The Language of Carnevale

Carnival of Venice, beautiful masks at St. Mark's Square — Photo by lachris77
Carnival of Venice, beautiful masks at St. Mark's Square — Photo by lachris77

For centuries the pre-Lent festivities of carnevale sumptuously celebrated  carne, a word that translates as both "meat' and "flesh," in every sense. However, the name comes specifically from the Latin for meat (carnem) and “take away or remove” (levare). A church decree dating back to 653 declared that anyone who ate meat during the forty days of Lent (Quaresima in Italian) could not receive communion on Easter. Charlemagne reportedly sentenced Lenten meat-eaters  to death. 

According to le Monnier's Dictionary of the Italian Language, Carne Levare (Remove Meat) was first used for the sumptuous dinner eaten the night before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Over the years Carnevale was gradually extended to cover the entire period from Epiphany to la settimana grassa (the fat week) before Ash Wednesday. Cities such as Milan add a few extra days of festivities to their Carnevalone. 

An almost pagan spirit of enjoyment and transgression is evident in the traditional recipes for this time of year. Southern Italians prepare a migliaccio di polenta made with corn meal, sausages and grated cheese. Neapolitans savor lasagne di Carnevale, a dish so rich that poorer families could afford to prepare it only once a year.  

 Photo by RubinowaDamaFrappe - typical Italian carnival fritters dusted with icing sugar: Photo by RubinowaDama

Throughout much of the peninsula, Italians enjoy sweets such as castagnole (sponge balls, plain or filled with ricotta cheese, custard, or chocolate), tortelli with raisins and cinnamon, and cicerchiata,  pastry balls coated in honey.

The delicate fried pastries we might call fritters take different names in different regions. In Piedmont and Liguria, they’re bugie (little lies); in Tuscany, cenci (rags); in Emilia-Romagna, lattughe (lettuce leaves); in Milan, chiacchiere, the same word Italians use for gossip or chatting. Cooks elsewhere may call them nastri delle suore (nuns’ ribbons), galani, frappe, or sfrappe and add ingredients such as raisins and anise. The phrase fare le frittelle –- literally, to make the fritters—is another way of saying “to celebrate Carnival.”  

 Photo by boggy22Bata, traditional venetian carnival mask: Photo by boggy22

The sin-drenched Venetian Republic was famous for its Carnevalata or carnival revelry, often of a more sensual nature. During its Carnevale, which lasted for months, party-goers of all classes hid their identities behind elaborate maschere (masks). The bauta covered the entire face but had no mouth opening and a lot of gilding. The oval-shaped moretta was worn by women, often along with a veil. The full-face white larva (from the Latin for mask or ghost) was made of fine wax cloth.

Over the centuries Italy's pre-Lenten merry-making has inspired some pithy axioms: "A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale," revelers often say. "Anything goes at Carnival time." But don't get carried away with the romance of the moment. "L’amore di Carnevale muore in Quaresima," wise souls caution, "A love that starts during Carnival dies in Lent."

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered  and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

Receive More Stories Like This In Your Inbox

Recommended

The Charioteer of Mozia: meeting the Greek Youth in Siciliy

There are many Greek treasures in Sicily and one of these is on a little island off the coast of Marsala, Mozia. Here, in a small museum that you...
Cannoli siciliani have a huge identity-defining power: Italian bakeries all over the world make of their presence on the shelves a symbol of “italianità” and heritage associated with only a handful of other products. Photo by siculodoc

The sweetest thing: cannolo siciliano and its amazing history

Cannolo siciliano: is there any other Italian dessert this popular in the world? Tiramisù may be one of its more glorious competitors, but cannolo...
The little town of Cascia is known, above all, as the home of one of the most venerated saints in the world, Santa Rita da Cascia — Photo by LisovS

Umbria, Land of Saints and Traditions (Part I): Cascia

There has never been any doubt that the Umbria region in the heart of Italy is a real “Land of the Saints”. Flocks of people come to this side of the...
The Abbey of Montecassino

The Abbey of Montecassino

Slow Tour riding a horse, along the path of St Benedict that leads to the great Abbey of Montecassino, rising up above the Liri valley. Beneath the...
St Benedict's Sacro Speco

St Benedict's "Sacro Speco" (Holy Cave)

The so called Sacro Speco in Subiaco is a place of hermitage that has become work of architecture and art. Here is the cave where the young Benedict...

Weekly in Italian

Recent Issues