Pasqua a la Fiorentina

Florence’s Duomo dominates the city

It seemed a little daunting, going to Cattadrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, for Easter Mass. It happens to be the 4th largest church in the world (depending on whom you ask and what your criteria are, the others may be St. Peter’s in Rome, St. John the Divine in New York City, and Saint Paul’s in London), and I was sure that the mass was going to be entirely in Italian, a language in which I have attained little mastery. Fortunately, amen sounds the same in Italian as it does in English.

We woke up in the morning to pouring rain — not a good sign when your travel plans consist primarily of walking. Florence’s Duomo is only a leisurely 10-minute walk from our front door, but rain always dampens one’s spirit as well as the cuffs of one’s pants. Fortunately, about five minutes after we had intended to leave, birds began singing outside, and we were convinced that the rain had stopped for the time being. We set out, umbrellas in tow, toward the Basilica under a low canopy of light grey clouds. The rain had subsided, and lots of people were making their way through the city to various churches.

For the first several blocks, I was convinced that we were headed in the wrong direction, despite my clear recollection of how to get to the Duomo — we walk by it almost every day. Today, most of the foot traffic seemed to be in the direction opposite to the way we were going. I guessed that these particular inhabitants preferred other churches to the Duomo — particularly today when the mass is likely to be overrun with tourists who may be less than faithful.

Another reason why there was no clear destination for the hundreds of people we saw that morning was that Florence is home to at least 8 gigantic basilicas and churches (Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito, Santa Maria del Carmine, Santa Croce, Orsanmichele, Il Duomo, and Santa Trinita), as well as dozens of smaller churches around the city. It is easy to see why, ninety minutes before the most important mass in the Catholic church, there would be mass confusion in the streets with each person going to the church of their choice for Easter.

Colorful procession of the ox-cart

When we arrived at the Duomo, the square was filled with hundreds of tourists, there to see the procession of medieval costumes and trumpet fanfare. A traditional ox-cart loaded with enough fireworks to bring down the roof of the cathedral was parked out front, waiting for the beginning of the mass to detonate and burn for a good 15 minutes. We watched for a few minutes, and then decided that we had better get inside and find seats before we found ourselves standing through an entire mass which was likely to be longer than usual.

It turns out that few people were gathered to the right of the alter — most had gathered in the nave, where all of the temporary seating had been set up, and the best place to get a view of the ox-cart outside, poised for subsequent conflagration. We sat down and took a few pictures before the mass started. We also began to notice that, inside the cathedral, it was freezing. Since the church has few windows to let in a great deal of light, and no noticeable heating system, it is still cold from the winter. Even when the sun is bright and lightly baking those in the square, the church remains dark and cold.

Katie and me in the Duomo

There seemed to be quite a lot going on outside that we could not see. Trumpets would occasionaly sound, the crowd would cheer, and everyone in the church was looking around, trying to get a better look at either the action outside or the tremendous architecture inside. I was trying to guess the country of origin for all of the people surrounding us. I listened to their speech and decided that there were a number of Italians and Americans — which came as no surprise to me – as well as German, Polish, and a few Asian languages. My capacity to identify languages pretty much stops at the eastern edge of Europe… I haven’t had enough friends who speak Asian languages often enough to have learned to recognize certain sounds that tip me off as to the language of the speaker. I might be able to discern Japanese from a Chinese dialect if I heard them at the same time, but I have to admit that I am very ignorant with respect to these languages at this point in my life.

Judgement Day on the interior of Brunelleschi’s Dome

The architecture in the Duomo is impressive. During the rennaisance, Europeans finally re-learned everything that the ancient world had already figured out, and then somehow lost along the way. Art and architecture were re-born, and people started building big. Brunelleschi was both an artist and an architect, and he apparently managed to get an exclusive commission to build the huge dome of Florence’s Duomo by both making Ghiberti (of Doors to Paradise fame) look like an incompetent, and being a hell of an engineer. It appears as though the dome itself has stood the test of time, while the cathedral itself has required bracing along the way, due to the crushing weight of the massive roof. Arches line both the interior and exterior isles of the nave, but appear to be buckling somewhat under the stress. Various means have been used to forestall further weakening of the arches and columns, such as adding iron rods driven through the columns to the roof — apparently to hold the two supports of the arch together.

Florentines in costume

Upon review of the pictures I took inside the cathedral, I have to say that the duomo looks smaller in the pictures. It is simply massive. The ceiling is so high that looking directly up at the inside of the dome invokes a strong sense of vertigo, so it was fortunate that I was already sitting down. The pictures taken, in general, have a very warm illumination to them. That is due to the faux candles that are mostly used around the church. They emit the usual, vaguely yellowish light given off by incandescent light bulbs. A few of the candles were real, and added to the yellow glow which lights the inside of the basilica.

The ox-cart explosion lasts at least fifteen minutes

The service finally began with what I can only assume was a long introduction and welcoming of all the guests, tourists, and faithful to Florence’s Duomo. This was one of the only Catholic masses where it wasn’t entirely obvious when to stand up or sit down. Since so many of the visitors were non-Catholic (like the German family who accidentally took part in the Eucharist and wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the wafer) or non-Italian-speakers (such as our family), many of the attendants were unable to follow the printed mass program (such as I, who, for reasons still unclear to me, was apparently the owner of a 3-year-old Easter program… it is very difficult to follow a mass in another language when you’re expecting a totally different set of phonics to be uttered by the priest).

In spite of my program buffoonery, I knew exactly what was going on when the organist apparently laid down full-out on the keyboard, producing an absolute cacophony of air-powered sound from the gigantic pipes. For Easter, a synthetic dove had been rigged, hanging from a wire extending from near the alter, down the length of the cathedral, out the door and into the street outside. The dove burst into life (and flame) and shot right out the door, and into the ox-cart waiting outside. The next fifteen minutes or so were occupied watching the ox-cart spew smoke, flames, and sparks while the crowd outside cheered repeatedly to the belching of this Florentine Easter tradition.

Once the commotion died down, the mass continued just as it had left off — very strange that such a secular (or at least not particularly Catholic) event should postpone the most important even in the liturgical calendar. I guess that’s what happens when religions, over time, adopt the policy of embrace and extend when events of cultural importance exist in the places into which the faith is spreading.

Omelettes with fresh, smoked, buffalo mozzarella

I had intended to make breakfast before church, but let’s face it: nobody was going to get up that early, so we had brunch after mass instead. I made omelettes with smoked buffalo mozzerella, which was an entirely new taste thrill for me. The mozzarella was super smoky. While being an interesting thing to try, and might be good to have occasionally, not much can beat a big salty sphere of mozzarellific goodness. Mmmm… insalata caprese

I have also started getting accustomed to our limited means with respect to the kitchen in our rented flat. We have a single serrated knife, a single, thin, aluminum pan, and two pots of different sizes. Oh, and something that looks kind of like a mini watering-can, complete with spout, but matches the pattern of the two pots. I’m not sure what its intended use is, but I used it to beat the eggs and milk together and pour it into the pan. We have one of those infuriating plastic “pasta spoons”, which I believe was invented explicitly to make sure that one didn’t eat too much pasta, and a large, shallow plastic spoon with holes in it — kind of like the wire spoons used to retrieve things from large vats of boiling oil when frying things. I have nearly perfected the art of pouring the omelette from the pan into the spoon and then, with a flick of the wrist, returning the eggs, folded in half, back into the pan. Luckily I am capable of flipping the omlette with nothing more than a flick of the wrist on the handle of the pan.

The previous day, at the Mercato St. Ambrogia, I acquired the necessary ingredients for my Easter meal. I had originally intended to get lamb — probably chops, since we have only microwave and toaster ovenw — but settled instead on a beef fillet bathed in sage and other herbs, inserted into a loaf of bread and finally wrapped in prosciutto and lashed together with string. I wasn’t sure how well the toaster oven was going to work, but hey — why not?

I decided to just kick the toaster oven up as high as it would go to sear the meat, and then re-evaluate the situation. Since the oven doesn’t really stay warm when its heating cycle turns off the elements, I ended up leaving the toaster at this high setting for the duration. The problem turned out to be not the heat, but the electricity.

I believe that Katie and I are the first guests to rent this particular apartment from the owner. As such, it is missing some important things, such as a garlic press or a 30-amp circuit. With the toaster oven at 250 degrees (Celcius), the breaker tripped approximately every 6 minutes. The worst part was that it wasn’t just tripping the breaker for the kitchen — it was tripping the main breaker. That means that the apartment itself can’t provide enough power for the toaster oven, which is pretty sad. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly convenient for cooking.

We decided that, to minimize the changes of the circuit breaker being tripped (or, at least to maximize the time between mandatory trippings), we had better turn everything off. We unplugged anything that could possibly draw current, including nightlights and even things that were already completely turned off like the CD-player. We sat in total darkness and watched the toaster oven’s orange light to see if it was still on. The breaker tripping didn’t make that much noise, and sometimes we couldn’t hear it, so we had to watch. I wanted to light a candle, but we decided that trying to coax a decent flame out of a napkin thrust into the heating element of the toaster oven was going to be a bad idea, generate a lot of smoke, and prolong the cooking time of the fillet.

Darkest caprese salad ever

I found the concept of sitting in total darkness pretty stupid, so I decided to venture forth into the sleeping city to get matches. Of course, everything was closed except for pharmacies and a few other places, and nobody had matches. I finally went into a club and tried to describe what I needed. I didn’t have a cigarette, and therefore didn’t look like I needed matches — much less a whole pack to take away with me. After a few confusing minutes, I was offered a plastic cigaretter lighter. After issuing many gratzies, and making sure that nobody got mad as I approached the door, I returned home.

Progress was being made. Katie and my father were trying to rig a ladies’ compact mirror on a shelf so that we could see the eye of the toaster oven from the living room, instead of having to stand in the kitchenette, staring. They got it going, and I lit a candle so we could at least have some light.

We sat at the candlelit table and enjoyed our caprese salad made with picorino cheese that my parents got in Siena. Occationally, one of us would get up to re-set the breaker. Thank god we don’t have fuses like our apartment at home. We would have frozen to death with all the stores closed for Easter.

Slicing the Easter Fillet

After one hour and fifteen minutes, we decided to take a look. I turned off the oven and then, with the lights back on, checked the fillet. It was perfect. I’m not sure how I could have cooked it any better. So, we laid it asside and made all the other stuff for dinner — asparagus and fresh pasta with butter, garlic, and grated cheese. By the time these had been prepared, the meat had cooked over a bit, but was still very good.

Using the knife on the cutting board, I carved the meat for Easter dinner. It turned out to be wonderful, in spite of the fact that it was no longer pink inside. Everything tasted great, and we had wine and aqua frizzante, and a big laugh about the fact that this would certainly be a memorable Easter, bizarre as measured by just about any standard.

With the lights turned back on, I thought about how I would actually prefer that the lights be turned back off. There was a calm quiet during that time, and the illumination from the halogen bulbs in our apartment were harsh after the softness of the candlelight. Maybe we’ll turn off the lights again when we have a meal at home on a quiet day.

Happy Easter

One Response to “Pasqua a la Fiorentina”

  1. Rina says:

    I have an absolute passion for pecorino cheese. I thought that my Italian salad was unique but it seems one is never too old to learn.
    Would you care to exchange receipes?
    Thanks