To say that Carnevale has deep historical roots is something shared by most celebrations in Italy, but the traditional costumes and extravagant parades put the Carnival season in a league of its own. The festival comes with a rich history, which is reflected in the impressive public displays that will return to Florence following a four-year pause as well as quintessential locations like Viareggio and Foiano della Chiana.
History of Carnevale
The term Carnevale comes from the phrase carne-levare, the Latin expression for the removal of meat, alluding to the tradition of giving up meat for Lent and living a more austere life, according to Christian teaching. Some argue that Carnevale echoes classical festivals from Ancient Greece and Rome, honouring Bacchus (Baccanals) or Saturn (Saturnalia). These festivals were so popular that, with the coming of Christianity, they had to be repurposed into a Christian festival that aligned with the liturgical calendar. As such, the period immediately before Lent became a time for celebration, to make the most of the final opportunity for revelry and excess, before the more pious 40 days that followed.
Whatever the origin of the tradition, it is a grand excuse for themed parades and parties, the most notable of which are found in Venice and Viareggio. Much of its current manifestation can be traced back to medieval times when masquerade balls, parades and horse races were recorded. The modern fame of Venice’s carnival celebrations may even have been foreshadowed by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, who speaks of “Christian fools with varnish’d faces”. Masks and costumes were historically used to hide one’s identity when playing tricks on friends and enemies in the rebellious spirit of the festival.
Nowadays, carnival celebrations are an opportunity to bring colour to the dreary final days of winter. Giant floats and papier-mâché caricatures parade through the streets,lined with costumed onlookers and vendors of traditional treats. The abundance of sweet delicacies reflect the occasion’s indulgence, including cenci, literally “rags”, which are scraps of dough, deep fried and covered in sugar, and frittelle di riso, balls of rice-based dough, likewise fried, sometimes containing raisins, and covered in sugarfine or confectioner’s sugar. Cholesterol doesn’t count during carnival. That’s a fact.
Carnevale di Firenze
Florence’s festivities will commence on Saturday January 27, starting with the Grand Ball styled by Venetian events planner Antonia Sautter at Palazzo Vecchio, with the theme ‘Queens of the Palace’. Guests clad in carnival costumes or black tie will take to the Salone del Cinquecento for an extravagant celebration, costing 500 euro per person to attend. All proceeds from the evening will be dedicated to the Villa Lorenzi project, which supports young people in difficulty and their families, and the You Foundation, which works for the education of children in poverty across the globe.
Sunday January 28 will see the highly anticipated parade through the city centre, starting from Santa Maria Novella at 3pm, and is free to join for anyone in costume. Participation badges will be available to collect on the day, on the basilica side of piazza Santa Maria Novella. Meanwhile, music and entertainment in piazza della Signoria will start from 3pm, where the parade will finish, and a grand jury will issue prizes for the best costumes on display.
The Florence Eye, in the Cascine Park, will become a centre point for festivities throughout February, with events planned every Saturday and Sunday from February 3 to 18. Music and entertainment in the form of clowns and circus performers will visit the area surrounding the Ferris wheel, and young and old are invited to join the competition for the best mask.
Carnevale di Viareggio
Viareggio boasts a full calendar of events, from January 25 to February 25, including six masked parades, firework displays and creative workshops, many of which take place in the city’s dedicated Carnevale museum.
For the occasion, the Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte has crafted a Carnevale package for the duration of the season. The package includes overnight stay in any room or suite of your choice, a generous breakfast buffet, a Sunday, Shrove Tuesday or Thursday meal, access to exclusive areas of the hotel’s spa and pool, and all importantly, a day ticket to the Viareggio Carnival on February 3, 8, 11, 13, 18 or 24. Also available on request is a visit to the Cittadella del Carnevale, and participation at one of the papier-mâché workshops.
Carnevale di Foiano della Chiana
Foiano della Chiana, south of Arezzo, claims Italy’s longest tradition in carnival parades, now in its 485th year with an equally impressive series of events on January 28 and February 4, 11, 18 + 25.