Carnivals have long been events that feature joy, laughter and tradition all over the world. However, few are quite as historic or prestigious as the ones that are held throughout Italy during the winter months. These amazing celebrations bring centuries of history together, while also rejoicing in everything that brings the people together. The wine, food and festivities always flow.
What many people don’t know is that there are many carnivals held throughout Italy at this time of the year, and all of them have slightly different themes and histories behind them. Here we are going to look at a few of the biggest and most famous, so you know what you are letting yourself in for should you choose to visit one.
Far and away the most famous carnival held in Italy is the annual event in Venice. With a history stretching back into the 13th century, as the first carnival held in Venice was recorded in 1268, it is an event that is as defined by its subversive and rebellious nature as it is by the festivities throughout the streets.
The festival has endured plenty of trials since those early years. At numerous points throughout history there have been attempts to restrict it entirely, with some leaders going as far as to ban the signature masks that so many people wear during the event.
These masks have always been an important part of the event, which traditionally ran for a number of weeks. Beginning during the festival of Santo Stefano, which signals the start of the carnival season, and ending at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, the masks became such an important part of Venetian society that those who made them were afforded special privileges and even formed their own guild.
Interestingly, the efforts by various leaders to bring the carnival down actually worked for almost 200 years. When Venice became part of the Kingdom of Lombardy, the Austrians took control of the city and the carnival began to be seen as a sign of open rebellion against their rule. The celebrations came to a screeching halt for many a year, and it was not until fairly modern times, when a mask shop was opened in Venice in 1970, that the traditions and event itself began to make a comeback. Today, the Venetian carnival is one of the most important in Italy and definitey recommended for tourists.
While the Venetian carnival may be amongst the most historic in Italy, it is the Carnival of Viareggio that is perhaps the most famous and widely celebrated. It lasts for a little over a month and features all of the trappings that you may have come to expect from carnivals, including floats, parades, dancing and other celebrations.
Much like with the Venetian carnival, masks play a pretty important role here too and there are a number of masked dances and other events held during the festivities.
The carnival has become such an integral part of the region’s reputation and attraction that a Citadel was established in 2001 that is devoted almost entirely to the annual event. This amazing structure serves as the home for people making floats and also features a paper-mache school for those who wish to learn the art.
It is also here that the famous “Citadel Under the Stars” event is held, which includes a number of shows and concerts that further educate carnival lovers about the region while also providing plenty of entertainment.
While the Venetian carnival has become known as a little bit of a symbol of rebellion, it is the carnival held at Ivrea that is most directly tied to the concepts of freedom than any other held in Italy.
The entire event is based on something known as the Battle of the Oranges, which is a tale that is all about the struggle for freedom. Each year, storytellers at the carnival relate the tale of a miller’s wife from the year 1000 who killed King Arduino, a tyrant to the people who restricted their freedom.
This single act started a civil way that saw the oppressed people of the city rise up against the king’s supporters until, finally, the people stood triumphant and regained their freedom.
This allegorical event is remembered by the people every year with the Battle of the Oranges, in which people acting as the oppressed from the tale, known as Aranceri, fire oranges to represent ancient stones and arrows against people playing the role of the king’s supporters. It is a constant reminder of the power of the people to rise up against those who oppress them and makes for a carnival event that is quite unlike any other in the world.
We’ve taken a look at perhaps the most famous carnivals to be held in Italy over the winter months, but rest assured there are plenty more held throughout the country that are well worth a visit.
The carnival of Acireale pulls in people from around the globe each and every year to watch the gorgeous floats and flowers that are arranged into a baroque circuit. This has led to the event being named the best carnival in Sicily and with very good reason.
The Milan carnival is unique from the rest in that it tends not to end on Shrove Tuesday, as most others in Italy do. Instead, it goes on for four more days and winds up on Ash Wednesday. This is due to the Ambrosian rite, which defined Catholicism slightly differently to the Roman rite that many in Italy have looked to for their tradition.
Verona, South Tyrol and Putignano also hold carnivals every year. In Verona the highlight is a parade of what are known as “carri allegorici”, which always takes place on the final Friday of the carnival season and sees attendees eating the traditional dish of potato gnocchi.
Putignano, on the other hand, rivals the Venetian carnival for the title of oldest in Italy and has become one of the most famous in the country as a result. Dating back to 1394, it also has odd start and end times, beginning on Boxing Day and ending the day before Ash Wednesday.
The Final Word
Whichever carnival you choose to attend you will enjoy a special experience that is completely unique to Italy. We recommend getting over to one of the carnivals we have spoken about here to join in the celebrations.