I had imagined Easter in Florence, Italy, with flowers and newborn baby animals. Instead, there was smoke.

For the Scoppio del Carro, an Easter Sunday tradition more than 350 years old, Florentines sandwich themselves into the main square to blow things up in front of the green, pink and white cathedral, the Duomo.

I’d hoped for a quiet weekend, but my wife, our two sons and I stood in the Piazza del Duomo surrounded by Italians in their Easter best, waiting for the “explosion of the cart” between the spectacular 600-year-old cathedral and the baptistery, with mosaic visions of Hell that once inspired Dante.

Sacred white oxen adorned in fresh garlands pulled in a 30-foot-tall cart — more of a mini tower, really — that was packed with fireworks and anything that could burst or blast.

The throng swayed toward the cart as guards pushed back to avoid the impending sparks sizzling the flesh of little kids. Then from inside the cathedral, a fake dove rigged up to a long wire was lit above the altar inside the Duomo and zipped out into the square. The small flame of the dove hit its mark, and the cart, heavy with gunpowder, shot up every type of explosive, pinwheels and sparklers it could fit. Rather than graceful Roman candles shooting high into the heavens, these flashes seemed low above our heads. Booms echoed back and forth off the buildings and windows shook with each bang. Blue smoke filled the square and put the crowd in a cloud.

As the story goes, a member of the Pazzi family of Florence was the first to scale the walls of Jerusalem to attack that city and claim it for Christianity during the First Crusade. (Oddly, a member of this family later stabbed to death one of the Medici brothers as he prayed in Florence’s cathedral, where this all takes place.) In reward for the Pazzis’ bravery during battle, he was awarded three flints from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Each year these flints light the “holy fire” — the same that shoots to the cart via the dove — to cleanse the crowd, much as the purifying fire of Purgatory rinses away sins before entering Paradise, or flames burn the demons out of heretics burned at the stake.

Other Italian traditions

Scoppio del Carro sounded relatively tame compared with other bizarre Florentine traditions, such as “calcio fiorentino,” a brutal renaissance version of soccer that allows punching, choking, elbowing and head butts all just to get the darn ball in the goal. Players scoff at how cleaned-up modern soccer is, with spoilsports who disallow kicks to the head and cringe at the sight of a little blood. Sure, I wanted to expose our kids to Tuscan culture, but watching all-star wrestling football with medics hauling off the unconscious didn’t seem like particularly good parenting.

We had already opted out of taking the kids to Venice’s carnival, where we had gone before we were parents. Venice’s streets were jammed with such massive crowds that traffic police directed people rather than cars to avoid gridlock through the narrow, auto-less alleys near Piazza San Marco. This carnival may lack the stumbling drunks of New Orleans, but makes up for it with eerie masks that represent the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte, such as Harlequin, and the long-nosed plague masks that bring back memories of dark days of the Black Death. Imagine Casanova covering his face with a mask to sneak through the streets of Venice only to risk contagion at each illicit tryst.

Carnevale, essentially a “carnal/meat festival” is a last hurrah for flesh before abstaining for six weeks of Lent. After that, it’s understandable that they’re hungry. I told my Italian friend Eugenio that little kids in the U.S. wait for surprises from the Easter bunny.

“Oh, you have an Easter rabbit in America?” he responded. “Do you cook it with rosemary and potatoes like we do?”

Easter eggs, Italian style

The idea of eating Thumper didn’t sit well with our kids because they begged us to buy each of them a giant (expensive!) chocolate egg stuffed with a plastic surprise and wrapped in gaudy metallic wrapping.

I’d heard a story on the telegiornale newscast about a smitten young man who bought a $1,000 engagement ring to give his girlfriend — inside one of those chocolate eggs. The day before Easter, she exchanged the unopened egg at the store for her favorite brand of chocolate. Afterward, there was a mad scramble to find the ring-bearing egg, including a plea by the egg-making company to return the ring to the couple. By this time, the boyfriend was so furious with his girlfriend that he hit her, and they broke up.

“What an idiot!” my Italian friend Guido told me. “He already made the kind gesture, so I’m sure that she’s happy and feels bad about exchanging it. Doesn’t he know that when you give a gift to a woman it’s basically money you’ll never see again anyway?”

We had managed to keep the kids away from the candy stores loaded with chocolate eggs with promises of seeing the exploding cart. Now we were lost in a cloud of smoke and nearly deaf from the pealing from Giotto’s campanile, a bell tower in Piazza del Duomo.

I regretted not taking the advice of my friend Anna from Milan who would write her two boys’ names and addresses on their arms in case they got separated. Our boys had already used their small size to sneak through the crowd for front-row seats of the Scoppio del Carro. My wife, Katy, panicked that we’d never see them again, and I worried the blasts would burn them. Our last hope was that they’d remember our plan to have gelato after the explosion.

We yelled for our kids, but the bonging bells drowned out our voices. We retreated to the gelateria in search of the boys, hoping that our sins had been wiped away from the holy fire as we coughed and gasped for fresh air.

Katy breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the boys waiting dutifully for us. We treated them to giant cones, even if it would ruin their appetite for lunch.

After we crossed the Arno River to our apartment, we discovered that our adopted Italian grandmother had left a package for each child — giant Lindt chocolate eggs as big as their heads. They ate chocolate until they couldn’t move, and I finally got some peace and quiet.


Eric Dregni is dean of the Italian Concordia Language Village, professor of English at Concordia University, and author of “Never Trust a Thin Cook.”