Jonathan Self: How do mosquitoes know when it’s Easter?

The arrival of warmer weather heralds many joys — but also one very specific pain, as Jonathan Self grumbles.

Easter in Florence. I have found another ancient, cobbled road, hidden by equally ancient stone walls, overgrown, covered in moss and barely negotiable on foot, that snakes from behind Santa Margherita a Montìci out into open countryside — a countryside that, over the past few days, has finally, for we have endured a long, wet, grey winter, burst into colour. A profusion of greens — emerald, olive, juniper, pear and pine — provides a lush background to wildflowers. Here a patch of early red poppies, there a carpet of yellow daisies, everywhere pink cherry blossom. The air is sweet and invigorating, the earth warm and comforting.

We have been breakfasting, lunching and even dining on our terrace. What could be more perfect? Well, I’ll tell you: a complete and utter absence of mosquitoes. I have spent, perhaps, 10 Easters in Italy in my life and, no matter what precautions I take, I always seem to receive my first bite on or around Good Friday. This is extraordinary when you consider that Easter can fall at any time between March 22 and May 8, depending on whether you belong to the Eastern or Western Church.

For Catholics, Jesus invited his disciples to dinner on the night of the Jewish festival of Passover, died the next day (Good Friday) and rose again on the third day (the following Sunday). Are Florentine mosquitoes aware that the beginning of Passover is determined by the first full moon after the vernal equinox? Is biting me their way of marking the end of Lent? I have always been disappointed that the entomologist Justin Schmidt, also known as the King of Sting, didn’t include mosquitoes in his famous Pain Scale for Stinging Insects, because it would have been interesting to know how he would have ranked their bite.

As well as its scientific worth, Dr Schmidt’s scale has great literary value, for his descriptions of each sting read like poetry. A sweat bee sting is ‘light and ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm’. The suturing army ant, on the other hand, is ‘a cut on your elbow, stitched with a rusty needle’. And the anthophorid bee sting is ‘almost pleasant, a lover just bit your earlobe a little too hard’. One year, after rashly attending an outdoor performance of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine, I was bitten so badly that I briefly had to be hospitalised.

Yet the pleasure of spending Easter in Florence far outweighs any pain, if only for the food. The market is full of the new season’s artichokes, asparagus, fava beans and peas. There are blood oranges from Sicily and sweet Tuscan strawberries. Perhaps best of all, there is la colomba, or dove cake, essentially panettone with attitude, garnished with egg whites and almonds in the shape of a bird with its wings spread wide. Locals hotly debate the advantages of one type over another (our own grocer sells more than 20 varieties), but I love them all, as evidenced by my expanding waistline.

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Doves feature strongly in Florentine Easter celebrations. On Sunday, we will be attending the Scoppio del Carro, or Explosion of the Cart, during which the archbishop of Santa Maria del Fiore will fire a rocket shaped like a dove down the nave of the cathedral, out of the main doors and into a cart piled high with fireworks. If the dove/arrow returns to the nave, it is a good sign for the year ahead. I’ll feel the same way if, through some miracle, this is the year that the mosquitoes don’t get me.