Planning a visit to Italy during the Carnival season? Here are seven celebrations not to miss!
Carnival of Venice
The star of Italian Carnival celebrations! The first official record declaring Carnival a public celebration in Venice dates to 1296, when the Senate of La Serenissima made the day before the Christian liturgical season of Lent a holiday of fun and merrymaking. In that spirit, masks have always been a central component of the Venetian carnival, used to temporarily erase any distinction of social class, gender or religion. Mask makers were highly regarded, and gathered in a guild with their own laws.
When Venice fell under the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia in 1797, Carnival celebrations, due to their subversive nature, were suspended. It wasn't until the 1970s that a revival of old traditions began with the opening of a modern mask shop.
Events, parades and a special festive atmosphere dominate the calli and piazze of Venice in the weeks of Carnival celebrations, while masquerade balls take place in the elegant palazzi, recreating the same atmospheres of times gone by. Visitors from Italy and abroad flock to the city.
One of the most spectacular events of the Venice Carnival is the "Flight of the Angel," which takes place on Giovedì Grasso or "fat Thursday." A person suspended in the air, tied to a metal cable, descends from the top of St. Mark’s tower to the Doge’s Palace. The tradition dates to the mid-16th century, when a Turk surprised the Venetians with this gesture as a way to salute the Doge.
Carnival of Viareggio
The Viareggio Carnival is among the most famous in Italy, and certainly its most irreverent. It originated in 1873 as a masquerade event for the upper classes unhappy with having to pay high taxes. Over time, its huge animated parade floats have become its most distinguishing attribute: Expect over-the-top papier-maché caricatures of politicians and celebrities.
The event lasts a month, with celebrations held night and day: Floats, parades, neighborhood events, masked dances, concerts and music, attracting thousands of visitors from Italy and abroad. The event has become so big that in 2001, the “Citadel” or Carnival town, was inaugurated, with hangars where the floats are created, a papier-mâché school and an arena for summer events.
Celebrations in the streets find their origins in the so-called “colored all-night dances” (veglioni colorati) from the 1920s, where the women wore dresses of specific hues and dyes, and the men tuxedos. Decorations, confetti and tinsel stars also followed a specific color theme. Today, the local bars and clubs participate in the celebration, contributing to the extraordinary Carnival atmosphere.
Carnival of Ivrea
Held in the Piemontese town of Ivrea (province of Turin), the world-famous Carnival of Ivrea stems from ancient neighborhood celebrations, but it was officially established only in 1808.
At the heart of this Carnival celebration is a commemoration of the city's medieval-era expulsion of a hated tyrant who was starving the population; he was chased away thanks to the rebellion of a miller's daughter (the mugnaia). During the French occupation of Italy in the 19th century, the Carnival celebration was modified by adding representatives of the French army.
The Carnival of Ivrea is especially famous for its Battle of the Oranges, symbolizing the struggle for freedom. It re-evokes the civil war that broke out between the people of Ivrea and the royal Napoleonic troops.
The re-enactment involves squads of aranceri on foot, representing the people, and groups of aranceri on carts, representing Napoleonic troops and the "leg up" they had. Both groups throw oranges (symbolizing arrows) at each other. Meanwhile, on the streets, the Mugnaia and her cortège distribute sweets and presents to spectators. The traditional procession through Ivrea features floats, folklore groups and music performers from all of Italy and Europe.
Orange may be the dominant shade and smell, but the re-enactment of the battle fills the city with many memorable colors and scents.
Carnival of Putignano
Putignano is a town in the province of Bari, on the Murge Plateau in the Itria valley, an area in Puglia home to the famous trulli.
The Carnival of Putignano runs longer than any other version in Italy, typically beginning December 26 and ending on Mardi Gras with an evening parade and the “funeral” of Carnival.
The origins of this Carnival go as far back as 1394, making it one of the most ancient carnivals in Europe. That year, the Knights of Malta, then the governors of the area, moved the relics of St. Stephen from St. Stephen’s Abbey in Monopoli inland to Putignano to protect them from the Saracens. When the remains of the saint arrived, farmers halted their work to follow the religious procession, and when it was over, they celebrated with song and dance.
According to legend, from improvised verses and satire in the local dialect arose the tradition of propaggini, a tradition that is still at the heart of the local carnival celebrations: dozens of poets take turns on the stage of the town’s piazza and recite satirical rhymes, entertaining the people for hours. As in all Carnival celebrations, masks and papier-maché floats take over the town in an explosion of colors and cheerfulness.
Carnival of Cento
The Carnival of Cento, a town near Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, has ancient origins as testified by a 17th-century fresco painted by a Cento native, Gian Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino; it displays a local mask known as il Berlingaccio, during a party thrown for the citizens on Shrove Tuesday by the town’s magistrate.
Though it maintains its own historic connotations, the Carnival of Cento became a higher-profile folklore event after being twinned with the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro in 1993.
Float parades begin in the early afternoon and traverse the historic center several times, accompanied by music and masked dancing figures, while the Carnival’s patron leads the event in Piazza Guercino. One of this carnival’s most noteworthy features is the launch of inflatable and plush objects from the floats to spectators; locals call this activity gettito.
The Carnival runs for the five Sundays leading up to Lent. On the last Sunday, an award ceremony is held for the best costumes, entertainment and music, and for the best gettito.
As the last parade takes place, the local mask known as Tasi is burned, and a firework display lights up Cento.
Carnival of Acireale
Sicily’s most beautiful carnival takes place in the Baroque town of Acireale, in the province of Catania. This Carnival also has ancient origins as, in the 16th century, a spontaneous celebration began in February where people in the streets would launch rotten eggs and citrus fruits at each other – until an edict banned it.
In the 18th century, the Carnival began featuring the abbatazzi, folk poets improvising rhymes on the streets of Acireale.
In the 19th century, the cassariata was introduced, a parade of horse-led carriages from which the nobility launched confetti and candy at spectators.
Finally, in the 1930s, it was the turn of papier-maché masks and floats led by oxen, accompanied by satirical characters.
Today the large flower-embellished infiorati floats are one of the biggest draws for visitors.
Carnival of Fano
The seaside town of Fano in Le Marche region is home to one of the most famous and ancient Italian carnivals. Celebrations began in medieval times to mark the reconciliation of two local families.
Some of its most original elements include the throwing of cioccolatini, chocolates, from the parade floats to spectators (how’s that for a sweet Carnival?!); the masks known as vulons, caricatures of the city’s most famous people; and Musica Arabita, where music is played using pots, pans and coffee cans.