Carnevale in Italy
By Danielle DeSimone
Every year, before the austerity and penance of Lent, Italy – and, specifically, Venice – comes alive in bursts of colors, costumes, and chiacchiere. This annual festival of Carnevale, known in other parts of the world as “Mardi Gras” or “Fat Tuesday,” is famous for its Venetian masks, elaborate costumes, and parades not just in Venice, but through all of Italy.
Carnevale is quite obviously a Catholic and Christian holiday, as the last day of gluttonous eating and celebration before Ash Wednesday, and the 40 days of Lent, which are often spent fasting before Easter. In Italy, the three biggest celebration of Carnevale are in Venice (in Veneto), Viareggio (in Tuscany), and Ivrea (in Piedmont). Viareggio’s Carnevale began in the late 1800’s as a form of protest against the taxes implemented by the local government and since then, it has expanded into a parade with large floats that are made up of paper-pulp and often designed to look like caricatures of politicians and celebrities.
Meanwhile, in Ivrea, there is the famous “Battle of the Oranges,” in which 9 organized teams throw oranges (quite violently) at one another in Italy’s largest food fight. The origins of such a strange tradition are still somewhat unclear; some claim that it is a tradition that started in defiance of the city’s ruling tyrant in the 12th or 13th centuries. Originally beans were thrown, then apples, and then finally: oranges. Today, the town goes through approximately 580,000 pounds of imported Sicilian oranges during the battle. Spectators can of course watch from behind protective nets.
And, of course, there is Venice’s Carnevale – a slightly more refined affair, in which participants dress in elaborate, Renaissance-era costumes and adorn themselves in Venice’s world-famous masks. Venice’s Carnevale festivities began in the 1100’s, but only truly took off in the 17th century, when the Venetian Renaissance was in full swing. Today, over 3 million visitors swarm Venice’s shores to celebrate this festival with days of concerts, parties, fireworks, and confetti.
Throughout all of Italy, children and adults alike enjoy dressing up and eating traditional pastries made of fried dough covered in powdered sugar, known as chiacchiere, bugie, fiocchetti, frappe, galani, or a number of other names, depending on what region of Italy you are in while celebrating.
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As an American growing up in southern Italy, my experience of Carnevale was more of a small-town celebration. In our tiny little city of Gaeta, just on the border of Lazio and Campania, the celebrations were more of a family affair, bursting out of our schools and spilling out onto the streets. We arrived to class in the morning in full costume, armed with bags of confetti and streamers.
Our maestre (teachers) tried to keep up the pretense of school only for the first 20 minutes – soon after, we were allowed to run rampant through the classroom, singing traditional songs, trailing paper streamers behind us, our faces gleefully covered in powdered sugar from the frappe we were allowed to eat at our desks. Eventually, the entire school would convene in the central courtyard, where nuns (sometimes in costumes themselves) would watch anxiously as we engaged in a full-school confetti fight, the multicolored bits of paper and silly string stuck in our hair and our costumes sometimes for days afterwards.
The morning after, on Ash Wednesday, the city would be somber, quiet. The pieces of rainbow confetti would flutter through the streets, forgotten until next year, which was always a highlight of attending Italian school. The inherent nature of the festival is one of rambunctious and unadulterated fun. It is a day where you can be anyone you want, and act any way you want, without any repercussions. It is Halloween in the sunshine. As a child, it was my favorite day of the year.
Today, with no Italian classmates to throw confetti at, I’m limited to eating copious amounts of fried dough and planning my return to Venice, where you can recapture that childhood spirit on the city streets, and put on a mask once more.
Danielle DeSimone is NIAF’s Social Media Manager & Assistant Editor.