A special, featured blog by NIAF’s Board of Directors Member and Executive Vice President of Scholarships, Grants and Youth Activities, Robert V. Allegrini.
It’s cold and dark, but – fortunately – hairless inside the left nostril of Hillary Clinton as I pop my head in it while examining a giant paper-mâché replica of her head, which is seemingly discarded outside one of the enormous hangers at the Cittadella del Carnevale. The “Citadel of the Carnival” serves as a workshop where magnificent floats are assembled for Italy’s best-loved carnival, the Carnival of Viareggio – a lovely seaside town in Tuscany that is less than an hour from Lucca.
The Italians have always known how to throw a good party. After all, the very term bacchanalian comes from the debauchery of Roman “bacchanalia.” So when it comes to Carnival, it is no surprise that Italy need not take a backseat to Rio De Janiero nor New Orleans. In fact, the Italians boast numerous noteworthy Carnival celebrations, from the elegant masked parties in Venice, to the raucous Carnival of the Oranges in Ivrea. But it’s the Carnival in Viareggio which truly captures the Italian spirit.
That’s because the main event of the Carnival of Viareggio is its parades showcasing huge paper-mâché floats that are marvelously unique in terms of their size, movement, choreography and sensational subject matter. Each float, which can be 5 or 6 stories tall, portrays a satiric vignette featuring caricatures of Italy’s, and indeed the world’s, most newsworthy personalities and events. These floats play on many Italian sensibilities – an affinity for irreverence and Fellini-esque absurdity as well as an admiration for great creativity, artistry and design. There is also an appreciation for the liberating sense that comes from mocking the rich and famous – literally in effigy. The effect is breathtaking travelling theater set amidst the backdrop of a seaside promenade, flanked by gorgeous liberty-style buildings and extraordinary squares overlooking the beach.
Many elements of this theater were on display as I toured the Citadella del Carnevale and its unique museum, which is open to the public. Simultaneously whimsical, creepy and informative, the museum gives one the sensation of being in the midst of a dream world of giant Jack-In-The-Boxes, where paper-mâché heads all littered around each turn. Amidst the heads, the story of this unique carnival unfolds.
I learned that the Carnival dates back to 1873 and that the addition of paper-mâché floats dates back to 1925, when the Viareggio-born painter and builder Antonio D’Arliano perfected the technique of casted and molded paper. Since that time, the parades have evolved into highly organized affairs governed by the Fondazione Carnevale, or Carnival Foundation, which each year provides grants for the top float designs to be built and provides prizes for the winner. Funding comes largely from a modest spectator admission fee for the parades. The floats are built by different teams in strict secrecy in the various hangers of the Cittadella del Carnevale. They are unveiled over the course of five carnival parades leading up to Fat Tuesday that take place over several weekends.
Spread among the heads and the history at the museum are the beautiful, original artists sketches of some of the more famous floats along with photos of the finished products. I laughed aloud at a photo of the clever and witty float entitled “Mad Donald Trump” which played off the similar sounding “McDonald Trump” and featured a menacing President Trump dressed as Ronald McDonald.
President Trump also featured into one of the principle floats of last year’s parades entitled “Bang Bang,” which showcased a typically European perspective on the defense of firearms in Trump’s America by hearkening back to the lawless days of a western saloon. Italian politicians are certainly not spared either. In one of last year’s floats entitled “Such a Great Love,” Italy was portrayed as a beautiful woman sitting atop a pile of silver framed pictures of her past suitors, such as prime ministers Giulio Andreotti and Bettino Craxi. The implication was that some of her suitors have exploited the beautiful woman for their own interests.
From the museum, visitors can go to a special area at the Cittadella del Carnevale to see how the paper-mâché process works and to test out your own skills in the technique. The area resembles a graveyard of skeletal parts with frames and casts for fabricating everything from hands and feet to eyes and ears. Here, you can see how some old newspaper and a simple paste of flower and water can be transformed into a work of art that inspires and entertains.
Each year, the Carnival of Viareggio draws over 600,000 attendees, making it one of the most important carnival celebrations in the world. For the forty days and nights of Lent, Viareggio becomes, as the local tourist authorities put it, “the Italian factory of merriment and fun.” For the entire month of February, Viareggio offers visitors an extraordinary program of events, which includes an array of concerts and jam sessions in the city’s different districts, masked dancing balls, fireworks, theatrical performances, cultural events and sporting competitions.
But the most longed-for and anxiously-awaited moments are those of the parades of gargantuan floats – the Corsi Mascherati. Here, you have five extraordinary opportunities to admire the outstanding allegorical machines created and built by artists from Viareggio up close while allowing yourself to be swept up in the vibrancy of the masks, of the music, and by the beauty of the largest show of its kind in the world.