Everyone knows that Venice has a famously enchanting Carnevale season. All masks and pageantry and secrets- so befitting of the misty canals and darkened back alleys that dominate this unlikely island city. Notably though, Venice is not the only Italian city that boasts uniquely traditional pre-Lenten festivities to usher in the 40 days of fasting and abstinence before Easter. Naples, as the former capitol of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, is home to countless carnivalesque rites and rituals that date back over 1,000 years. Many of these traditions, like those of Naples' sister cities to the North, feature fertility rites and gluttonous feasts as a way to stave off or counter-balance the stark period of Lenten fasting to come before Easter.
The name Carnevale provides the most insight into how these bacchanalian rituals in Naples and the rest of the world started millennia ago. Carneval comes from the term ‘Carnem levare’ which in English translater to ‘take meat away.’ To prayerfully honor the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, early Christians abstained from consuming meat in the 40 days prior to Easter, now known as Lent.
The Carnem Levare or Carnevale festivals in Naples have always been as raucous as they are gluttonous. When the Bourbons still ruled Naples prior to the unification of Italy in 1861, things were particularly crazy. Beloved local King Carlo Borbone built the so-called ‘cuccagne’, wooden structures covered with food that he would donate to people throughout the city. His courtiers fondly recounted how meats of every imaginable cut were draped over these structures in every neighborhood of Naples and free for the taking. One can only imagine that the entire town smelled of ragùmeat sauce in the days leading up to Lent. One needs look no further than any given Sunday in Naples for a bit of olfactory nostalgia.
Even the Neapolitan nobles loved the Carnevale, organizing elegant fancy dress parties in the most beautiful buildings of the city of Naples. While Halloween style gallivanting seems to have taken the place of fancy dress parties in elegant 15th century building in Naples, Neapolitans continue to embrace the season with characteristic gusto, appetite and a touch of weirdness. Below are some of the more notable Neapolitan Carnevale traditions.
[Carnival decorations in the city streets of Naples, photo via Wikimedia Commons]
1) Blood Chocolate Pudding
Carnevale is an indulgent season. Meats, candies, sweets, flesh… In Naples the most oddly indulgent vice of all is chocolate pudding with blood. Carnevale being a winter festival in the Northern hemisphere, tends to coincide with the pig-slaughtering season in Italy. No part of the pig in the countryside surrounding Naples went to waste and that included the blood. Ingenious cooks invented a delicious way to incorporate the pig’s blood in Carnevale sweets including a decadent chocolate pudding. Sanguinaccio blood pudding quickly became a Carnevale favorite. Since a 1971 Cholera outbreak in Naples, the sale of pig’s blood has been banned in Naples and in 1991 all of Italy. Today, locals enjoy a pig blood free version of Sanguinaccio with a fritter known as Chiacchiere.
Neapolitans always enjoy a good joke but around Carnevale the joking reaches a seasonal fever pitch. As the old local proverb goes, “a Carnevale ogni scherzo vale—at Carnival, every joke has worth.” That includes pranks of all varieties and the more childish, the better. The most popular pranks include confetti bombing your friends and parents, fibbing and white lying to unsuspecting adults and the occasional egg toss. Walking around any quarter of Naples in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday will almost certainly result in later finding confetti and sparkles in places you never thought possible for months to come.
Most people outside of Italy are more familiar with the Bolognese style of lasagna featuring slow braised mince meat, fresh sheets of pasta and béchamel sauce. Or perhaps the Italian-American version thereof, which features copious amounts of ricotta. The Neapolitan Carnevale lasagna is an entirely different baroque beast. Gilding the lily would be the best way to describe this meaty-meatball lasagna. After slow cooking chunks of meat, sausage, pork ribs and cured pork in San Marzano tomatoes to make a traditional Neapolitan style ragù, locals puree the ragùand layer with pasta also adding eggs, smoked provolone, fiori di latte cheese and most famously- mini polpette, meatballs. I suppose those complementary meat huts King Carlo generously placed throughout town was the mother or this mouth-watering invention. Give a Neapolitan nonna some free chunks of meat and she will invent a lasagna more baroque then Saint Peter’s Basilica.
During the height of Carlo Borbone’s reign, Neapolitans at Carnevale dressed in elaborate costumes and attended balls at the Royal Palaces and many noble homes throughout the historic center of Naples. Meanwhile, the general masses enjoyed popular theater and marionette puppetry, the most popular character being Pulcinella. The ultimate huckster, jokester trickster, Pulcinella was the ideal folkloric embodiment of the carnivale spirit in Naples. Today children in Naples more commonly dress up as fireman, sports stars and dinosaurs. But occasionally when you are least expecting in, a full-grown Pulcinella might approach you in the old center of Naples and confetti bomb you. He doesn’t mean any harm.
5) Carnival Funeral
Nobody is safe or immune to the Carnevale spirit in Naples and that includes Carnevale himself. Yes, Carnevale is a man. The personification of the celebration is, in fact, a fat and happy man dedicated to the pleasures of the flesh. And even Carnevale must meet his over indulgent end. After a season of bacchanalia that begins with Saint Anthony the Abbot Day on January 17th and ends on Fat Tuesday, Carnevale marks the rite of passage from old to new, of rebirth and regeneration. Thus, it is only natural that in the wee hours of Fat Tuesday the people of Naples throw Carnevale a big fat funeral. After a full month of eating too much salami and chocolate, of joking and dressing up- the fun must come to and end. So Carnevale dies and not unlike Jesus, will enjoy a subsequent rebirth, albeit a slightly more comic annual one. The Carnevale spirit, like many Neapolitan symbols including the iconic volcano Vesuvius, encapsulates the duality of life and death, pleasure and pain, fertility and scarcity. Oh, and food. There will always be food.