Tuscany on Wheels

Everyone Loves a Parade

Trionfo all'antica by Giovanni by Ser Giovanni

Tuscans have always loved a parade, and to the casual reader of Renaissance history, it seems they’re forever proceeding somewhere or another, even to their own detriment – during outbreaks of plague, holy companies would parade through an afflicted area, invoking divine mercy, while in effect aiding the spread of the pestilence.

They also had a great weakness for allegorical parade floats. During the centuries of endless war each Tuscan city rolled out its Carroccio, invented by a Milanese bishop in the 11th century. Drawn by six white oxen, this was a kind of holy ship of state in a hay cart; a mast held up a crucifix while a battle standard flew from the yard-arm, there was an altar for priests to say mass during the battle and a large bell with which to send signals over the din to the armies. The worst possible outcome of a battle was to lose one’s Carroccio to the enemy, as Fiesole did to Florence. One, in Siena, is still in operation, rumbling out twice a year for the Palio.

Medieval clerical processions, by the time of Dante, became melded with the idea of the Roman ‘triumph’ (trionfo); in Purgatory, the poet finds Beatrice triumphing with a cast of characters from the Apocalypse. Savonarola wrote of a Triumph of the Cross; Petrarch and Bocaccio wrote allegorical triumphs of virtues, love and death.

More interesting are the secular Roman-style Triumphs staged by the Medici, especially at Carnival (the name, according to Burckhardt, comes from a cart, the pagan carrus navalis, the ship of Isis, launched every 5 March to symbolize the reopening of navigation).

You can get a hint of their splendour from the frescoes at Poggio a Caiano; the best artists of the day would be commissioned to design the decorations. The last relics of these parades are the huge satirical carnival floats at Viareggio. A lovely memory of Florence’s processions remains in Gozzoli’s fairy-tale frescoes in the chapel of the Medici palace, of the annual procession staged by the Compagnia de’ Re Magi, the most splendid and aristocratic of pageants.

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