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.
Image by PD Art