a peasant near Prato; he was handsome and exceedingly dignified in manner, a good scholar, and spoke elegant Italian; beloved and respected by all parties, he filled a difficult post with great ability. Tall, spare, and erect, he came slowly up the centre of the church, blessing the people to the right and the left as they bowed low before him. When he had passed they talked with pride of our archbishop, and many stories of his charity and kindness were told in the crowd.

Mass was now said at the high altar, but every one's attention seemed to be concentrated on an unsightly high white post close to the marble balustrade which surrounds the altar. To this post was fixed a cord, which, suspended in mid-air far above the heads of the people, disappeared out of the great front door, and was fastened to the chariot outside the Duomo. A small white speck was seen on the cord fastened to the pillar, which we were informed was the famous dove. When the Gloria had been sung a man went up a ladder with a lighted taper, which he applied to the dove. There was a great spitting and hissing, and all at once she shot forward down the cord, a streak of fire and sparks. There was a stir and hum in the crowd, and a few little screams from some of the women; the dove vanished out of the door, and then there was a series of explosions from outside, while the dove returned as fast as she had gone, and went back to the pillar of wood, where she remained still fizzing for a few seconds.

Then all the bells of Florence, which had been silent since twelve o'clock on Thursday, began to ring merry chimes, and the great organ pealed out a triumphal melody. We made our way out of the Duomo as fast as we could, and were in time to see the last of the fireworks on the chariot; they made a tremendous noise, but as the sun shone brightly, there was not much to see. The fireworks were piled up some twenty feet high, and arranged in such a manner that only half of them go off in front of the Duomo, the other half being reserved for the corner of Borgo degli Albizzi, where the house of the Pazzi family is situated, in whose honor this custom was originally instituted. When all the squibs and crackers were finished, four magnificent white oxen, gaily decked with ribbons, were harnessed to the car, which moved off slowly with many creaks and groans round the south side of the cathedral towards the Via del Proconsolo. The crowd was immense, so we took some short cuts down the tortuous narrow streets in this old part of Florence, each of which has some passionate love-story or some dark tale of blood attached to it, and took up a favorable position opposite the entrance to the street of Borgo degli Albizzi, which is too narrow to admit the car.

The four white oxen were unharnessed and taken away, and a cord being put from the door of the Pazzi Palace to the car, another dove again flew to the fireworks, and the popping and fizzing was renewed, to the intense delight of the crowd.

The dove had flown swiftly and well this year, so the contadini returned home joyfully, spreading the glad tidings as they went — "La colomba è anaato bene." (The dove has flown well.)

This ceremony is connected with the old and noble family of Pazzi, whose ancestor, Pazzino de' Pazzi, so says the tradition, was the first to scale the walls of Jerusalem and plant the Christian flag. Godfrey de Bouillon, to recompense such prowess, crowned him with a mural crown, gave him his own armorial bearings, five crosses and two dolphins, and bestowed on him three stones, supposed to have come from the Holy Sepulchre. Gamurrini mentions that Pazzo de' Pazzi made a triumphant entry into Florence like a conqueror, in a magnificent chariot, and with a gallant company of youths around to do him honor.

The three stones were deposited in the Church of St. Biagio, whence they were removed to Santi Apostoli. On the morning of Holy Saturday the archbishop, attended by all his clergy, goes to the Church of Santi Apostoli and strikes fire from these stones. He then lights a taper, which is carried in procession to the Baptistery, and then to the Duomo, where the fire is blessed, and the devout light candles at it.

Old records contain no mention of a triumphal entry of any Pazzi, or of a mural crown, and R. Malespina and Monsignor Borghini both agree that the Count of Bari gave the above-mentioned armorial bearings to the Pazzi in 1265. Travellers, too, say that the three stones are of quite a different nature from that of the Holy Sepulchre. They were probably collected on the Mount of Olives by some devout pilgrim of the Pazzi family, who brought them home as relics, and in process of time they have gained the reputation of being portions of the Holy Sepulchre.

The triumphal entry of Pazzino de' Pazzi into Florence, and his supposed progress from the seacoast to his native city were favorite subjects with the old painters, chiefly for cassone or wedding chests. I have seen several, good, bad, and indifferent. One of the finest is by Benozzo Gozzoli; Pazzino de' Pazzi is seated in a magnificent gold chariot, with a golden canopy over his head, drawn by two horses, whose trappings sweep the ground. He is dressed in armor, and a tabard of cloth of gold trimmed with fur; on his head is a kind of turban, surmounted by a crown. Round his chariot are crowds of splendidly-dressed youths on horseback, and behind come a troop of men in armor, and another magnificent car with ladies in it; their dresses are of gold brocade and embroidered stuffs, and long veils hang down from their curious head-dresses. One has a turban made of peacock feathers.

In front of the chariot of Pazzino de' Pazzi is another car bearing a gilt globe, and on the globe stands a winged golden figure fiddling; round this chariot are trumpeters, from whose long golden trumpet hangs square dark-blue flags, on which are emblazoned flames. The procession is opened by a square chariot bearing an enormous two-handled jar, with two large wings; out of the mouth of the jar issue flames — the sacred fire which Pazzi brought from Jerusalem. This is surrounded by pages on splendidly caparisoned horses, and groups of men in Eastern dress. The background is a walled city with many towers, and a lovely landscape with a river winding-through. People are hawking and hunting in the far distance.

Giovanni Villani, mentioning the claims of the Pazzi to be connected with this festivity, says: "The blessed fire of Holy Saturday is distributed throughout the city; an inmate from each house goes to light a taper at the cathedral, land from this solemnity arose great honor to the noble house of Pazzi through one of their ancestors, named Pazzo, who was tall and strong, and could carry a larger fascine of tapers than any one else; he was therefore the first to take the holy fire, and then he distributed it to others."

The use of the car is also explained by the Pazzi family only taking a few tapers at first, in time these were increased in number, and a car was made to carry them. The real origin of the car being forgotten, it was transformed into a trophy, and the tapers into fireworks.

Tantum sevi longinqua valet mutare vetustas!

Janet Ross.