Carnival is a quintessential Italian festivity and there are a lot of festivals everywhere in the country at this time of the year.
Around mid-February, depending on when Carnival falls each year, every town – even the smallest one – celebrates Carnival. The most common way of doing it is having a parade with floats, music, and people wearing masks. People parade along the streets and then meet in the main city square for some frittelle (fritters) and drinks.
If you don’t know much about Carnival, you can find more information in a couple of old posts of mine. One post describes the traditional way of celebrating this festivity, while the other one is about the Italian language, precisely about some common Italian words and phrases to be used at Carnival. Both of them can be quite useful if you want to learn more about this unique Italian celebration.
As you may already know, the two most famous Italian Carnivals are those of Venice and Viareggio. They are known everywhere in the world and represent two different ways of celebrating: Venice Carnival is more elegant and refined, while the one in Viareggio is more satirical and a bit tacky.
But there are other festivals all around the country, some of which are really unique. Most of these celebrations have very old origins and date back to ancient times. Some of them are quite popular, but some others are almost unknown outside their areas of origin.
I have picked three of these festivals, just to give you an idea of different ways of celebrating Carnival. I have selected three very different ones, so that you can have an idea of how diverse these festivals can be – more than just parades, plastic masks, and confetti.
Storico Carnevale di Ivrea
Ivrea is a town in Piedmont, not far from Turin, on the road leading to the alpine region of Valle d’Aosta. There, in the northwestern corner of the country, every year a very peculiar Carnival takes place. It’s the Historical Carnival of Ivrea, which is said to be the oldest Carnival in Italy.
Its rites have medieval origins and have been handed down orally until 1808, which is the year of the first written record of the Carnival ceremonies in Ivrea. The Carnival of Ivrea is a very unique celebration, quite different from all other celebrations of this kind around Italy.
The Carnival is especially famous for the Battaglia delle Arance (Battle of the Oranges) but it consists of various rites and traditions, all having to do with the liberation of the city from tyranny back in Medieval times. The Carnival has its own song as well, titled Una volta anticamente (Once upon a time), which celebrates the uprising of the starving citizens against the Marquess of Monferrato. People taking part in the Carnival must wear a red cape, called Berretto Frigio, which is a symbol of freedom.
As I said, the most popular event in the Carnival is the Battle of the Oranges, a representation of the rebellion against the tyrant. Such battle is fought for three days and its played between two parties: the people on foot, who represent the oppressed citizens, and the ones on carriages, who play the role of feudal armies. They throw oranges at each other and the battle is very violent at times. If you want to go there, pay attention and always wear the Berretto Frigio, as otherwise you can be considered a target and be thrown oranges – something I don’t think you’d appreciate.[If you want to see more of this celebration, here is a video]
Carnevale di Mamoiada
From up north in alpine Italy, we move to one of the most beautiful and wildest Italian regions: Sardinia. The island is full of ancient sites and has a lot of really old traditions and rites. Mamoiada, which is the town where this celebration takes place, is in Barbagia, a very remote and secluded area in the region.
The Carnival of Mamoiada is one of the most ancient folk traditions in Italy. It is very simple – if compared to other festivals around the country – and no floats or elaborate masks are involved. Basically, people just wear traditional costumes, walk down the town streets and dance to traditional music for hours and hours.
The most important moment in the celebration of the parade of the Mamuthones and Issohadores, a very archaic and solemn procession, almost like a religious one. Mamuthones are dressed in sheep clothes and wear a black mask. On their backs, they carry a set of cowbells of approximately 30kg of weight, tied with leather strings, and other smaller bells on the front.
Issohadores, instead, wear a red jacket and a white mask and escort the Mamuthones. They carry a rope and use it to capture some of the bystanders: to free themselves, the prisoners shall have to offer them drinks. There is actually another character is the Carnival, Juvanne Martis Sero, a puppet that is brought around the streets during Carnival and finally killed in the main square, marking the end of the Carnival.[If you want to see more of this celebration, here is a video]
Carnevale di Tricarico
Moving further south, we get to know another very ancient celebration: the Carnival of Tricarico, in Basilicata. Tricarico is a small town in the province of Matera and has one of the oldest and best kept medieval historical areas in the region.
There, in such a perfect setting, another very ancient ritual takes place. This Carnival is all about animals: as a matter of fact, the celebration begins on January 17th, the day of St. Anthony Abbot, protector of animals. The day begins very early because the masks need to get ready.
The traditional masks are those of cows and bulls. Cows wear a large hat with very long multicolored ribbons that hide the body, while bulls are dressed exactly the same with the only difference that all ribbons are black. Each mask carries a bell, which varies in shape and sound for cows and bulls.
All masks parade around town and wake up fellow citizens by playing their bells. They walk around the St. Anthony’s church three times, to celebrate the saint and receive his protection, and then keep on parading around town. At the end of the parade, people wearing masks are invited into people’s houses to drink and eat.[If you want to see more of this celebration, here is a video]
I hope you have enjoyed this little journey throughout Italy and its traditions and I also hope that this post inspired you to visit Italy at Carnival to experience some of its ancient celebrations.
By the way, have you ever visited Italy at Carnival? If so, where did you go?
If you are interested in learning more about Italian culture and lifestyle, I’d suggest you jump on my digital Vespa and join Be Italian For A Month, your 30-day virtual journey to Italy.
You will also learn some Italian words, you’ll receive some typical Italian recipes – ready to be cooked and enjoyed, you’ll get to tour around Italy, and learn about Italian traditions, proverbs, stereotypes, you name it. Plus, some cute surprises along the way!