Origins of Carnival in Italy

18 February 2011 Published in Veneto Itineraries
The tradition of Carnival in Italy The tradition of Carnival in Italy image Fototeca ENIT

Ever wonder, amid all the festivities, exactly why you’re celebrating Carnival? The word carnival actually derives from the Latin term Carnevale, meaning “farewell to meat”. Simply put, Carnival has come to represent a sort of ‘last hurrah’ before a long period of self-denial.

Although the holiday most likely began in pre-Christian times with the ancient Roman traditions of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, Carnival is currently known as the days preceding the Christian period of Lent, consisting of forty days of fasting during which the consumption of animal products was strictly forbidden. As a result, universal feasts were held in order not to waste any perishable foods and drink that were about to be banned, releasing an euphoric atmosphere of giddy over-indulgence before the sober austerity that was about to descend.

Today’s most famous international Carnival traditions of parades and masquerade balls can be traced back to their origins in medieval Italy, unique practices that different geographical regions proudly uphold to this day, including extravagant masks in Venice, paper-mache floats in Sicily, and even orange throwing in Ivrea. Prime time to experience local events runs from mid-February to early March, and accommodations usually fill up quickly.

Carnival of Cento
Carnival of Cento 

Carnival of Cento

Carnivale in Cento, province of Ferrara, Emilia Romagna, is the only Carnival in Europe twinned with the most famous of all, Rio di Janeiro, Brazil. In fact, the winning float is transported to Brazil to participate in the Carnivale of Rio!

The floats are made by masters of the antique art of float making that have initiated apprenticeship programs to bring in members of the younger generation to learn their dying craft. For this reason the floats are more contemporary in theme and are made of the same quality they were made of years ago.

The city fathers claim the fame of having their Carnivale celebration rendered on canvas by the famous painter Guercino in the year 1615. The name of the picture is Maschere Folleggianti and renders them a bulletproof argument that they possess one of the oldest Carnivale celebrations in all of Italy. The similarity to Carnivale in Rio is striking and includes actual Brazilian imports such as a float featuring a Brazilian ballerina company and another touting percussionists from the famous school of samba Imperatriz in Rio.

There are more than 500 participants that arrive from all parts of Italy and the world to march in the Sunday parades or ride beside it on their Harley Davidson Motorcycles. Attendees are advised to bring something they can use to catch some of the 30,000 pounds of candy, caramels and sweets that rain down on the crowds as the parades pass by. Cento is approximately centered between Bologna, Ferrara and Modena and about a two hour drive from Milan.

Recommended Carnival Links

Acireale, Sicily: www.carnevaleacireale.com 
Ivrea: www.storicocarnevaleivrea.it/English 
Putignano: www.carnevalediputignano.it

Katie White

Katie is an American living abroad in Rome, where she is soaking up the Italian sunshine, stumbling her way through the language, and rapidly becoming addicted to coffee. She is a new Intern at Delicious Italy, where she happily writes about Italian events, culture, and of course, food!