Carnevale: The name evokes parades of masked characters, unbridled indulgence, and festivities that last for days. This ancient Italian tradition goes far beyond Venice. Discover three of Piemonte’s unique carnivals and the traditions behind the revelry.
Carnevale has arrived! Children in costume, confetti eternally decorating the sidewalks, weekend parades, and drawn-out feasts mark this ancient tradition in Italy. Carnevale isn't something only the Venetians get to enjoy, but a celebration that infiltrates the smallest of villages to the most important cities up and down the peninsula. Discover some (odd) local traditions, identify the most popular masks, indulge in Carnevale sweets, and find out where the party is going down in Piemonte.
Where's the party? History and origins
Today, Carnevale is associated with the final festivities and indulgences of the flesh before the sober period of Lent preceding Easter Sunday. Its roots are much earlier, however, and can be traced back to the Ancient Roman Saturnalia, a mid-December feast and festival that honored the god Saturn. Catholicism, unsurprisingly, appropriated the festival to fit into its own liturgical calendar, as often happens with the advance of one culture or religion over another.
The root of the word Carnevale leaves little guesswork. A commonly accepted derivation is the Latin “carne vale,” or “farewell to meat;” or perhaps the Latin “carnem levare” or “carnelevarium,” meaning to take away the meat. Today for Lent, it’s common that a person “gives up” a favorite food (which at times seems like a poor disguise for dieting, an example of modern times appropriating religious rites), but for centuries it was a time for fasting and abstinence – meaning no meat.
Martedì Grasso, Mardis Gras, Fat Tuesday: these are all names for the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It's the final hurrah for partying. Carnevale rarely takes place solely on Martedì Grasso, however; a popular date to begin is Shrove Tuesday, the week before actual Carnevale and Ash Wednesday, or even weeks earlier. In addition, celebrations are not reserved for the extravagant festivities of Venice or Viareggio, whose carnival is famous for its huge floats that lampoon politicians. On the contrary, the majority of Italian towns and cities have their own festivities.
In times past, the week of revelry was seen as the passing of the old winter season into the fresh springtime. Carnevale was a time to get all the sinful urges out at once, and then purify oneself during the Lenten season in anticipation of a productive year ahead. But Carnevale was also an annual opportunity to reverse roles: men became women, peasants became nobility, and everyone wore a mask, enabling all sorts of anonymous good times and debauchery. In fact, during the Middle Ages masks were such a hit that the nobility grew fond of wearing them outside of Carnevale time – how else could they gamble and frequent questionable locales? Some folk higher up who clearly didn’t enjoy having a good time passed laws to restrict the wearing of masks with the exclusion of special days like Carnevale.
In Piemonte, every town had their own traditions, some of which have lasted the test of time while others are only a memory in art and books. One of the oldest purification rites was the sacrifice of an animal, which varied from town to town. In Montà, Cisterna d’Asti, and San Damiano d’Asti, a man would play the part of a “bear;” but, having no bear skins, the townspeople covered him in honey and feathers and gave him ample wine and free reign to cavort around the town, terrifying children and causing a ruckus. In Dusino, townsfolk played the parts of barber and customer. The customer, however, was not allowed to see who cut his beard, and the barber disguised his voice so as not to be recognized.
Who's that guy? Traditional masks
Feathers, glitter, colorful paint, elegant designs, half-faced masks, masks demurely held up by hand … as astounding as the variety of characters and masks may seem, several personalities and styles make a recurrence. Here are several popular masks as well as examples of local Piemontese themes:
Bautta – This white mask, or volto, leaves a portion of the face exposed and is often seen with a full, flowing black veil or cloak and a black tricorn hat. Useful for eating, drinking, and kissing while concealing one’s identity.
Gnaga – Oh, the hilarity: these are men dressed as women, though not necessarily acting as one.
Commedia dell’Arte – The stock characters of Italian comedy from the 16th-18th centuries are always seen during Carnevale. They include Arlecchino (the Harlequin), Pantalone (the greedy merchant or miser), Capitano, (the Captain) Brighella (Harlequin’s villainous brother), and Colombina (a love-struck servant girl who provides one of the only voices of reason in the wild and wooly world of Commedia dell’Arte). There is also Gianduja, of the same name as the famous Torinese fudgy dessert treat, who is a wine- and food-loving Piemontese farmer. I think we can all identify with him.
Il Medico, the Plague Doctor – Easily recognizable by his long, beaked nose. Once, this was no Carnevale mask, but used by doctors during the Black Plague by stuffing the long nose full with protective herbs. Now, Il Medico is one of the Carnevale’s most evocative styles. Simple and usually mono-colored, its silhouette has a dark, almost ominous feel, contrasting with the hilarious revelry of Carnevale.
Local characters crop up in Carnevale in many different towns. For example, in Biella, there is Babi (which means “toad” in dialect) whose symbolic backstory stands for the ancient rivalry between Biella and Vercelli. In Vercelli, there are two protagonists, the courageous Bicciolano and his beautiful wife the Bela Majin; Bicciolano rebelled against the heavy French taxes levied during the French Revolution.
Many towns have a version of an historical hero, an oppressor, or both. The Turco of La Morra and the Moro of Mondovì all stand for the Saracens, for instance, who invaded Piemonte in the 10th century. For a complete list of local masks in Cuneo alone (and to give an idea of how many masks there are!), this pdf explains the backstory behind each one (in Italian).
Need ... more ... sugar: Sweet Carnevale treats
These are the last days of indulgence before a long period of restriction; don’t expect carrot sticks to be served during Carnevale. Dessert will usually be deep-fried and delicious.
Friciò, or frittelle – Sweet, soft dough filled with raisins or a mix of raisins, apple, and Marsala wine, then fried.
Bugie, also called tìra and rosoni in parts of Piemonte – These make an appearance all over Italy under many different names (chiacchiere may be the most common). They're thin wafers of fried dough, crispy and sprinkled with powdered sugar. They can take other variations, too, like sugar-sprinkled, fried, chocolate-filled ravioli.
Can I get invited to the party? 3 Unique Piemontese carnivals
Taking part in Carnevale at any one of these Piemontese festivities promises to be entertaining and completely unique.
The Carnival of Ivrea has been held since the 1600s and is known for being the only themed carnival in the world, which is the live narration of the city’s history with traditional and symbolic costumes. The symbolism stops just short of realism for one of the Carnival’s main events, which truly makes it stand out from the crowd: the Battle of the Oranges, or the Battaglia delle Arance. 400 tons of oranges are tossed, thrown, and squashed in a juicy melee that reenacts the battle of the populist uprising against those in power. The oranges were originally tossed gently during Carnevale as a tribute; once an exotic fruit, these were not an everyday supermarket purchase. When the celebrators in fancy costumes would walk by, the tossing intensified into vehement throwing, and in a mingling of legends and history, it echoed the rebellion against the tyrant. If you see an orange speared onto a sword, that's the tyrant's head. The event echoes that of Borgosesia’s carnival, the Battle of Mandarins – which might be a less painful skirmish.
The costumes evoke a legend of Ivrea (in common with the Lacher of Rocca Grimalda, below) of the daughter of a miller, Violetta, who refused to concord with jus primae noctis, or the right of the Baron to take wives to his castle on her first wedding night. How did she refuse, exactly? Violetta got the Baron drunk and cut off his head, thus igniting the fire of the people to rebel against the rich, upper class oppressors. Cue Battle of the Oranges.
Note: If you want to witness the battle but avoid being a target, wear the red sock cap that innocent bystanders use to signal their neutrality. You shouldn't get hit.
The Carnival of Santhià is the oldest in Piemonte, its origins lost to time. It claims to host the biggest fagiolata, or bean feast, in all of Italy. Its festive community spirit and the events that come from it make this Carnival stand out. A good quarter of the population is directly involved in the parade of allegorical floats and elaborate costumes, and many more are working behind the scenes. The local orchestra, founded in 1873, regales the crowds with its 80 instruments and accompanying majorettes; and later there's the pule e congreghe, when carnival groups make the rounds to all the houses to collect funds for the great Bean Feast on Monday evening.
Enjoy this festive week by simply walking down the streets and taking in the sights and great Carnevale food. The festivities, games, and parades are every day. As you sample the vin brulè or gorgonzola panini, be careful not to get smacked in the face with a cake. If you do, just remember: it’s all in good fun.
Lachera di Rocca Grimalda
The Lachera of Rocca Grimalda is not as long as other carnivals in Piemonte or Italy, with its main attraction held just two days. But this carnival is particularly interesting for its ancient history; similar to the Carnevale of Ivrea, the Lachera has roots in a rebellion of a brave, young, married couple against the lord of the territory who claimed feudatory rights to any new bride on the first night of her marriage. The lord sent his soldiers to crush the revolt, but the soldiers wasted little time in changing sides, and soon all the city took part in the rebellion, marching proudly through the streets.
The name of the Carnival comes from the word “Lachè,” or servants, two characters that dress up and dance throughout the parade – a dance thought to have originally been a caricature of the squires and rulers. They jump and leap and stumble towards the bride during the procession through the streets, but never quite reach her. Take that, feudalism!
Interested in seeing what the parade looked like decades ago? Historical masks and costumes are displayed in the Mask Museum in this small town.
Following is a list of several other Carnevale festivals in the region of Piemonte—by no means the complete list.
Varallo - www.carnevalevarallo.com
Vigone - www.comune.vigone.to.it
Busca - www.comune.busca.cn.it
Mondovì - www.carnevaledimondovi.it
Borgosesia - www.carnevaleborgosesia.it
Dronero - istituzione.dronero.cn.it
Saluzzo - www.saluzzoturistica.it