Discover the Italian Carnival traditions and events in North Italy

Written by on January 28, 2021 in Italy Stories, Things to See & Do

Carnival Venice with the purple mask

Let’s discover together the Italian Carnival – Carnevale traditions and events in North Italy !

What is Carnival and when is it celebrated

Carnival in Italy is a Catholic and Christian celebration but in reality it has very distant origins going back to ancient Greece and the Roman world.

The word Carnevale is an Italian word derived from the Latin carnem (meat) and levare (remove). It marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days period before Easter during which you do not eat meat and not only… So Carnival was the last hurrah of food and sex, meat and mischief before 40 days of sobriety.

In the Catholic Church, Septuagesima Sunday is celebrated about seventy days before Easter Sunday and marks the beginning of the so-called Settuagesima Time (or Carnival Time), a period of preparation for Lent. This year in 2021 for example the Carnival will start 31st January. It ends forty days before Easter Sunday with Shrove Tuesday, which is 16th February in 2021. The following day, known as Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.

All over the country the Carnival festival is celebrated according to different customs and filled with many events offering an explosion of colours, music, masks and tradition.

The masks were put on once a year when social and economic classes among people were broken down and people were free to be who they wanted or imagined to be. This reflects the story of the famous or infamous Casanova who was able to seduce a rich, noblewoman by convincing her he was also of noble heritage.

In some towns Carnival is celebrated for up to 4 weeks with parades and other events. In the smaller villages the parade normally happens on one specific day. The schools close for a few days for the celebration and some children dress up in costumes on the last day of school or get together and make a little parade in their town centre or on the streets nearby.

As food is always an important part of any Italian festa, the Carnevale also has its own delicious desserts, amongst the most famous is the Chiacchiere (the “gossip”): the crunchy fritters covered with icing sugar, that again changes by region by region.

The most famous Italian Carnival is of course in Venice, but Carnevale is far more than just beautiful masks in Venice. There are several and very diversified programs going on in the whole of the country.

Here we share with you some of the most characteristic carnivals of the North and Central Italy region:

CARNIVAL OF VENICE, Veneto – North Italy

masked person at Venice carnival - Discover the Italian Carnival tradition and events in North Italy

Being one of the most famous Carnival in the world, every year it attracts thousands of tourists to admire the riot of colours, the elegant masks and costumes on St Mark’s Square, and on the canals of Venice. The Carnevale di Venezia has very ancient origins (it was in fact first mentioned in a document dating back to as early as 1094) and its emblem is the mask. Which behind the citizens of La Serenissima could hide their identity and eliminate any social differences, like mentioned above.

Carnival consists of some fixed main events that present every year. The Festa delle Marie, a procession that recalls the tradition according to which the Doge of the Serenissima used to pay homage to twelve humble and beautiful girls of Venice; the Volo di Sant’Angelo, where an acrobat descends from the bell tower of San Marco to reach the square. And the Svolo del Leon, which concludes the holidays of Shrove Tuesday (Martedi Grosso – “Fat Tuesday”) with the tribute to the Winged Lion of San Marco, symbol of Venice.

As well as masked parades and competitions for the most beautiful mask, boat parades, galas and DJ sets, concerts and food & wine stalls are ongoing during the weeks of celebration.

CARNIVAL OF IVREA, Piemonte – North Italy

Ivrea carnival with flying oranges

Ivrea’s Carnival is a unique event where history and myth are intertwined, giving life to a great community celebration full of symbolism and traditional values.  It is one of the most original, folk celebrations in Italy. One of a kind because of the sensational “Battle of the Oranges”: a medieval re-enactment staged in the three days around Martedi Grosso (Shrove Tueasday).  It evokes the battle between the aranceri a piedi (orange handlers on foot), who represent the population, and they fight without any protection. And the tiratori di arance (orange shooters riding in carts), who represent the Feudal lord and they wear protections and masks reminiscent of ancient armour.

A key element of the Carnival of Ivrea is a red cap: a mandatory accessory that will prevent you from being mistaken for an aranciere and ensure you are not battered with oranges. In case you do not have one, you can buy one at the entrance of the “battlefield”. We actually attended a few years ago this event and you really feel part of the history…the participants take it as a real fight and the oranges are flying around with great speed and strengths. You can also spot some black eyes and bruised arms and legs, but it is great fun as a spectator!

At the end of the day in all the streets of Ivrea there is a river of orange mush that colours the city and perfumes it.

Main events of the Carnival of Ivrea are the Battle of the Oranges, the Abbruciamento dello Scarlo, a bonfire at the main square, a large pole covered with dry heather is set on fire: this symbolizes the expulsion of negativity and the regeneration of the earth in view of good harvests. Presentation of the Mugnaia (Miller’s Daugher), the most important character in the Historical Carnival, the heroine who became the symbol of freedom seized by the people in their revolt against a feudal tyrant. And the Alzata degli Abbà, each year 10 children are selected to represent the Abbà. The children wear Renaissance costumes with the colours of their parish flags. They always carry around a sword with an orange stuck on the end to symbolize the head of the tyrant.

CARNIVAL OF COUMBA FREIDA, Valpelline, Aosta Valley – North Italy

parade of Napoleon solders like costumes and masks - Discover the Italian Carnival tradition and events in North Italy

In Valpelline, a small and delightful village in the Aosta Valley where the houses are made of stone and wood, they celebrate the historic Carnival of Coumba Freida, literally “of the cold valley”. Tradition links the birth of this Carnival to Napoleon’s passage through the Great St Bernard Pass in May 1800, during the Italian campaign. The costumes that parade during the festival are an allegorical transposition of the French soldiers’ uniforms. These expensive dresses, made entirely by hand with the abundance of beads and sequins (up to 30,000 per costume) and mirrors that reflect light and ward off evil forces.

The face of the Landzette is covered by a mask (vesadjie) once made of wood, now usually made of plastic; at the waist in their belt, they hold a bell and in their hand they hold a horsehair. These latter elements are interpreted by anthropologists as symbolic tools to drive away adverse spirits. The red colour symbolizes strength and vigour and also has the power to drive away evil and misfortune.

There is also the figure of the bear that represents the arrival of spring, nature and fertility, with its “trainer” who keeps him on a leash. And the tails of the mules that represent the winds and serve to ward off air currents.

Almost all the municipalities of the valley have similar customs. Official parades take place in the last days of carnival, but already in the previous weeks, small masked groups (patoille) visit the families of the different hamlets where they are welcomed joyfully to drink, eat, sing and joke.

Main events: traditional Benda parade, where the “Landzette”

The Coumba Freida Carnevale is celebrated in several municipalities like Bionaz, Ollomont, Gignod, Douse etc.

CARNIVAL OF MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO, Trentino Alto Adige – North Italy

painting of the Viennese ball

Every year, some villages in Trentino celebrate Carnival remembering the time when they belonged to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Attractive hussars accompany their ladies out for a ride in their troikas and in the evening everybody dances to the rhythm of the Viennese waltz.

The most famous one amongst all, the Hapsburg Carnival with its magical and old-fashioned atmospheres, which transforms Madonna di Campiglio from a ski capital to a city of the charming Carnival. The tradition dates back to the end of the 19 century, when its exclusive hotels frequently hosted the Habsburg Imperial Court – and in particular Princess Sissi and Emperor Franz Joseph – as well as other aristocrats from the European courts.

Every year the magical atmosphere of that time lives again at Carnival.

Mask: Princess Sissi and Francesco Giuseppe (Emperor Franz Joseph)

Main events are the Inaugural procession with the arrival of the imperial couple and the Grand Ball of the Emperor in historical costumes at the Hofer hall of the Hotel Des Alpe being welcomed by the population and professional dancers. The program includes also torchlight ski descents and many collateral cultural events about the Habsburgs.

CARNIVAL OF VIAREGGIO, Tuscany – Central Italy

carnevale with a huge Indian figure - Discover the Italian Carnival tradition and events in North Italy

For many, Viareggio is the most important Carnival in the world, with a tradition dating back to 1873. It is known above all for its allegorical papier-mâché floats that engage over 1,000 highly specialized masters and craftsmen from more than 25 companies all year round.

The floats and their enormous cardboard caricatures offer a satirical take on contemporary issues representing politicians and celebrities. In addition to the parades on the seafront in Viareggio, the whole Carnival period is accompanied by local festivals, guided tours, workshops and a night parade to celebrate Shrove Thursday.

Every year on Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday) the Carnival of Viareggio is live on national television (RAI 3) to share with all Italian people the cheerfulness of its spectacular floats. Each year famous guests, politicians and sports figures come in Viareggio to admire their papier – mâché costumes.

The Carnival of Viareggio fills a whole month of daytime and night time festivities with parades of allegorical floats, local parties, masked balls and festivals of all kinds.

In 2001 was inaugurated the new Cittadella del Carnevale , an extraordinary architectural complex entirely dedicated to the creation and preservation of the Carnival of Viareggio.

The event that closes the Carnival is the burning of Tasi, the traditional centese mask.

There is an admission to enter the Carnevale, which is for adults 20 euro and for children under 14 and above 1.20 m is 15 euro. There are also group tickets available.

CARNIVAL OF FANO, Marche – Central Italy

Carnevale Fano

Together with Venice, it is considered the oldest Italian Carnival (the first document that certifies its origin dates to 1347): the Carnival of Fano, in the Marche region. According to the legend it was born from the reconciliation of two important families Fanesi , “From the formwork” and “from Carignano.

It stands out for its creative allegorical carnival floats and for the Getto. The Getto means that during the parades held on the three Sundays before Mardi Gras (Martedi Grosso or “Shrove Tuesday”), instead of confetti, an abundance of sweets, chocolates and other treats are thrown on to the spectators.  While they are doing so, they say “Beautiful to watch and sweet to taste”. Each float has 100 kg of “flying” sweets, so no shortage of indulgence.

The floats of the Carnival of Fano can reach up to 16 meters in height. They pass three times through viale Gramsci: in the first passage the allegorical wagons present themselves; the second time there’s the Getto – throwing of the sweets and the last run is about the “luminaria” in the late afternoon where lighting tricks illuminate the wagons.

It is all accompanied by Musica Arambita float, which is an odd group of musicians playing with instruments and other objects. The parade is headed by Vùlon, the local, fanny masked character, who wants money, women and all!

The carnival in Fano attracts around 100.000 visitors, and it’s the biggest carnival celebration in the Marche region. We would suggest to take the train, as it is only 10 minute walk from the station and parking can be challenging, although there are designated areas.

CARNIVAL OF CENTO, Emilia-Romagna – Central Italy

Carnevale all dressed up in beautiful costumes - Discover the Italian Carnival tradition and events in North Italy

Carnival of Cento is dedicated to the arts, crafts and traditions of the city, with very ancient origins and twinned with the Rio Carnival. It is not just about parades of allegorical floats, it’s also a month-long celebration in which folklore, traditions, sport, art, culture, flavours, enjoyment and entertainment are intertwined in an atmosphere of great celebration.

The Carnival of Cento parades in the beautiful historical centre of Cento, and the focus is at Piazza Guercino,  where the splendid creatures of papier-mâché display their masks and costumes in the truly unique setting. Every carnival Sunday in the afternoon, starting from the piazza the whole Corso Guercino will be a blaze of masks, colours, animation, music and dances to celebrate this fantastic Carnevale. It stands out also for its tradition of the gettito: similar to the above mentioned Getto, from carnival floats they are throwing gadgets and various items like inflatable balloons and cuddly toys to the crowd.

On the last carnival Sunday there will be the Grand Finale with the traditional testament and award ceremony of the winning parade float. The piazza is also the setting of the striking bonfire of Tasi, the characteristic local character. The party normally conclude with a stunning pyro-musical show.

In addition to the float parade with masked characters who parade individually and in groups, a series of concerts, performances by Brazilian dancers and sports, cultural and food/wine events are also staged.

The Carnival of Cento is also by admission:  tickets cost 16 euro and children under 1.20 m go free of charge.

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