Carnevale in Italy, known in the U.S. as Carnival or Mardi Gras, takes place in the weeks leading up to Easter. Think of Carnevale in Italy as a big final party before Ash Wednesday, the restrictions of Lent, and the more pious observances of Easter.
Italy celebrates Carnevale with a huge winter festival marked by parades, masquerade balls, entertainment, music, and parties. Children throw confetti at each other—and sometimes toss flour and raw eggs, too. Mischief and pranks are common during Carnevale in Italy, hence the saying "a Carnevale ogni scherzo vale," which means "anything goes at Carnevale."
History of Carnevale in Italy
Carnevale can trace its roots to pagan festivals, and, as is often the case with traditional festivals, it was adapted to fit into the Catholic rituals. Carnevale is actually one date—Martedi Grasso or Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. However, in Venice and elsewhere in Italy, the celebrations and parties may begin a couple of weeks before. The weekend before Fat Tuesday is usually the most packed with events and parties.
Masks, or maschere, are an important part of the Carnevale festival and are sold year-round at many shops in Venice, ranging from cheap versions to expensive handcrafted ones. People also wear elaborate costumes for the festival, and there are masquerade balls both in private and public.
Italy has many Carnevale celebrations, but Venice, Viareggio, and Cento, a small town in the Emilia-Romagna region, hold the biggest festivals. Many other Italian towns also hold Carnevale festivals, some with very unusual events and influences. If you are planning a trip to Italy at this time, you should check the dates for Carnevale as it varies from year to year.
One of the most famous celebrations not just in Italy, but the world, the Carnevale season in Venice starts about two weeks before the actual date of Fat Tuesday. Events and entertainment are held nightly throughout Venice, with people in costumes wandering around the city and reveling.
Most high-end hotels hold masked balls during Carnevale and may be able to provide rental costumes for visiting guests. Tickets may be expensive for these balls, and most require reservations.
Venice's main Carnevale events are centered around the Piazza San Marco, but events are held in every sestiere, or quarter, of Venice. There are gondola and boat parades along the Grand Canal, a mask parade in Piazza San Marco, and a special Carnevale for Children event in the Cannaregio district. A fireworks show in Piazza San Marco can be seen all over Venice and marks the event's climax.
Viareggio on the Tuscan coast has one of the biggest Carnevale celebrations in Italy. Festivals, cultural events, concerts, and masked balls take place throughout the Carnevale season both in Viareggio and its surrounding areas.
The city is known for its giant, allegorical paper-maiché floats used in the many parades held throughout the season. Floats are very often satirical and reflect current events and politics. The final parade is held on a Saturday night and is followed by a huge fireworks show.
The town of Ivrea in the northern Piedmont region has a unique carnival celebration with medieval roots. The carnival includes a colorful parade followed by orange-throwing battles in the center of town.
The origins of the orange battle are murky, but local folklore cites the story of a young peasant girl named Violetta who rebuffed the advances of a ruling tyrant in either the 12th or 13th century. She decapitated him and chaos ensued, with other villagers eventually burning the castle where he lived.
During the present-day reenactment, one girl is chosen to play the role of Violetta, and dozens of aranceri (orange-throwers) representing both the tyrant and the peasants throw oranges at each other. The oranges are meant to represent stones and other ancient weapons, which wouldn't be as fun to throw at each other.
The whole island of Sardinia is steeped in local traditions, and that's especially true for Carnival in the Barbagia villages outside Nuoro. In this mountainous region in the interior of the island, locals still live a rustic way of life, herding sheep and wearing traditional clothing. During Carnevale, ancient folklore is on display in the ghostly masks worn by the locals. In fact, each small town has its own distinct mask designs that are different from neighbors.
In the west coast town of Oristano, Carnevale is celebrated with a costumed parade, horse races, and a reenactment of a medieval jousting tournament in a festival called La Sartigilia.
Carnevale celebrations generally begin in Sardinia on January 17, the Feast Day of St. Anthony, when the masks first make their appearance. However, the biggest celebrations are saved for the days right before Ash Wednesday.
After Sardinia, the next best island Carnevale celebrations take place in Sicily, specifically in the town of Acireale. Acireale holds one of Sicily's most beautiful Carnevale celebrations, with flower and paper-maiché allegorical floats that are still very similar to the originals that were made as far back as 1601. There are several parades during Carnevale that travel through the town center, as well as music, a chess tournament, children's events, and a fireworks finale.
Acireale is on the eastern side of the island right outside of the city of Catania, and not far from the towering volcano of Mt. Etna.
Pont-Saint-Martin in the Val d'Aosta region of northwestern Italy celebrates Carnevale in Roman style with people dressed as nymphs and in togas. Sometimes, there's even a chariot race! On Fat Tuesday evening, festivities culminate with the hanging and burning of an effigy of the devil on the 2,000-year-old bridge.
There are several different Carnevale characters, each with a specific role. The devil causes mayhem in the city, while Saint Martin is dressed as an Ancient Roman soldier and is the festival's protagonist. Other important characters include the beautiful Lysnymph fairy and the Roman Consul.
Cento, in the Emilia-Romagna region, is linked to the most famous Carnival celebration in the world: that of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Floats are very high quality and often include items from Brazil. The winning float in the Cento parade earns a trip to Brazil for Carnaval festivities there.
Participants arrive from all over Italy to march in the parade or ride along on their motorcycles, and some 30,000 pounds of candy are thrown to spectators along the parade route.
Not far from Venice, Verona has one of the oldest Carnevale celebrations in Italy, dating back to 1531. On Fat Tuesday, Verona has a huge parade with more than 500 floats, but the most delicious tradition occurs on the Friday before: venerdì gnoccolaro, or Gnocchi Friday.
Honoring the potato-based dumpling, a member of the community is elected as Papa' de' Gnocco, or the Father of Gnocchi. The potato patriarch earns his spot a month earlier, and everyone in attendance is welcome to the free gnocchi. On Gnocchi Friday, you'll notice that this is the dish of choice in every bar and restaurant. There is even a bus that drives all over the town and serves free gnocchi and red wine.
The Alpine resort town of Livigno near the Swiss border celebrates Carnevale in the snow. Every year, a procession of downhill skiers takes to the slopes, and some participate in an obstacle race on the mountain. Meanwhile, in town, there's a ball and a traditional parade. The festivals here are very family-friendly with lots of entertainment for children.
In the southern Italian region of Calabria, which has Albanian settlements, Lungro holds a Carnevale parade with people dressed in traditional Albanian costumes.
The Carnevale of Pollino in Castrovillari includes women dressed in intricate local costumes and celebrates the Pollino wine of the region, Lacrima di Castrovillari. In northern Calabria, Montalto Uffugo holds an interesting wedding parade of men wearing women's dresses. They hand out sweets and tastes of Pollino wine. Following the parade, the kings and queens arrive for a night of dancing while wearing costumes that include giant heads.