Carnevale (Carnival)


The Italian carnival has nothing to do with travelling sideshows or merry-go-rounds. The origin of the word carnevale is actually connected to the medieval religious precept of fasting and abstaining from eating meat during Lent. There are various interpretations on how it ended up being related to a festival, but the most probable is that Carnival was a sort of free-for-all time to eat and party before the clergy-imposed harshness of the weeks to come.

Historically speaking this involved an atmosphere of general debauchery, including a parade with peasants where a puppet representing the previous year (and, unofficially, the local king or ruler) was subjected to all sorts of disgrace and humiliation, and eventually burnt in public. The ritual was meant to bring good luck for the future, and for some people it was the one time when they could relax and be away from the ever-vigilant surveillance of their landlords and the church.

A street parade is all that remains of all that in modern-day Italy – but what a parade it is! Italy has a strong tradition of marvelous parade floats, especially in some towns like Viareggio whose festival is a national event. The majestic floats represent the key events and characters of the previous year. The latter in particular tend to be more ridiculed than celebrated by masked actors. Also present are the traditional masks of the commedia dell’arte characters associated with the various Italian towns: Pulcinella for Naples, Balanzone for Bologna and so on. After the Twentieth century, costumes and masks became ever more frequent among children and participants in general. Halloween wasn’t celebrated in Italy until very recently, so carnival was pretty much the one time when people could take on another identity and have fun without fearing the consequences. This is of course also a key element in another unique Italian carnival: the carnival of Venice.

Venetian carnival masks and costumes are actually a symbol of Reinassance heritage, when they were worn to protect the privacy of famous upper-class people who needed to conduct their business and affairs stealthily, as Venice was the heart of a far-reaching commercial empire and the seat of influential backroom politics. The disguises however, were soon adopted by all sorts of wrongdoers as well and most notably by libertines and secret lovers. The masks became part of the local culture, but they were worn semi-officially only during carnival season. Of course with Italy’s strong passion for food, carnival is naturally also characterized by a series of typical foods. The most common one throughout the whole country is chiacchiere, baked or fried puff pastry covered in powdered sugar. More regional treats typical of this event include the castagnole fried dough balls with lemon zest, graffe(similar to donuts), ravioli fritti – a kind of fried dough filled with Nutella cream or jam – and arancini di carnevale, spiral-shaped orange flavored sweets.

To taste Carnival, emerge yourself in the taste of Italy's thousand colors. Italian Traditions takes you to the best restaurants with the IT5 of the week.