Annunciation day was New Year’s Day in Florence
March 25th was the Capodanno Fiorentino (new year’s day in Florence). This celebration was recently reintroduced in the calendar of city events in Florence Italy, because from the Middle Ages to 1750 the new year’s day in Florence was March 25th, the Annunciation Day. If you attend a guided tour in Florence, it may happen that your guide tells you about a monument made, say, in 1294 or 1295; the reason is that maybe there is a stone marked with “1294”, but it could be 1294 March 23rd, which means 1295 in the current calendar.
The Gregorian calendar
The Gregorian Calendar, setting the new year’s day on January 1st, was introduced back in 1582, and basically all the European countries immediately adopted this new calendar; all but one: Tuscany. The Gregorian Calendar (named after the Pope Gregory XIII) introduced the leap year, and was much better (from an astronomical point of view) than the Julian Calendar (the ancient Roman calendar introduced by Julius Cesar). Ironically, the astronomical observations that made possible to reform the calendar were, at least in part, made in Florence by a Dominican friar, Ignazio Danti, mathematician, astronomer, and cosmographer, using astronomical instruments installed on the facade of Santa Maria Novella church (they’re still there).
March 25th makes sense
Since we count years from the birth of Jesus Christ, it would make sense to start the new years from December 25th; March 25th is exactly 9 months in advance: it’s the Annunciation Day, when the Aerchangel Gabriel announces to Mary her pregnancy with Jesus. In a way, Jesus Christ is already on Earth on March 25th, so celebrating the start of a new era on the Annunciation Day makes sense as well.
January 1st doesn’t make sense
What doesn’t make any sense at all is starting new years on January 1st… What happened on January 1st? I was bothered by this question, so I had to make some research, and found out that the purpose was astronomical. December 31st was the shortest day of the year, and they wanted to start the new year immediately after the Winter solstice. I won’t bother you with astronomy, but if today the Winter solstice happens on December 21st, in 1582, if my computation is correct, it happened on December 27th (the time from solstice to solstice is about 20 minutes shorter than the sidereal year). So they were wrong by 4 days. In conclusion: today we celebrate the new year based on a wrong assumption made in 1582; and even if the assumption was right, it would still be wrong today! Think of this when you drink champagne to celebrate the new year!!
Annunciation in Florence
It’s incorrect to say that Tuscany did not adopt the new calendar: they adopted the leap year, but continued to count years from March 25th. Florence always had a particular devotion for the Virgin Mary, and there is a religious order born here, the “Servants of Mary” (the name says it all). The seven founding members are Florentine saints, and there is another Florentine saint who was part of the Servants of Mary later: Filippo Benizi. Their main church, the Santissima Annunziata, is dedicated to Mary and to the Annunciation Day in particular.
The Santissima Annunziata church hosts a medieval fresco of the Annunciation, made by an anonymous painter, and there’s a legend around this fresco. Looks like the painter frescoed the angel easily and when he had to paint the face of Mary, he tried many times, but was not satisfied and started to show frustration; tired by his efforts, he fell asleep, and when he woke up, the beautiful face of Mary had been miraculously painted. By the angel, they thought. Michelangelo Buonarroti, more than 100 years later, will say: “here is not from paint brush whence the face of the Virgin was made, but something actually divine”.
If we go back to the church of Santa Maria Novella, where the astronomical observations to adjust the calendar were made, we discover that there is a small hole in the decorated rose window. That hole was made on purpose so that, on March 25th, at noon, a ray of light would hit the pulpit (1443-1448, Brunelleschi school), exactly on the panel representing the Annunciation! Because of the same astronomical rule described above, this event now doesn’t happen on march 25th, but some days earlier (and only when the weather is sunny!!).
Annunciation Day today
After the Medici dynasty died out, one of the first things the brand new Grand Dukes of Tuscany did was to abandon the Florentine calendar to align with Europe. It was Francesco Stefano, in November 1749, to change the calendar by law. In 2000, the “capodanno fiorentino” was reintroduced in the calendar of celebrations and events of the city of Florence: don’t worry, it’s not a holiday, shops and museums are open, but there’s always some event in town and the historical parade moves to the Santissima Annunziata during the afternoon, as part of the celebrations.