25 March is historically the start of the New Year in Florence. It is also the day on which the archangel Gabriel announced the incarnation to the Virgin Mary. The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the lesser known of Italy’s numerous festivals – hardly mentioned in the guidebooks – and when we visited a few years ago we were the only tourists around.
It was a wet Thursday morning and people were scuttling to work as normal, dodging the motorcycles and the raindrops in the narrow Florentine streets. Yet in the Piazza SS Annunziata the Festival of the Annunciation was already in full swing, the stalls set up and the visitors tucking into a second breakfast of sausages, panini or even freshly roasted pig.
The square was full of market stalls, selling toys and household items, bric-a-brac and rugs. There was also a brisk trade in umbrellas! But it was the sweet stalls which were the most plentiful, and the air was already heavy with the scent of croccante and brigidini.
The anteroom to the church was full of stalls, too, but of a different kind, reminding us that this is primarily a religious festival. Here they were selling rosaries, prayer books, and icons. By the door the ladies of the Servi di Maria had a stall piled high with homemade oven gloves and teatowels.
The basilica itself was packed to overflowing for the ten o’clock mass, one of several services which would take place during the day. The interior was ablaze with the light of hundreds of candles and the air was thick with incense. The worshipping crowd murmured Ecco signore at regular intervals, but at the back of the church people were coming and going, joining in sporadically, talking in small groups or greeting friends.
A typically Italian footnote was the exhibition of sacred art in a side room. In these modern portrayals of the Annunciation Gabriel was variously brightly coloured, demonic, male or female. He (or she) was at times threatening, but elsewhere approached Mary in an attitude of female solidarity. Where they all differed from classical interpretations, however, was in the lack of Tuscan landscape backgrounds.
As we turned to go people were still arriving, swarming into the church or picking over the market stall wares. But this is strictly an occasion for the locals and there were still no other tourists in sight.