Everyone knows about carnevale in Venice, filled with masks, elaborate costumes and intrigue it’s one of the most famous carnival celebrations in the world. But carnevale in Italy is more than just Venice! Actually it’s celebrated in every little town and city throughout the boot.
Last year we went to Venice for carnival, driving there and back in a day, but after reading about Ivrea’s “Battle of the Oranges” carnival for an article I wrote (here) I knew this year we’d have to try something new.
If Venice’s carnival is elegant and intriguing, Ivrea’s is unsophisticated and exciting.
Every year Ivrea, a tiny city near Turin, hosts its famous Battaglia delle Arancie (Battle of the Oranges) in the final days of the carnival season. The battle represents the city’s liberation from tyranny in 1194 when the miller’s daughter “la mugnaia” rebelled against the city’s ruler by cutting off his head when he tried to rape her. How’s that for a “no means no”!? The mugnaia’s act incited a revolution from the townspeople against the evil ruler, pitting common townsfolk against the royal family and guards.
Today the event is remembered with an enormous blood orange battle in the town’s two main piazzas. Nine teams with hundreds of people each representing the commoners try to bombard the horse-drawn carriages filled with guards defending the aristocracy. As was likely also in Medieval times, the guards have pads and helmets while the commoners do not.
Along with the Mugnaia there is the general and his brave officers, there to ensure a smooth day, as well as the Assistant Grand Chancellor and other important figures, with the flag and drum parade to complete the day.
Crates and crates…and crates of oranges are trucked in from southern Italy for the event, enough oranges for the battle to last hours. The broken oranges begin to pile so high that they regularly have to clean off narrow streets with a snowplow for the fight to continue.
I asked one guard how he was able to have the prized position (or not so prized, considering most allegiance is with the people). Unsurprisingly it’s usually through a friend or someone who has done it the previous year. Still, each guard needs to go through a “baptism” of sorts, basically being pummeled by oranges from their own team until the basket runs out and they are deemed worthy for the fight.
“It’s fun. It charges you up,” the guard said. I also noticed they were passing around a bottle of grappa in the carriage before the event, at 20-40% pure alcohol that will help “charge you up” as well…
Still, whether guard or bystander, drunk or sober, it’s likely you will be charged up when the battle starts. You have to be a part of one of the nine teams to participate. Those that aren’t wear the traditional berretto rosso, red hats, to be excluded from the battle. Still, casualties happen.
While the guards tend to aim straight down, the “townsfolk” throw from all sides, causing oranges to fly everywhere. If you can get a spot behind a net you’re safe, but it’s definitely not as fun. Moving from one piazza to the next we shielded our faces (and in my case, my camera) from flying oranges, getting hit occasionally but luckily not in the face. In front of me an orange hit a man in the shoulder, exploding instantly and splattering blood (orange insides) all over my face.
Thousands of pounds of oranges are brought in for the battle and about 50,000 people flooding into the tiny town as well. The oranges form a thick pulp that covers the streets, remnants of a vicious battle, filling the air with a pungent citrus smell. Many Italians dislike the fest because of it’s enormous food waste. Other’s say it’s simply too dangerous and silly. While both of these are logical, mostly truthful, arguments the point of carnival is not to be responsible or frugal, in fact, for better or worse it’s just the opposite.
And though the Ivrea festival might be all of those things, it is also one of the most intimate war reenactments I’ve ever seen.
Of course I haven’t seen many war reenactments, but here I saw friends egg each other on, pummel each other with oranges or team up to take down a guard. Strangers huddled together, protecting each other from the flying oranges and moving around to allow others to take photos. Old and young, everyone was there to have a good time.
For a traveler, that’s about as good as it gets.
Because unlike most travels when we are desperately stuck as outsiders, the Battle of the Oranges lets us cross over, if only in our minds or in that moment, until we are not outsiders, we are a part of the sprawl, we are a team, walking around with our red hats like everyone else, happy for the conformism and happy to take down the king!