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Baptism at the Baptistery 03/02/2011

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c. 1900

There are many quaint rites and ceremonies connected with a Florentine baptism, not only at the time, but in preparation, and one of these takes place on Easter Eve, when the archbishop blesses the font for the coming year. The stone basin is filled with water, which is first divided in the form of a cross, then redivided and thrown to the four points of the compass. Three times the celebrant breathes on it, and, dipping the paschal candle three times into the water, says, ‘May the power of the Holy Ghost descend into the fulness of this font!’ The newly-blessed water is then sprinkled on the heads of the people, and the oil of catechumens and the oil of chrism are poured into the font and mixed with the water, during all which rites suitable prayers are recited, the service closing with the Litany of the Saints.

The baptism itself is a quaint and pretty sight, and there is much symbolism in the service which, if reverently performed, would be both impressive and beautiful; but Italian priests have an unedifying way of gabbling through their offices with wandering eyes and apparently an utter indifference to the business on hand. As I sat in the Baptistery that afternoon while the newly-made Piero-Filippo-Alessandro-Giuseppe-Maria made his lusty protest against priestly doings until his carriage could be hastily called to convey him home, quite an army of babies arrived to be received into the Church. In no case was the mother present, as in the natural course of things it is impossible that she should be, for although – especially among the upper classes – baptism is occasionally deferred for three or four weeks, the usual time is when the child is only two days old.

Some of the babies arrived in a carriage and pair, and were borne in, among a party of friends, by a balia of enormous dignity, the infant itself wrapped in clouds of silk and lace; some were muffled in old shawls, and when unfolded looked like roly-polies tied in a cloth; for although the habit of swaddling has died out among the upper classes, it still prevails among the poor.

I spoke to a woman who stood beside me, holding a small swaddled bundle, which she told me was her niece. The unlucky mite had not been very welcome, for there were already seven at home, and the mother, poor soul had burnt many wax candles to Madonna in hopes that the Padre Eterno might be induced to take the baby back. He had done nothing of the kind, however; and it had finally arrived, so dark a little creature that they had brought it to the old Baptistery to name it ‘Nerina’! She, the godmother, had presented the child with a ten-centime stamp and a soldo rosary as a christening gift; but the godfather, who she told me was a greengrocer without family, and quite a pezzo grosso, had given no less than a franc – so that Nerina would start in life with the handsome sum of elevenpence towards her ‘dote’! Evidently her parents had done well for her in their selection of a godfather; but the choosing of godparents often becomes a mere farce, as it is not unusual for the sponsor to be a brother or sister of five or six years old. Should a little cousin of another sex undertake this duty, however, it must be remembered that sponsorship constitutes a real relationship, and that no future marriage between the two children would be possible without a special dispensation of the Pope.

Although only three names may be registered for a child at the Municipality, there is no limit to the number which may be given in church, provided that all are saintly ones; and the Roman Church venerates an army of saints so unlimited, that it is hard to find a name on which the calendar has not set its hall-mark of worth. That the Italians avail themselves of this privilege of multiplying names, I certainly had abundant proof that afternoon, listening to lists which would have seemed a little exaggerated even for a prince of the blood; and I am sure that many a child – not excluding Bianca Maria [the author’s charge] – is bewildered if suddenly called upon to give its list of names.

At last came the turn of Nerina, whom I watched with interest as she was carried forward to the priest, while the assistant held a lighted candle, emblem of the Gospel light of truth. Then followed a long indistinct murmur of Latin on the part of the priest, punctuated by the godparents (at the prompting of the assistant) with responses of ‘Credo’ and ‘Amen’. Salt was thrust between the lips – the emblem of incorruptibility and wisdom, and also as a symbol of the evil of the world which the child must taste; and this was followed by the ceremony of the ‘saliva’ – witnessing which I could sympathise with Mary Queen of Scots when, at the baptism of Prince James, she refused to allow it, protesting, ‘No priest shall spit in my child’s mouth!’

The oil of catechumens was next rubbed behind the baby’s ears, and a cross made on forehead, mouth, and breast, to symbolise the consecration of each sense. The priest then laid the purple stole from his own neck across the tiny form, as a sign of the yoke of Christ which must be borne; and while the assistant held back the cover of the font, poured water three times on the little lolling head, which was afterwards wiped with appalling vigour, and finally powdered with a large puff. After the baptism with water in the threefold Name the priest changed his stole to white, there was more anointing with the oil of chrism – on the top of the head this time, as a sign that the child has received the invisible unction of the Holy Ghost; then, while a lighted candle was held in the little hand as a symbol that the virtues of faith, hope, and charity must be openly professed and practised, a short homily was delivered, at the close of which the tiny new-made Christian, wholly unconscious of the mighty change wrought by these few minutes, was dismissed and bidden to ‘Go in peace!’

Yes, go in peace, little Nerina; for if there is scant welcome for you in the poor crowded home where there are already too many mouths to fill, there is no grudging in that great family of which you have now become a member; and if your worldly possessions are very small – your swathing bands, your glass rosary, and your elevenpence – you have yet received a gift greater than anything which the world has power either to give or take away.

Scoppio del Carro, c. 1910 13/01/2011

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c. 1910

There is still a Pazzi fund towards the expenses, but a few years ago the city became responsible for the whole proceedings, and the ceremony as it is now given, under civic management, known as the Scoppio del Carro, is that which I saw on Holy Saturday last and am about to describe. First, however, let me state what had happened before the proceedings opened in the Piazza del Duomo. At six o’clock mass began at SS. Apostoli, lasting for more than two hours. At its close the celebrant was handed a plate on which were the sacred flints, and these he struck with a steel in view of the congregation, thus igniting a taper. The candle, in an ancient copper porta fuoco surmounted by a dove, was then lighted, and the procession of priests started off for the cathedral with their precious flame, escorted by a civic guard and various standard bearers. Their route was the Piazza del Limbo, along the Borgo SS. Apostoli to the Via Por S. Maria and through the Vacchereccia to the Piazza della Signoria, the Via Condotta, the Via del Proconsolo, to the Duomo, through whose central doors they passed, depositing the sacred burden at the high altar. I should add that anyone on the route in charge of a street shrine had the right to stop the procession in order to take a light from it; while at SS. Apostoli women congregated with tapers and lanterns in the hope of getting these kindled from the sacred flame, in order to wash their babies or cook their food in water heated with the fire. Meanwhile at seven o’clock the four oxen, which are kept in the Cascine all the year round and do no other work, had been harnessed to the car and had drawn it to  the Piazza del Duomo, which was reached about nine. The oxen were then tethered by the Pisano doors of the Baptistery until needed again.

After some haggling on the night before, I had secured a seat on a balcony facing Ghiberti’s first Baptistery doors, for eleven lire, and to this place I went at half-past ten. The piazza was then filling up, and at a quarter to eleven the trams running between the Cathedral and the Baptistery were stopped. In this space was the car. The present one, which dates from 1622, is more like a catafalque, and unless one sees it in motion, with the massive white oxen pulling it, one cannot believe in it as a vehicle at all. It is some thirty feet high, all black, with trumpery coloured paper festoons (concealing fireworks) upon it: trumpery as only the Roman Catholic Church can contrive.

It stood in front of the Duomo some four yards from the Baptistery gates in a line with the Duomo’s central doors and the high altar. The doors were open, seats being placed on each side of the aisle the whole distance, and people making a solid avenue. Down this avenue were to come the clergy, and above it was to be stretched the line on which the dove was to travel from the altar, with the Pazzi fire, to ignite the car. The space in front of the cathedral was cleared at about eleven, and cocked hats and red-striped trousers then became the most noticeable feature. The crowd was jolly and perhaps a little cynical; picture-postcard hawkers made most of the noise, and for some reason or other a forlorn peasant took this opportunity to offer for sale two equally forlorn hedgehogs. Each moment the concourse increased, for it is a fateful day and every one wants to know the issue: because, you see, if the dove runs true, lights the car, and returns, as a good dove should, to the altar ark, there will be a prosperous vintage and the pyrotechnist who controls the sacred bird’s movements will receive his wages. But if the dove runs defectively and there is any hitch, every one is dismayed, for the harvest will be bad and the pyrotechnist will receive nothing. Once he was imprisoned when things went astray and quite right too but the Florentines have grown more lenient.

At about a quarter past eleven a procession of clergy emerged from the Duomo and crossed the space to the Baptistery. First, boys and youths in surplices. Then some scarlet hoods, waddling. Then purple hoods, and other colours, a little paunchier, waddling more, and lastly the archbishop, very sumptuous. All having disappeared into the Baptistery, through Ghiberti’s second gates, which I never saw opened before, the dove’s wire was stretched and fastened, a matter needing much care; and the crowds began to surge. The cocked hats and officers had the space all to themselves, with the car, the firemen, the pyrotechnist and the few privileged and very self-conscious civilians who were allowed inside.

A curious incident, which many years ago might have been magnified into a portent, occurred while the ecclesiastics were in the Baptistery. Some one either bought and liberated several air balloons, or the string holding them was surreptitiously cut; but however it happened, the balls escaped and suddenly the crowd sent up a triumphant yell. At first I could see no reason for it, the Baptistery intervening, but then the balls swam into our ken and steadily floated over the cathedral out of sight amid tremendous satisfaction. And the portent? Well, as they moved against the blue sky they formed themselves into precisely the pattern of the palle on the Medici escutcheon. That is all. But think what that would have meant in the fifteenth century; the nods and frowns it would have occasioned; the dispersal of the Medici, the loss of power, and all the rest of it, that it would have presaged!

At about twenty to twelve the ecclesiastics returned and were swallowed up by the Duomo, and then excitement began to be acute. The pyrotechnist was not free from it; he fussed about nervously; he tested everything again and again; he crawled under the car and out of it; he talked to officials; he inspected and re-inspected. Photographers began to adjust their distances; the detached men in bowlers looked at their watches; the cocked hats drew nearer to the Duomo door. And then we heard a tearing noise. All eyes were turned to the great door, and out rushed the dove emitting a wake of sparks, entered the car and was out again on its homeward journey before one realized what had happened. And then the explosions began, and the bells silent since Thursday broke out. How many explosions there were I do not know; but they seemed to go on for ten minutes. This is a great moment not only for the spectator but for all Florence, for in myriad rooms mothers have been waiting, with their babies on their knees, for the first clang of the belfries, because if a child’s eyes are washed then it is unlikely ever to have weak sight, while if a baby takes its first steps to this accompaniment its legs will not be bowed. At the last explosion the pyrotechnist, now a calm man once more and a proud one, approached the car, the firemen poured water on smouldering parts, and the work of clearing up began. Then came the patient oxen, their horns and hooves gilt, and great masses of flowers on their heads, and red cloths with the lily of Florence on it over their backs much to be regretted since they obliterated their beautiful white skins and slowly the car lumbered off, and, the cocked hats relenting, the crowd poured after it and the Scoppio del Carro was over.