Italy, Carnival in

Italy, Carnival in

Many colorful and diverse Carnival celebrations take place throughout Italy. In spite of their diversity they all revolve around public events, such as parades, mock battles, open-air banquets, bonfires, and masquerades. The Italians call this holiday Carnavale or sometimes la settimana grassa, the "Week of Fat" or "Fat Week." It reaches its climax on Shrove Tuesday, or as the Italians say, Martedì Grasso, which means "Fat Tuesday." The Italian saying, A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale, "during Carnival every prank is fair," reflects the mischievous spirit of Carnival in Italy.


The people of Italy have been celebrating Carnival since the Middle Ages. These medieval celebrations gave participants an opportunity to feast, especially on food soon to be forbidden for Lent, and cavort through city streets, drinking, singing, dancing, flirting, and wearing masks. The anonymity afforded by the mask gave people the opportunity to dabble in sexual, and other, behavior they wouldn't normally engage in. People also enjoyed staging mock battles in which they threw oranges, eggs, or flour at one another. Around the seventeenth century festival-goers also began to throw candy-coated almonds or even beads made of plaster. Later, people tossed confetti and flowers at one another. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries some Italians wore wire face masks to protect themselves against all these flying objects.


In the past Carnival offered the people of Italy one last opportunity to use up forbidden foods, such as butter, eggs, and animal fat, before the beginning of the Lenten fast. These restrictions influenced the foods that became traditional Carnival dishes in Italy. In many regions of Italy people fry up sweetened strips of pastry for the festival. These traditional Carnival sweets acquired a variety of colorful names throughout the country, including "little lies" in the Piedmont region, "gossips" in Milan, and "nun's ribbons" in a number of different places. Frittelle, or "fritters," are another favorite Carnival sweet in Italy. In fact, the phrase fare le fritelle, or "to make fritters," means to enjoy Carnival. In many places favorite Carnival meals feature pork or sausage.

Carnival in Venice

Historical documents trace Carnival in Venice back to the Middle Ages. These early records reveal that medieval Venetians enjoyed masquerading during Carnival, but that some people took advantage of their disguises in order to break rules and commit crimes. Over the centuries many laws were passed to limit the times when and places at which one could wear masks. For example, a law passed in 1339 forbade people from roaming the city in disguise at night. In 1458 another edict restricted men from dressing as women in order to gain entry into convents for dishonest purposes. For many hundreds of years the love of the Venetian people for their masks and costumes proved stronger than these laws. In fact, masks were so popular among the Venetians that they were worn outside of the Carnival season at banquets. Carnival masking itself began as early as St. Stephen's Day, which falls on December 26. Masking was also associated with other festivals, such as Ascension Day. In the eighteenth century women wore masks while attending the theater. Masquerading died out in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed Carnival in Venice itself came to an end under the rule of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who outlawed the festival. When the people of Venice revived Carnival in 1979, the mask once again became an important element of the holiday and the primary symbol of Carnival in Venice.

In the year 1687 over 30,000 people visited Venice during Carnival. The well-to-do attended lavish costume parties and everyone, rich and poor, paraded down the main streets in costumes. People feasted in the main square until late into the night. In those days, people amused themselves by letting bulls loose in the city and chasing them through the streets. For those who found themselves trapped in the path of an angry bull, Venice's many canals offered a handy means of escape. In the nineteenth century Venetians abandoned the sport of bull-chasing. Other old Venetian Carnival customs include various acrobatic stunts, such as the building of large human pyramids outside the homes of top city officials and a trick called the "flight of the angel," whereby an acrobat descended from a tall bell tower by means of a rope, tossing confetti to the crowds below as he came down.

Nowadays thousands of people flock once again to Venice for Carnival. Sauntering through the city streets in costume and watching the fabulous masks and costumes of others still constitutes the primary pastime associated with this holiday. Festival-goers can see a wide range of contemporary and traditional costumes. In Venice traditional costumes include that of La Bautta, "the Domino," who wears a black hood, white mask, black three-cornered hat and black cape. Il Dottore, a pompous professor, is another popular character. Other traditional costumes, popular throughout Italy, evolved from the stock characters of commedia dell'arte, a humorous kind of improvisational theater that began in the sixteenth century. These include Pierrot, a gloomy clown who wears a baggy white coat with big buttons, Harlequin, a rascally clown who wears clothes made of patches or diamond-shaped lozenges, and Punchinello, a hunchback.

The city also hosts many masked balls, some geared towards the famous and the wealthy, others more democratic in their guest list. On the last day of Carnival a public masquerade party is held on San Marcos square. Fireworks, music, dancing, and, of course, costumewatching entertain those who attend.


The town of Ivrea, located in the Piedmont region of Italy, celebrates the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of Carnival with a giant food fight. The weapons are blood oranges, over sixty tons of them, shipped to the town from Sicily. Over the years the food fight has become an expression of neighborhood rivalry. Squads of invaders riding horsedrawn carts pelt buildings and people that they pass on their way through a given neighborhood. Defenders, stationed on the streets, protect their territory by hurling oranges at the carts and the people who ride them. Thrown with force, these juicy but substantial missiles cause bruises. Many people therefore opt out of this sport, wearing red knit caps to identify themselves as non-combatants.

In Ivrea a woman from the pages of local legend leads the celebrations. Named Violetta, but referred to most often as La Mugnaia, a nickname that identifies her as the daughter of the local miller, she lived during the twelfth century. In those days the local nobleman claimed the right to sleep with each new bride who lived in his territory on her wedding night. On her wedding day Violetta trudged up to the castle to comply with the nobleman's demands. She hid a knife in the folds of her clothing, however. As soon as she was alone with the tyrant, Violetta drew out the knife and killed him. Then she cut off his head and dangled it from the castle window to show the townspeople that their hated overlord was dead. After throwing the severed head into the river Violetta set fire to the castle and fled into the night. A three-day battle between the townspeople and the soldiers loyal to the old nobleman ensued. The people of Ivrea won their freedom. For this reason Ivreans still revere La Mugnaia as a heroine.

On the Saturday evening before Ash Wednesday a woman chosen to play the role of La Mugnaia leads a parade which kicks off Carnival in Ivrea. Other colorful characters from local and Italian history ride with her in the parade, including a man dressed as an early nineteenth-century French general, representing the period in history when Napoleon conquered this region of Italy. After the parade people disperse to attend the many Carnival parties held all over town. That same evening volunteers begin to prepare a huge meal for tomorrow's festival-goers. It consists mainly of tofeja, a bean dish seasoned with pork. In the town's main square 35 large cauldrons full of beans simmer slowly over fires all night long. People returning home from late-night parties often stop by to sample the dish. The following day the people of Ivrea gather for a communal feast. La Mugnaia and the French General ladle the tofeja into bowls and act as host and hostess. Red wine, cheese, and chocolates accompany the meal. After the banquet another procession with La Mugnaia takes place. When the parade reaches the river the mayor tosses a brick from the decaying castle of the old nobleman into the water. This act recalls the image of La Mugnaia cutting off the nobleman's head and throwing it in the river.

A local legend also tells why beans became such a popular Carnival dish in Ivrea. It asserts that long ago the rich nobles who owned the land used to give away free beans once a year to the poor people who tilled their fields. Hunger pinched the farmers year round, however, making the yearly sack of beans seem a meager gift. One day some poor farmers threw the beans back at the landowners in disgust. Local lore identifies this incident as the first Carnival food fight in Ivrea. As late as 1872 well-to-do families tossed oranges, beans, and candy into the crowd during Ivrea's Carnival celebrations. One record indicates that these foodstuffs contributed substantially to the diet of the poor.

La Mugnaia appears again on Shrove Tuesday. She and the French General lead the ceremonies that bring Carnival to an end. On the previous day, the most recently married couples from each of the town's five neighborhoods shoveled the first earth from the spot on which the neighborhood's scarli would be planted. Scarli are tall wooden poles wrapped with heather and juniper greens and topped with a flag. On the evening of Shrove Tuesday, the scarli planted in the town's central plaza is the first to burn. La Mugnaia raises her sword in the air as a signal to the torchbearers to set the scarli on fire. If the flames reach as high as the flag atop the pole, then the neighborhood may expect good luck as well as many new marriages in the coming year. With a flute player piping out a mournful tune, the crowd walks to the next neighborhood to burn its scarli. After all the poles have burned the parade continues in silence, the only sound that of the General's sword as he drags it over the pavement. This funeral march memorializes the death of Carnival and the arrival of Lent. On Ash Wednesday the citizens of Ivrea enjoy one last communal feast. This one features salt cod, a traditional Lenten food in southern Europe. Preparations begin four days before, when the dried, salted fish is put into water to soak. Soaking reconstitutes the fish and removes most of the salt. Volunteers fry the fish during the night on Shrove Tuesday. The following morning it is cooked with onions and a red or white sauce along with polenta. Many townspeople not only enjoy this feast on Ash Wednesday but also take some fish home and freeze it for use in the days or weeks to come.


Viareggio, located in the region of Italy known as Tuscany, hosts one of the most well-known Carnivals in Italy. The celebration as it is known today took shape in the late nineteenth century. In 1873 several local men staged the town's first Carnival parade. Riding atop a couple of ox-drawn carts strewn with garlands and wine bottles, some disguised themselves as Bacchus, the ancient Roman god of wine, while others, serving as coachmen, dressed as bears. Their modest effort proved so popular that the very next year a committee formed to produce a new parade. They added a fireworks display and a ceremony honoring the end of Carnival in which a dummy representing the festival is set on fire. Over the years the size of the floats and puppets have grown. Nowadays it's not uncommon to see floats carrying paper mâché figures several stories high. The artisans of Viareggio, who are called maghi or "magicians" for their amazing paper mâché sculptures, produce figures whose arms, legs, and eyes move, making them appear to be animated. They specialize in humorous representations of politicians, actors, intellectuals, and other famous people.

Viareggio's Carnival celebrations also feature many smaller parades that run through local neighborhoods. These neighborhood celebrations offer a wide variety of musical entertainments. As they say in Viareggio, Carnevale é il vecchio, che la vita ci Ridá, meaning "Carnival is the old fool who gives us life."


Verona's Carnival features a day devoted to the celebration of food. The parade that day is led by Il Papa del Gnocco, the Pope of Gnocci. Gnocci are a kind of potato and flour dumpling. Il Papa del Gnocco wields a scepter made to look like a giant fork spearing a giant gnocci. Parade floats celebrate local foodstuffs. After the parade the people who live in the neighborhood of San Zeno gather in the main plaza for a meal of gnocci, sausage, herring, and polenta.

Further Reading

Field, Carol. Celebrating Italy. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Lau, Alfred. Carneval International. Bielefeld, Germany: Univers-Verlag, n.d. Lyden, Jacki. "Analysis: Battle of the Oranges in Carnival Celebration in Italy." Weekend Edition, National Public Radio (March 12, 2000). Transcript available for a fee online at audiotape of segment available at (search on "Battle of Oranges"). Orloff, Alexander. Carnival: Myth and Cult. Wörgl, Austria: Perlinger, 1981.

Web Site

A history of Carnival in Venice available through the "Guest in Venice" web site, sponsored by Omnia Office at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002