Brazil is famous for hosting the world’s largest Carnival parade, but it is certainly not the only country celebrating this annual festival of costumed processions, music and dance.
Carnival is also very popular in Italy, particularly in small towns where parades are commonplace and every local community vies to put its stamp on the event.
The undisputed Italian capital of Carnival is Venice, where the celebration has been refined to a fine art. The city is renowned for annually hosting thousands of participants wearing elegant costumes and elaborate masks, all of which are based on the evolution of the Bauta, the quintessential Venetian half-face mask with a beak, which allows people to eat and drink without taking it off.
Masks have always played an important role in Venetian history, with people wearing them for much of the year, dating back to the 13th Century. Today, revelers can still buy them from numerous shops around the city, where there are reportedly more mask-sellers than butchers. Traditionally, the heart of the celebration is in Piazza San Marco, the historic square, but costumed balls, concerts, recitals and other events take place throughout the city.
The most common masks worn by Italians are inspired by two folklore characters: Pantaloon, a greedy businessman in a red costume made of trousers and a cape; and Columbina, a cunning servant with a highly decorated half-face mask held up by a baton.
In Italy, there is an abundance of regional masks representing stock characters that are associated with Carnival. They come from Commedia dell’Arte, a genre of comedy popular in Italian theatres in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Each town has its own characteristic mask, which acts as a mascot for the festival: Bergamo has the Harlequin, a comic servant dressed in a multi-colored costume; Turin has Gianduja, with a big wig, cocked hat, and elegant costume; Naples has Pulcinella with a black-leather mask and baggy blouse.
But in the Italian tradition, Carnival is not just an opportunity to dress up. Historically it was seen as a rite of liberation, a moment when people were allowed to defy social and religious rules, in anticipation of the penitential period of Lent. "Semel in anno licet insanire" (“Once a year it’s acceptable to go crazy”) is the Latin expression associated with Carnival.
Still today, the Carnival celebration in Ivrea takes its cue from this wild attitude. Italy’s biggest food fight takes place in this town in the northwest region of Piedmont, and involves oranges – lots of them. These are the citrus-scented weapons of choice in a reenactment of a battle symbolizing the city’s liberation from tyranny, a battle that took place in the Middle Ages when the local despot was finally ousted by a peasants’ revolt. In this extravagant Battle of the Oranges, the people, currently represented by fruit throwers wearing no means of protection, pelt oranges at the feudal lord’s army, interpreted by re-enactors launching oranges from horse-drawn carts while wearing masks reminiscent of medieval armors. The citrusy tussle is followed by a parade of floats and music.
Nowadays, Carnival is no longer celebrated as an act of liberation, but pranks of any kind are still common – so much so that the saying “A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale” (During Carnival any joke goes) has become engrained in Italian cultural traditions.
Nowhere is this playful spirit more evident than at Carnival in Viareggio, a seaside town in Tuscany where masks and floats are usually inspired by politics and current events, often represented satirically and with lots of thought-provoking irreverence. Here, Burlamacco is the official mask, a character dressed in a long red and white-checkered suit, with a cocked hat, and black cape.
As with every celebration in Italy, food is a huge part of our festivities, and Carnival is no exception, with different recipes prepared according to regional cuisines. The most common treats are made of sweet, fried dough topped with powdered sugar. They pop up in pastry shops all over the country under different names and shapes. They are called chiacchiere (small talks) in Milan; frappe in Rome; cenci (rags) in Tuscany; bugie (lies) in Piedmont; crostoli in Venice.
Other popular sweet treats are Zeppole from the island of Sardinia, a fried, round dough filled with custard. Or Arancini roll, a pastry made with orange zest and topped with honey that can be found in the central region of Marche. Farinella is a traditional type of bread made with chickpeas and barley flour in the Southern region of Puglia. And it is also the name of the typical joker-like mask of Carnival in Putignano, a small town located in the heel of Italy’s boot. Celebrating its 623rd edition in 2017, this Carnival is considered the great-grandfather of European Carnivals – it started in the Middle Ages as a propitiatory rite to ensure a plentiful grape harvest. Now, it sports a parade of floats decorated with huge paper mâché sculptures and caricatures.
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