When you think of “Italy” and “Carnival,” it’s likely that the first place that comes to mind is Venice. There are good reasons for that, but Venice isn’t the only place in Italy that celebrates Carnival with gusto.
Here’s a look at the history of Carnival in Italy, and the places with the most interesting celebrations. I’m starting with Venice since it’s the most well-known around the world, and after that the destinations are in alphabetical order.
Carnival isn’t just one of Italy’s most popular festivals. It’s a Catholic holiday that takes place 40 days before Easter, just before the start of Lent. Historically, it was the last chance Catholics had to indulge before they gave up (traditionally) meat for Lent, though today people give up all sorts of things for Lent – not just meat. The name for the festival in Italian is “Carnevale” – the word “carne” means meat in Italian. You may be familiar with other Carnival celebrations elsewhere in the world, such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Brazil.
Some of the oldest Carnival celebrations in the world were in Italy during the medieval era, but there are similar pre-Christian celebrations from which the Christian ones may have grown (as is the case with many Christian holidays). Some argue that Carnevale stems from ancient Roman festivals. There are Carnevale festivities throughout Italy, so no matter where you are during the holiday you’re likely to see some masks, costumes, or other celebrations. The biggest Carnival happenings, however, are in the cities listed below.
Reader Jill told me about a Carnevale in the town where her husband grew up, Foiano della Chiana, which I hadn’t heard about – and then she found a video of the enormous floats! Thanks for the tip, Jill!
Venice‘s Carnival dates back to 1268, making it Italy’s oldest Carnival. It’s not the longest-running, however, as Napoleon banished it in 1797 and it wasn’t reinstated until 1959. Today, Carnevale in Venice lasts about two weeks, and it’s a flurry of elaborate costumes, masks, and grand balls. There are also gondola parades, and costume contests often held in the Piazza San Marco. The official kick-off is signalled by the Volo dell’Angelo, or “Flight of the Angel,” when a costumed woman “flies” (suspended on a cable) from the top of the Campanile to the square below.
The Sicilian town of Acireale is known for its beautifully decorated parade floats, made of papier-mache and flowers. Acireale’s Carnival dates back to the 16th century, though the floats only started being a part of the festivities in the 1930s. Since then, Acireale has become famous for these floats, most of which are meant to be caricatures of well-known figures in history.
Though Cento’s first Carnival celebrations date back to 1615, it wasn’t until the city tied its Carnival to the one in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 that it became the hugely popular event it remains today. Cento’s Carnival is the most like a Brazilian Carnival that you’ll find in Italy, with parade floats inspired by the ones in Rio. The float that wins the Carnival’s contest is actually flown to Rio to take place in that city’s Carnival.
Fano’s Carnival celebrations last for a month and include masks, costumes, and grand balls. It’s one of Italy’s oldest, dating back to 1347, and it has more recently become known for its papier-mache parade floats. Hundreds of pounds of candy are thrown to parade-watchers from those floats every year, and spectators often use their haul as ammunition to throw at one another.
Ivrea’s unique spin on Carnival has made it famous in its own right, though many people don’t even realize it’s part of the country’s Carnival celebrations. The culmination of the festival is known as the Battle of the Oranges, and began in 1808, though it’s an allegory for an event that took place in the 12th century. The story goes that a duke was attempting to assert his “jus primae noctis” right (which supposedly gave medieval lords the right to claim the virginity of a serf woman on her wedding night, before her new husband was allowed to sleep with her) when she fought back and killed him. Upon his death, the people rioted, burning the palace.
Today, people play the part of the duke’s army and the rioting crowd (known as “Aranceri,” or “orange throwers”), using oranges as ammunition. The duke’s men ride in the back of carts, while the Aranceri are on foot below, everyone hurling oranges at the other side. The Battle of the Oranges goes on for several days in a row just before Lent.
Milan’s Carnival is known as the Carnevale Ambrosiano, named for the Ambrosian Rite that says Lent starts and ends four days later than that of the Roman Rite. Consequently, the Carnival celebration dates in Milan are always slightly different than elsewhere in Italy. There are costumes and parades, and Milan’s bakeries produce deep-fried sweet dough as a seasonal treat called chiacchiere.
The Sardinian town of Oristano celebrates Carnival with masks and costumes like many other cities, but it also has an equestrian element to the festivities. There is a horse race, called Sa Sartiglia, that involves masked and costumed riders racing toward a target through which they must thread the sword they’re carrying. It’s like a joust, only the riders are aiming for a metal star-shaped target dangling on a ribbon, rather than another rider. Oristano’s Carnival also includes a parade on horseback, called La Pariglia, with some riders performing acrobatic stunts.
Pont Saint Martin, in the Valle d’Aosta region, celebrates Carnival “Roman style,” with characters including a Roman Consul, nymphs, Roman guards, Saint Martin, and the devil. It was started in 1902, and many celebrants wear Roman togas along with their Carnival masks.
Putignano in Puglia has one of Italy’s oldest Carnival celebration – started in 1394 – as well as one of the longest – it often starts the day after Christmas. Elements of the town’s festivities include costumes and masks, as well as enormous papier-mache figures adorning parade floats. Poets read satirical verses on stages in the town center, and there are four major parades during the holiday.
Verona‘s Carnival is celebrated with costumes and parades, during which candy is thrown to parade watchers. Verona’s festivities are some of the oldest in Italy, dating back to 1531. The final parade of Carnival takes place on the last Friday of the holiday, and it’s known in Verona as Venerdi Gnocolar – “gnocchi Friday.” The parade is led by Papà del Gnocco, “Father Gnocchi,” and everyone eats gnocchi that day.
Viareggio’s Carnival is one of the longest, with festivities lasting a month. It dates from 1873 and is characterized by the huge papier-mache floats that parade through the town. The figures on the floats are often animated, and always elaborate. Revelers typically wear costumes and masks, and there are masquerades and concerts almost every night. You can visit the Cittadella del Carnevale di Viareggio, the city’s Carnival museum, year-round.