Many travelers to Italy might never know the importance of Carnival, or carnevale, in Italy.
But the few who have seen the pictures, or happened to be here during Carnival season will know: it’s huge.
Carnival is far more than just eerily elaborate masks in Venice. It’s celebrated by young and old in ever town and throughout the peninsula. Its roots grow deep and the celebration is huge. For visitors to Italy it truly is a sight to see.
So why is it so big here? What’s the deal with Carnevale anyway? Read on…
When did Carnevale start?
Carnival is a pagan festival that was eventually adopted by the Catholics of Italy when they realized the party’s popularity. Said to be a festa to the wine-drunk god Bacchus, or maybe Saturn…or maybe both, it’s more likely that this holiday started even before that, to primitive societies that painted face and body and used fire to celebrate the end of winter and the coming of spring.
After Italy became a Christian country, the party fit in perfectly with the pre-Lenten period. Lent is seen as a solemn time for prayer and restriction. Carnival was the last hurrah of food and sex, meat and mischief before 40 days of sobriety. It was also simply a way to finish the last of the fat, sugar and meat in store before those food items are forbidden.
The most pervasive history is that Carnival got its start in Venice in 1162 when Venetians celebrated a victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia, however I’ve seen multiple different dates and evidence that mask-wearing in Venice started far before this particular holiday.
The masks represented the one time each year when strict social and economic classes among people were broken down and people were free to be who they wished. The infamous Casanova was even able to seduce a rich noblewoman, convincing her he was also of noble heritage, a conquest which he wrote all about in his autobiography.
It may come as no surprise, but the people loved it.
After these early celebrations Carnival had an on-again, off-again history, waning during periods of plague and poverty and becoming outright banned under the Austrian Empire and Mussolini’s rule. The Carnival that we know today started back up in 1979 and has gone ever since.
How do Italians celebrate?
In some cities, Carnival is celebrated for up to five weeks with parades and costume contests and general bacchanalia every weekend. In the smallest towns day cares and elementary schools, volunteer organizations and other groups create floats and march in a parade on a single, specified date. (As opposed to the weeks-long celebration in cities like Venice and Viareggio). Afterwards there is usually a celebration at the local parish, complete with a cookout, beer and wine.
Schools close for the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and on the Friday before children will come to school dressed up in masks or princess or superhero costumes. (It’s similar to our Halloween but without the fear factor). The lucky ones will be taken outside to walk around the block and throw confetti in the piazza. For weeks around Carnival time you’ll find brightly colored bits of paper littering the streets.
Tell me about the food…
Carnival is a time of excess, and the best example of this is seen in the sweets. As with any major holiday, Carnival has its own specific desserts made just for the season. Post-Christmas you’ll start to find the local Carnival desserts filling the bakeries of Italy.
Try frittelle, castagnole with ricotta and arancia that seem something like little doughnut holes, or cucchielle, another fried dough treat. There’s also the migliaccio napoletano, a creamy Neapolitan cake made with ricotta that tastes even better the next day. Generally, Carnival desserts in Italy are made with dough and fried. They can be varied with lemon or orange zest, chocolate or cream fillings.
By far the most ubiquitous Carnival dessert, and my personal favorite, are the absolutely delicious chiacchiere. These crunchy fritters covered with powdered sugar are delicious. Called Crostoli in Trentino, donzelle in Tuscany or bugie in Piedmont, the name may change but the once-a-year sweets remain the perfect Carnival indulgence.
Where can I celebrate Carnival in Italy?
Most associate Carnival in Italy as the carnevale di Venezia, and though it is gorgeous, it’s also only one of dozens of different destinations to celebrate Carnevale.
The three biggest and most famous Carnival destinations are Venice, Acireale in Sicily and the coastal town of Viareggio, but there are so many more to experience.
- Venice, Veneto – for the costumes.
- Viareggio, Tuscany – for the political nature and massive floats.
- Acireale, Sicily – for the flower floats.
- Fano, Le Marche – for the toss of the sweets – nearly 100 pounds worth!
- Putignano, Puglia – for the longest running Carnival, starting right after Christmas.
- Ivrea, Piedmont – for the aforementioned Battle of the Oranges
- Cento, Emilia Romagna – for a Rio-like Carnival
- Pont St. Martin, Val d’Aosta – for a Roman-style Carnival with togas and all
- Barbagia villages, Sardinia – Carnival celebrations found in Sardinia are steeped in ancient traditions and rites
- Milan, Lombardy – for the final Carnival celebration of the year – four days after Fat Tuesday!
If your in Italy during the final Carnival weekend (the one right before that year’s Fat Tuesday) you’re likely to stumble on a parade or festa or two! The following years’ Mardi Gras dates are: February 16, 2021; March 1, 2022; and February 21, 2023.
Read more of my writing about the different Carnevale celebrations in Italy over at Ciao Andiamo.
How can I celebrate?
You don’t have to do much to celebrate Carnival in most parts of Italy: just show up and have fun! Last year we happened to be in Palermo during Carnival weekend (it’s a holiday weekend here in Italy!) and though we had no costumes, we made our way to the parade location and ate cannoli while massive floats and fun costumes marched and danced by. There was music and plenty to gawk at.
That said, it’s not impossible to participate. First, know which days are the events – most big Carnival celebrations have a website. Then, get a costume – the more elaborate the better! For Venice we only had masks, but there were huge, colorful and inventive costumes worn by locals and tourists alike.
Or, consider a truly crowd-friendly event like the Carnival of Ivrea and the bloody Battle of the Oranges. Or is that, Battle of the Blood Oranges?
A reenactment of the town’s rebellion against the feudal tyrants that ruled it, each year Ivrean “townspeople” and “lords” fight for hours on the streets of the city by pummeling each other with oranges. Spectators should buy and wear a red hat (sold upon entrance) and stay behind the protective nets if they don’t want to risk an orange to the nose!
Visitors to Italy might not 100% understand Carnevale, but they can certainly partake in the fun! Get silly. After all, this is the perfect season for it!
A Carnevale, ogni scherzo vale! During Carnival, anything goes.