In a few days towns all over Italy will start celebrating Carnevale, a festive and somewhat chaotic holiday popular in most Catholic countries. The festivity takes place every year in the winter, sometimes in February, sometimes in March, right before Lent.
Historically, Lent –the forty days leading up to Easter- was a period of fasting, repenting and introspection: no parties or celebrations were held during those six weeks and people had to refrain from eating meat, cheese, sweets and any other food that could be considered rich or luxurious.
It only made sense that, right before Lent begun, everyone would partake in a giant party during which all the rich foods and drinks in the household had to be consumed to avoid temptation during the forty days of fasting. That yearly “everything must go” party is said to be the origin of Carnival.
The festivity, of course, isn’t all about eating and drinking: public celebrations, parades, masquerades were also very popular, as they gave people one last chance to party before six weeks of penitence, prayer and frugality.
Today Lent is taken much more lightly by most and the need to get rid of tempting food no longer exists –at least not for religious reasons. Carnival, nonetheless, is still extremely popular in Italy, especially those held in Venice, Viareggio and Ivrea. These three towns are famous around the world –and rightly so- for their extravagant celebrations and every year they attract flocks of partygoers that want to join in the fun.
The Carnevale di Venezia has ancient origins: it was first recorded in 1268 and, for centuries, it played a very important role in the city life. Key to this celebration are the beautifully elaborated masks, made of painted porcelain, leather or glass, that people throughout the centuries have worn as part of the party.
Some of them were and are pretty, some others are down right grotesque: the Plague Doctor, with his long, pointy nose and ugly grimace, is easily recognizable in the parades and isn’t easy to forget. This year the Carnevale di Venezia will be held from February 15th to March 4th and will include all sorts of amazing events, including a “Zombie walk” through the narrow streets of the city center and several shows that will take place directly on the canals.
The boat parades featuring extravagant costumes, music and fireworks are always a hit with both adults and children, as are the many concerts held during the two week festivities. Venice is easily reached by plane (Marco Polo airport) or by fast train from Milan and Rome. Beware: prices for hotel rooms during the Carnevale may be higher than usual.
Ivrea, on the other hand, has a completely different way of celebrating Carnevale. The historical Carnival of this small town in Piedmont is famous for the Battle of the Oranges, a quirky reenactment of a fight that represents the town’s struggle for freedom. It is said that in the year 1000 a miller’s wife was killed by the evil King of the city, Arduino.
The episode caused a civil war between the oppressed citizens of Ivrea and the King’s supporters which, eventually, lost the battle. Every year, in February, the citizens of Ivrearemember their liberation by throwing oranges –instead of stones- at carts representing Arduino’s soldiers and the town is literally filled by the sweet and sour scent of citrus wafting through the air. The Carnival starts on February 15th but the real action takes place from the 1st to the 4th of March. Ivrea can be reached by car from the Milano – Torino highway A4 or by train from Turin and Milan.
Viareggio, a pretty coastal town in Tuscany, also has a very famous Carnevale. Here there are no oranges nor porcelain Venetian masks, but there is an amazing parade where floats carry giant puppets made of paper pulp depicting caricatures of politicians, sportsman, show people and whomever else might be popular at the moment.
The first parade took place more than 100 years ago, in 1873, and ever since then it has lit a spark on the main avenue along the beach every year. The parades take place on the weekend of February 15th and then between March 1st and 4th: they are always colorful and entertaining for the kids, but also feature some tongue in cheek humor adults will enjoy. Viareggio sits alongside the A12 Genova-Livorno highway and can be reached by car or train from Florence and Genoa.