Located along the historical Via Francigena, the city of Ivrea in Piedmont hosts a unique Carnival, the only one in Italy to have maintained its roots with the Middle Ages, even through the ages. In fact, the Carnival of Ivrea has its roots in the 16th century, when the various districts of the town, through their rivalry, organized the celebrations, with references to fertility, destruction and regeneration.
After Napoleon Bonaparte became King of Italy in 1805, the Carnival of Ivrea underwent a transformation, bringing on stage the revolutionary ideals of liberty which had reached Piedmont from the French Revolution. At that point, masked figures of Napoleon’s army appeared along the parade, wearing the “Phrygian cap” to avoid being struck by oranges. Why? Because the main feature of this Carnival — which makes it so unique — is the popular “Battle of the Oranges.” This battle is more than a folk event; it represents a real battle from 1194, when Ivrea citizens stormed a tyrant’s castle (it is debated exactly who the tyrant was), overthrowing the tyranny and social order. This is technically Italy’s largest food fight.
The spark of revolt was when a young woman (often referred to as “miller’s daughter”), Violetta, decided to get married and the Duke of Ivrea — identified as one of the two Ranieri di Biandrate or the Marquess of Montferrat William VII — wanted to exercise his droit du seigneur (prima nocta, or “right of the first night”) over her. Thus, the young Violetta was kidnapped and taken to the castle, but she was able to get the Duke drunk and decapitate him.
This gesture began the popular uprising, which culminated in a shooting of the Duke’s castle. So the figure of Violetta and the assault on the castle played a key role in the Ivrea community, eventually becoming an essential part of the Carnival celebrations. Every year in Ivrea a young girl — only if she is married — is chosen to play the part of the miller’s daughter and, after she greets everyone from a balcony on Saturday evening, three days of hard battle begin on the streets until Fat Tuesday. In addition to the orange throwers on foot, there are other revolutionaries on carts, representing the Duke’s army, and there is an orange battle between the two teams. The goal is to pummel the enemy with oranges. The choice of fruit — certainly not typical from Ivrea — evokes the blood out on the streets and the stones thrown against the castle’s walls during the revolution. The Battle of the Oranges is taken very seriously, so much so that at every Carnival, many Ivrean citizens are injured and taken to the hospital.
Carnival of Milan
The Carnival of Milan, known as “Carnevale Ambrosiano,” and the surrounding cities is also unique, but in a different way. Given that that area is under the Archdiocese of Milan, which follows the Ambrosian liturgical rite instead of the Roman Rite, their Carnival has a different calendar. In fact, it lasts four more days than in the rest of Italy, ending on the Saturday after Fat Tuesday. According to tradition, the bishop of Milan Saint Ambrose was engaged in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, announcing Milan’s citizens his return for Carnival, in time to start the liturgies on the first Sunday of Lent. Saint Ambrose delayed his return to Milan by four days, and hence his devotees waited for him, in turn extending the Carnival celebrations.
For this legendary reason, the Rite of Ashes in the Archdiocese of Milan is not celebrated on Ash Wednesday, but on the first Sunday of Lent. On Shrove Saturday — equivalent to the Shrove Tuesday in the rest of Italy — the Carnival of Milan culminates in a large parade of historical costumes. Among the festive crowd and the flag-wavers, traditional characters from Milanese theater – Beltrame, Meneghino and Cecca – parade through the streets of the city, officially closing the long lived Carnevale Ambrosiano.
Carnival on the islands
The greatest Carnival in Sicily is held in the town of Acireale, Catania. It is considered among the most ancient Carnivals in Italy and, according to The Guardian, among the best in Europe. Every year, in the magnificent baroque scenery of Acireale, the Carnival lives twice. The majestic parade with decorated floats, often taking a satirical note just like the Viareggio Carnival discussed in our previous article, takes place on Sundays, Fat Tuesday, and Maundy Thursday, putting on a show with thousands of lights.
In April, rather, the flowered floats give life to another Carnival, known as “Carnevale dei Fiori.” While the typical floats are made of a type of papier-maché, the flowered floats are made completely out of colored flowers, arranged side-by-side so that they create a figure. Both floats are adorned with thousands of colored lights and are able to make very complex movements during the parade: these animated floats are one-of-a-kind. The Carnival of Acireale is also enriched by the local folklore, transforming the city into a timeless place, with many smaller floats for children, rides, popular games, street artists, drum majors, fireworks and historical masks. In the past, the masks tended to be the Abbatazzu, the Baruni and the Manti (Sicilian dialect for Abbot, Baron and cloak), and in recent times they have become masks of real people from Acireale, like Cola Tadduzzu, Quadaredda e Ciccittu, an unforgettable local shoe merchant.
On the other large Italian island, Sardinia, Carnival is treated as something sacred and ancient. Nowhere else in Italy has Carnival kept these pagan rituals, closely related to the Dyonysian Mysteries. Sardinians celebrate Carnival by making references to the myths and the agricultural tradition of the island, populating the streets with knights, witches, masked weirdoes and scary figures. The epitome of the Sardinian Carnivals is located in the inner mountain region of Barbagia, south of the province of Nuoro. Here, in the villages of Mamoiada, Ottana and Orotelli amazing ancestral street dances take place with the traditional, local masks, known as Mamuthones (men wearing sheepskin and scary black wooden masks with cowbells on their backs), Issohadores (red shirts and anthropomorphic white masks), and Thurpos (disturbing figures clad in hooded tunics with their faces blackened by cork ash).
And lastly, in the village of Bosa in eastern Sardinia, on Fat Tuesday you can witness the Attitidu. This is a rousing line of banshees along the roads, surrounded by people dressed in mourning, each with a rag doll representing an abandoned child while the mother was celebrating Carnival. I think we can safely assume that Sardinia preserved the true essence of Carnival, that of the greatest mysteries of nature, of the circle of life, of the will power of man over nature and vice versa. To quote Oscar Wilde: in the great disorder of the cosmos “a mask tells us more than a face.”
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