Today we will learn about the ongoing Carnival in Italy, which is celebrated everywhere in the Bel Paese but is particularly known for that in Venice. However, there are some others, such as the Viareggio carnival, the Cento Carnival, and the Acireale Carnival.
This year the Carnival of Venice is taking place from Feb 4th to Feb 26th (Shrove Tuesday or Martedì Grasso, translated as Fat Tuesday). Lent begins the day after, Ash Wednesday, thus ending Shrovetide, which is a period over which people confess their sins and get their absolution – hence the word shrove, coming from shrive, which means “to absolve”).
A LITTLE OF HISTORY
As you may know, Carnivals merged with the Christian tradition at a certain point in history but in certain places, there were practices that resembled it. Most importantly, the Saturnalia, during the Roman empire age, took place between the 17th and the 23rd of December (being then more like the future Christmas than a holiday giving farewell to the finishing astronomical year and welcoming a new one).
During these Saturnalia the social order was somewhat subverted: masters served their slaves, there was a certain equality among freemen and non-freemen, continual partying, even orgies, private gift-giving, and the use of masks and costumes to “protect the identity of the innocent”. This could be thereby considered one of the sources for what would become the Christian Carnival.
Also based on astronomical events, as the world depended on agriculture to stay alive –yes, no factories and no insurance companies or shady offshore banks back in the time–, the Christian tradition observed the eternal struggle between cold and warm, evil vs. good, with Jesus Christ’s 40-day-long fasting in the desert before the beginning of his ministry, in spring. During his time in the desert, Jesus rejected, among other things, the ownership of the world that Satan was offering him on a silver plate. So, the Christians switched the start of winter for the transition from winter to spring as the important date, while the Romans based their festivity on the fact that cold weathers are critical to the land’s becoming fertile again.
The first Carnival of Venice took place in 1162 when because of a military victory of the Venetian Republic people started dancing and partying at the world-widely famous St. Mark’s Square (Piazza di San Marco). This leads us to the typical Venice costumes and masks.
VENICE CARNIVAL COSTUMES
The Carnevale in Italy, and especially in Venice, features the use of masks (e.g., columbine or half masks covering eyes, nose, and upper cheeks, as well as Plague Doctor’s masks and with other satyrical motives) and very colorful outfits which remind us of those good old times.
At first, the mask-makers or mascherari were very well-reputed in society and held a guild of their own. Over the years, mask manufacturing has turned into more of an industrial thing, devoid of the charm of centuries ago. But certainly, this edition of the Carnival in Italy is not losing steam.
ITALIAN CARNIVAL FOOD
Also important for this period is the food. Among the typical foods during the Carnival in Italy, we mention some sweets that can come either fried or baked. These are long and receive a number of names depending on the region where we celebrate Carnival: you could find them disguised as bugie, frappe, chiacchiere, cenci, etc. Flavor, though, is not so different and will usually be appreciated. These chiacchiere are also called crostoli di Carnevale.
Other sweets you don’t have to miss the chance to try and fall under their spell are:
- Graffe Napoletane (Italian donuts), from Naples
- Sfingi Siciliani (Sicilian style doughnuts), from Sicily
- Pignoccata Siciliana (small balls of fried dough), from Sicily
On the street, children play throwing small pieces of paper named coriandoli in Italian. Be careful as you could easily mistake coriandoli for confetti and streamers: even though the function is pretty much that, they are not exactly the same.
It is the time in which pranks are done on people so it is not uncommon that, when you are back home, you will look much different and untidy than you were when you left home in the morning. On the streets, you risk ending up all smeared with shaving cream or may be hit with your daily protein dose on the shirt due to the eggs they can throw at you. So, if you are a tad bit touchy, we strongly recommend calling yourself sick at work, for the sake of not becoming somebody’s target. Otherwise, have fun, and give back to your neighboring pranksters!
Of course, celebrations could be a little saner, and you simply go and look at the carri (floats) showing all kinds of politicians, actors, football players, you name it. There are contests on the best carro of the year.
Hopefully, you will see all of this firsthand, as a privileged spectator. So, if Italy is your destination during Carnivals (and don’t mind the actually low possibility of being attacked with eggs), consider learning some words, phrases, and even the whole language. You can contact us and enroll in our online courses, we won’t disappoint.