Strange how sometimes one becomes one’s own clairvoyant. In April 2013 we visited the Medici Riccardi Palace in Florence, a truly imposing building which is now the seat of the provincial government. I described this post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/dali-magi-vietnam-and-earthquakes-in-florence/.
We revisited Dali at the Picasso and Spanish Modernity exhibition at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi in January 2105. Vietnam has been our destination twice – in February 2014 and more recently, last December. As for earthquakes, we’ve revisited them too often in our seismic area; especially last year (classified no. 2 in a scale from 1 the highest to 4 the lowest. Two means medium seismic risk where quite strong earthquakes can be experienced).
The one place we hadn’t revisited since that post is the Magi chapel in the Medici palace but last Wednesday, January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany we experienced one of Tuscany’s (and perhaps Italy’s) most spectacular period costume parades, indeed cavalcades – la cavalcata dei Magi, which has its origins in the fifteenth century.
(Our own little version of Epiphany in our Christmas crib)
We’d seen the procession once some years back at its starting point before palazzo Pitti but this year we took our position near its end where it enters the glorious (and now thankfully pedestrianised) piazza of the city of the Lily’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore.
Here a hut was set up but the only members of the Holy Family we met at this stage were of the four-footed variety.
The weather was louring grey and we hoped it wouldn’t start raining. There were a few soldiers dressed up in camouflage and holding machine guns. We regrettably knew they weren’t going to be part of the procession…
The parade was everything it was cracked out to be. Over seven hundred (!) lords, ladies, soldiers, cross and long-bow archers, knights, courtesans, drummers and flag twirlers, trumpeters, some jesters, walked down the packed streets of central Florence almost as if they’d stepped out of Benozzo Gozzoli’s own glorious fresco in the chapel of the Medici palace. The costumes were gorgeous, colourful and flamboyant. Italians really know how to dress up when the occasion warrants it!
A nice touch was the participation of the Sri Lankan, Philippino and other communities now living in Florence and giving a suitable exotic touch to the journey from the east of the Magi:
At the end of the procession all the participants met up by the façade of Florence’s Duomo. There was a lovely children’s chorus, the usual tedious speeches by the local dignitaries, a special blessing by the archbishop of Florence, the setting off of multicoloured balloons into the air to symbolise our hopes and aspirations for the future and then Handel’s Hallelujah chorus was sung. At this stage I got goose pimples!
Just to remind you, here are some details from that magnificent fresco painted by Gozzoli’s from 1459 to 1461 and representing several members of the Medici family including the young Lorenzo Il Magnifico’s as the magi and their entourage.
Here’s also the biblical account from St Matthew’s Gospel to retell you of what was reported to have occurred on that amazing Epiphany night 2016 years ago:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.
Although the Magis’ names are not mentioned by Saint Matthew their names are traditionally Balthasar (young, a Babylonian scholar depicted dark complexioned) who gifts myrrh anointed on dead bodies to show that Christ would die for mankind, Melchior (a middle-aged Persian scholar) who gifts frankincense to show that Christ would be worshipped and Caspar (an old Indian scholar) who gave gold, the gift of kings to demonstrate that Christ would be King of kings. The fact that the three Magi came from the East and represented the great religions in that part of the world including Hinduism and Zoroastrianism denotes probably the first example of ecumenicalism Christianity has ever experienced.
I cannot leave this post without quoting in full a poem that has always haunted me: T. S. Eliot’s famous ‘The Journey of the Magi’:
THE JOURNEY OF THE MAGI
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Let us hope that, writing this at a time when a great singer has ascended to the place he fell from onto the earth and where the children of a Middle Eastern valley, so near to where the Christ-child was born, are starving, that these little ones will finally receive those precious gifts of food, drink and love from latter-day Magi, and so live to see another, hopefully better, day.
PS It didn’t rain for the duration of the whole procession! Indeed, towards the end the sun came out and shone a golden light onto Florence’s cathedral:
PPS A traditional Italian saying goes:
‘L’Epifania, tutte le feste porta via.”
‘Epiphany takes away all the festivities’.
So now I think Christmas-tide must be truly ended and all our winter lights and associated paraphernalia must be taken down for another year…Ah well it’ll soon be carnival time!