Carnival magic

Creativity and satire take centre stage in Viareggio

Rose Mackworth-Young
February 16, 2012

Once a year, the quiet seaside town of Viareggio comes alive with colour, parades, street parties, masks and costumes. During February and March, the Tuscan port town fills with thousands of locals and visitors who participate in a fantastic, non-stop celebration of carnival, the highlights of which are huge weekly parades.



Viareggio's carnival tradition started nearly 140 years ago, in 1873, when a group of young aristocrats, having a drink in one of the local casinos, decided to organise an open-air parade on martedi grasso (Fat Tuesday), a day of excess and partying before the austerity of the 40-day period of Lent. The first parade was such a hit that every year the festivities became more elaborate and extravagant, eventually becoming one of the grandest in the world, attracting over 300,000 tourists per parade.


The main feature of the parades is the monumental floats, some as high as six stories, with giant, moving sculptures and colourful caricatures of politicians and other well-known figures that tower comically above the crowds as they move through the city.


The tradition of these large floats has its origins in Viareggio's dockyards. The carpenters and ironsmiths who worked there were able to build huge, but very light, structures of wood, jute and plaster. In 1925, some of the builders developed the technique of using carta a calco (a form of papier-mâché) to enable even bigger and more intricate designs. The models they produced were so massive and so apparently gravity-defying that the float constructors were hailed as ‘papier-mâché wizards' by the international press.


These days there is a competition for the best-designed float, and it is not unusual for a float to take up to six months to build, with the help of  100 craftspeople. Construction takes place at the Cittadella del Carnevale, a specially built complex of hangars and workshops outside of Viareggio. First, huge models of the characters and structures are made from clay, wood and wire; then plaster is applied to the surface. Finally, papier-mâché is applied, and the materials inside are then removed so all that remains is a very light yet sturdy, hollow paper structure. The paper used in this process is the recycled paper of national dailies, and it is considered an important way to reuse these materials.


The wooden levers are then attached: the muscle power of up to 200 people on each float will create the life-like movements of the figures' hands, heads, eyes and mouths. Only after all this construction can the painting of the figures begin, a process that may continue up until about two hours before the first parade. Then, finally, the results of around 88,000 hours of work are ready to be wheeled out, assembled by cranes and paraded amongst the excited crowd filling the streets and seaside boulevard.


Anyone interested in the process of float making can take part in workshops that run throughout the year at the Cittadella. Participants can learn how to mould clay, apply plaster and make the papier-mâché structures (while getting thoroughly messy in the process!). The Cittadella also houses a museum about the Viareggio Carnival, which displays models of the best floats used over the years, dating from 1927, with other models showing the stages of construction, including the levers used to make motion. This year, the museum has a large exhibition of contemporary art, displaying works based on the themes of the current floats, by important Italian and international artists. For anyone wishing to see the floats in peace and quiet, they will be displayed in the hangers at the Cittadella from Monday to Saturday, and every day from the end of the carnival until July.


Among the floats of 2012 is a caricature of French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who sits on a rearing white horse, searching for the lost glory and imperialism of the Napoleonic era by launching materialistic wars in the name of liberty and democracy. Visitors will also see ‘king' Berlusconi on a giant chessboard, finally in checkmate, being dragged from his golden throne by pawns and bishops, who represent the law and the judiciary. Other floats feature the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi; former economy minister Giulio Tremonti; and Mario Draghi, former head of the Bank of Italy and now president of the European Central Bank.


The six parades, the most ever to date, began on February 5 and 12. The remaining four are on February 19, 21 and 26, and March 3. Music and dancing will fill the streets as the gargantuan floats, as well as numerous smaller ones, make their way through the crowds filling Viareggio's avenues. The final parade is held at night, the event made magical as the streets and floats will be illuminated. This parade continues late into the night, finishing with the announcement of the winning floats and a spectacular fireworks display over the city.


Between the parades, Viareggio celebrates carnival with open-air parties, masked balls (including one for children on February 21), sports events and the traditional carnival foods, served in local restaurants and outdoor food stands. For details, see the information boxes on this page.



Details of the history and events of Viareggio's Carnival can be explored on the new iPhone and iPad App. See for more information.





Parades: February (5, 12) 19, 21, 26 at 3pm; March 3 at 7pm. The parade on February 21 is free.


Open-air parties: February (4,11) 18, 20, 25 at 15:30 in Piazza Mazzini and the Centro Commericale Naturale in Viarreggio, featuring music, games performances and other entertainment. For the details of these and other events, and for booking tickets, consult the official website,, which also provides details on the Cittadella, including workshops, viewing the floats, the museum and the contemporary art exhibit.


Museum hours: Thursday to Saturday, 4pm to 7pm. On parade days, it is open 9:30am to 11:30am. To book a workshop or a guided tour of the hangars, send an email to [email protected] (workshops and tours cost 4 euro).




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