In Italy, Carnevale is the last celebration before lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Lent has historically been the time before Easter when Catholics deprive themselves of something they enjoy. The thought is to party until you drop and spend the period of Lent recovering. Although the origin of the word is disputed, folk etymologies exist which state that the word comes from the Latin expression carne vale, which means “farewell to meat”, signifying that those were the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent. The word carne may also be translated as flesh, so suggesting carne vale as “a farewell to the flesh”, a phrase actually embraced by certain Carnival celebrants who encourage letting go of your former (or everyday) self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival. So, whatever the history everyone agrees that you enjoy yourself in the days that lead up to Ash Wednesday and then it is time for sacrifice whether it be meat or a personal fast.
Celebrations are held all over Italy from Venice and Milan down to the villages and towns of Sicily. The celebration of Carnevale is the Italian version of Mardi Gras in New Orleans with oranges instead of beads. This year the celebration lasted from February 12 to March 5 with many of the biggest celebrations on Martedi Grasso or Fat Tuesday. It is a huge winter festival celebrated with parades, masquerade balls, entertainment, music, and parties. Children throw confetti at each other. Mischief and pranks are also common during Carnevale, hence the saying A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale, anything goes at carnival.
Masks (maschere), are an important part of the carnevale festival and Venice is the best city for traditional carnival masks. Carnival masks are sold year round and can be found in many shops in Venice, ranging from simple, inexpensive masks to elaborate and expensive masks. Walking through the streets of Venice, it’s a pleasure to view the variety of masks on display in shop windows. Ben bought two, one in Venice and a blank one that he created himself. I must say, I was not surprised that his homemade mask came out awesome! People also wear elaborate costumes for the festival and there are costume or masquerade parades. It’s like having Halloween twice in one year! What kid doesn’t love dressing up in costume and throwing confetti, heck, for that matter, what adult doesn’t?
Carnevale was first celebrated in Venice, and has been officially sanctioned in that city since 1296. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Carnevale celebrations were popular throughout Europe. Today, for two weeks, public areas around Venice become the showcase for actors, acrobats and musicians with residents and visitors alike wearing elaborate masks and elegant costumes.
In Ivrea, a small town in Piemonte, Carnevale has been around since the 1600′s. The celebrations begin with a masked ball, followed later in the week by the Battaglia delle Arance where people throw 400 tons of oranges. The throwing of the oranges is an enactment of an uprising by the people against those in power. After all the oranges are thrown the various combatants sit down to a feast of codfish and polenta (coarsely or finely ground yellow or white cornmeal).
In a small town called Pontedolfo, the men of Pontelandolfo flock to the main square every afternoon until the end of carnevale. Proud and defiant, they challenge one another individually and in groups to a grueling contest of la ruzzola del formaggio . . . literally “the rolling of the cheese”! They place bets and the townspeople come to watch…well, the townspeople and a few crazy tourists named Rob, Missy, and Ben. It was funny, because since it was still cold there, some people just drove right up to the cheese rolling to watch the competition but just stayed in their cars (blocking the street and all) and would just move up as the competition progressed down the street.
The period of Carnevale is a time when people put their daily lives on hold to laugh at themselves and just plain old have fun. Seriously, celebrating Carnivale both in the community and with Ben at school was such a riot! We made masks, there was confetti, and we even got to see Italian skits with none other than Pulcinello and Arlecchino!
The perpetually poor and hungry Pulcinella (Pool – chee – nel – la) is known as a jolly bungler able to get by singing songs and playing his mandolin. He needs very little to be happy: only a slice of pizza and a jug of wine. It is for this that the Neapolitan people have embraced this amiable buffoon. His character originated in the Commedia dell’Arte of the 17th century when he became a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry.
He is a crafty guy, often pretending to be too stupid to know what’s going on. As the very embodiment of the streetwise Napoletanohe is quick to thumb his characteristically long, hooked nose at authority figures, to the delight of the masses. Dressed in white with a soft white hat and a black half-mask he can be found hanging around just about everywhere in Napoli.
Arlecchino is another character from the Commedia dell’Arte. Together they told of a story where Arlecchino was sent by his aunt (zia) to purchase some statues with the money she gave him, but since he took the money and went drinking and foolishly spent it on silly things, he doesn’t have the money or the statues. So when his aunt comes to inspect the statues he bought, he panics and tells his friends Pulcinella to act like a statue and not move. Comedy ensues when Pulcinella has an itch or needs to sneeze. Once the aunt catches on she goes running after Arlecchino with a broom.
Carnivale is celebrated for a couple of weeks, and is nothing but fun activities for everyone!