Holy Week & Easter (Pasqua) in Italy is a highly important time of the year, second-most revered after Christmas. Passion plays and solemn street processions take place all over the country. The fervent week-long festivities culminate on Easter Sunday with joyous parades, church services, and festive lunches with roast lamb and Easter bread that varies across the regions. Easter Monday (La Pasquetta) is time for free concerts, dances, games, and contests, and it also marks the start of the picnic season.
The Holy Week festivities peak on Good Friday. The statues of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary are taken to the streets and paraded through the cities and town. The participants of such parades traditionally wear special ancient costumes, while olive branches and palm leaves are often used for decorating churches.
One of the best places to visit during Easter Week (la Settimana Santa in Italian) is Sicily known for its elaborate and dramatic processions and unique traditions. The city of Enna hosts a large Good Friday procession of 2,000 participants. Trapani is also worth visiting on Good Friday—it's home to a 24-hour-long procession known as Misteri di Trapani.
Good Friday procession in Chieti, Abruzzo region, some 200 km east of Rome, is deemed to be the oldest in Italy. It has taken place since 842. The procession of only men and children dressed in the colours of their parish goes through the torch-lit streets of the old town and features 100 violins playing Miserere by Selecchy.
Many towns across Italy hold live passion plays during the Good Friday night. This tradition is especially popular in the region of Umbria, in the towns of Montefalco and Gualdo Tadino. Others reenact the stations of the Cross or Via Crucis. The hill towns of Orvieto and Assisi in Umbria host some of the most captivating torchlight processions.
Via Crucis al Colosseo in Rome is definitely one of the most famous reenactments of the stations of the Cross. Its main attribute is a huge cross of burning torches that light up the sky, while the stations of the cross are being interpreted into several languages. This tradition dates back to the 18th century and was practiced during Pope Benedict XIV’s pontificate. It then stopped for some time and was revived again by Pope Paul VI in 1964. Originally the Pope was supposed to carry the cross during the entire procession, but often other people assist.
Easter Sunday is a joyful day of Resurrection, the greatest Christian feast. Catholic Italians love to celebrate with colourful traditions. The town of Sulmona has a beautiful festival of La Madonna Che Scappa or the Dashing Madonna. It reenacts the meeting of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary in a magnificent procession. At 11 a.m. the statues of the Risen Christ accompanied by Saint John and Saint Peter set off from the medieval Church of Santa Maria della Tomba to the Church of San Filippo Neri, which shelters the mourning Madonna of Loreto. They come to announce the good news that Christ is risen, but she refuses to come out, at first. Eventually, the door opens, and Madonna moves out. At the sight of her son, she breaks into a dash and rushes towards him to the sounds of firecrackers and 12 doves being released into the air. Locals believe, the higher the doves fly, the better will be the harvest.
Another sentimental meeting of the Risen Christ and his mother is reenacted in the town of Modica in southeast Sicily. It starts with two processions—the first one carries a statue of Risen Christ while the other one bears the black-clad Virgin Mary. The statues pass across Corso Umberto the town's main street and finally meet each other. Overwhelmed with happiness, the Virgin throws away her mourning coat, revealing a red dress and blue cloak. She opens her arms and leans forward to give him two Italian-style kisses known in Sicilian dialect as "Vasa Vasa." Confetti bursts from her crown and the doves are released in the air to the sounds of church bells, brass band, and fireworks.
Florence's explosion of the cart or Scoppio del Carro is much associated with Easter in Italy. Another long-lasting tradition dates back to the time of the First Crusade. The central figure is Pazzino di Ranieri de’ Pazzi, a Florentine knight who set the banner of the Holy Cross on Jerusalem’s battlements back in 1096, and for that was rewarded with some particles of the Holy Sepulchre of Christ. After he returned to Florence in 1101, those stones were applied to ignite the sacred fire on Easter Saturday. In the following years, the sacred fire was transported on a cart throughout the streets of the city. Tradition went on for centuries and continues presently. Every year, Easter Day in Florence begins with this bright celebration. A wagon is pulled by oxen across the city to finally arrive at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore where the cart laden with fireworks blows up in a series of explosions.