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Carnevale Italian style!

This article was kindly donated by Antonia Mambelli from your Italian Language specialist in the US

As the saying goes:
“A carnevale ogni scherzo vale”
“During Carnevale, any joke goes”

 What is it?

Carnevale celebrates the end of winter and the coming Spring season.  It is a festive season which occurs immediately before Lent.  Carnevale typically involves public celebrations, parades, and public street parties.  People often dress up with costumes during the celebrations.


 What does “carnevale” mean?

The origin of the name "Carnevale" is disputed.  Some sources suggest that the name comes from the Italian “carne levare” or similar, meaning "to remove meat", since meat is prohibited during Lent.  Another theory states that the word comes from the Late Latin expression “carne vale”, which means "farewell to meat", signifying that those were the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent. Yet another translation depicts “carne vale” as "a farewell to the flesh", a phrase embraced by certain Carnevale celebrations that encourage letting go of your everyday self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival.

 What are its origins?

Parts of the Carnevale traditions likely reach back to pre-Christian times.  The ancient Roman festivals of the Saturnalia (in honor of the God of agriculture and harvest Saturn) and Bacchanalia (in honor of the God of wine Bacchus) are a probable origin of the Italian Carnevale.  These festivals, in turn, may be based on the Greek Dionysia and other Oriental festivals.  The word Carnevale became associated with the Lent season during the Middle Ages, when, after many unsuccessful attempts to eradicate the festival completely, the Church finally assimilated Carnevale into the Christian calendar as the last festival before Lent, which is traditionally honored by abstaining from eating meat.  While medieval pageants and festivals such as Corpus Christi were church sanctioned celebrations, Carnevale was a representation of medieval folk culture, and many local Carnevale customs are also based on local pre-Christian rituals.

The Carnevale of Venice was for a long time the most famous Carnevale.  From Italy, Carnevale traditions spread to Spain, Portugal, and France.  From France, they spread to the Rhineland of Germany, and to New Orleans.  From Spain and Portugal, they spread to Latin America.  Many other areas have developed their own traditions.

 When is Carnevale? And how long does it last?

According to the Christian calendar, Carnevale occurs between January 6th and Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the arrival of the fasting days of Lent. 

 What do Italians do during Carnevale?


Children and adults dress up with traditional and modern masks (maschere), and a variety of parties are scheduled in every Italian town, including in schools.  There are many parades (sfilate) in each Italian town, which typically are opened by a Carnevale master, and are made of sometimes very elaborate floats (carri), bands, and of course anybody who wants to join in.

 Children typically carry around a bag of colored paper confetti (coriandoli), which they throw at people, or they blow stelle filanti: strings of paper rolled up in circles, which get undone as one blows on them.  There are a variety of other toys and implements that people play with: colored foams, fake manganelli (clubs), air raid horns, and many accessories for the wildest disguises.

Fare uno scherzo means to pull a joke on someone, and Carnevale is that time of the year when you should expect to be the victim of jokes.

The most famous Carnevale celebrations.


Venice hosts the most famous Carnevale: il carnevale di Venezia, which was first recorded in the XII century.  Masks have always been a central feature of the Venetian Carnevale; traditionally people were allowed to wear them between the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen's Day, December 26) at the start of the Carnevale season and midnight of Mardi Gras.  Maskmakers (mascherari) enjoyed a special position in society, with their own laws and their own guild (corporazione). 

In 1797, Venice became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio.  The Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798 and it fell into a decline which also effectively brought Carnevale celebrations to a halt for almost two centuries.  Carnevale was also outlawed by the fascist government in the 1930s, and it was not until 1979 that Carnevale enjoyed a revival.

Venetian masks can be made in leather or with the original papier-mâché technique.  The original masks were rather simple in design and decoration and often had a symbolic and practical function.  Nowadays, most of them are made with the application of gesso and gold leaf and are all hand-painted using natural feathers and gems to decorate.

Veniza Veniza
Two of the classical Venetian masks are the Bauta and the Moretta.

 Bauta is composed of a black cloack (tabarro), a black tricorn (tricorno), and a white mask called larva.  It tends to be the main type of mask worn during the Carnevale.  It was used also on many other occasions as a device for hiding the wearer's identity and social status.  It was thus useful for a variety of purposes, some of them illicit or criminal, others just personal, such as romantic encounters.

The moretta is an oval mask of black velvet that was usually worn by women visiting convents.  It was invented in France and rapidly became popular in Venice as it brought out the beauty of feminine features.  The mask was finished off with a veil. It was secured in place by a small bit in the wearer's mouth.


The Carnevale of Viareggio is one of the most famous in Italy: it lasts a month with night and day celebrations, floats, parades, district celebrations, masked dances and other shows.  In 2001 the new "Citadel" (Carnevale town) was inaugurated: a polyfunctional and a great architectonical value structure that includes new hangars for the creation of the floats, the papier-mâché school and a great arena where, during the summer, "Citadel under the stars" review is held, including shows, concerts and cultural initiatives.    


Another important Italian Carnevale is the Historical Carnevale of Ivrea, mostly known for its Battle of the Oranges.  It is valued as one of the most ancient Carnevales in the world: during the year 1000 a miller's wife killed the tyrant of the city, King Arduino; from that episode began a civil war between the oppressed people and the king's supporters, finally won by the people, and until now every year the citizens remember their liberation with the Battle of the Oranges.  Teams of Aranceri on foot shoot oranges representing ancient arrows and stones against Aranceri on carts, representing Arduino's allies.  During the French occupation of Italy in the nineteenth century the Carnevale of Ivrea had been modified by adding representatives of the French army who help the miller's wife.


In Milan the Carnevale lasts four more days, ending on the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, because of the Ambrosian rite.  The tradition goes that Bishop Saint Ambrose was on a pilgrimage, and had announced his return to the city of Milan to celebrate the Lent rituals.  People of Milan awaited his arrival and postponed the ritual of Ash Wednesday until the following Sunday.  It should be said that the real story is different.  Since ancient times, Lent used to start on a Sunday.  It is the roman rite that introduced a few more days prior, in order to make the effective fasting days 40, taking into account the fact that on Sundays nobody was expected to be fasting.


The Carnevale in Verona is celebrated with a parade of "carri allegorici" (floats) on the "Venerdi Gnocolar", which takes place on the last Friday of Carinval, when people eat traditional potato gnocchi.

Masks from the Commedia dell’arte.

 In Italy, the characters of the Commedia dell’arte are still very popular, and widely used for Carnevale disguises.

 Commedia dell'Arte (Italian: "the comedy of artists") is a form of improvisational theatre that began in Italy in the 16th century and held its popularity through the 18th century, although it is still performed today.  Performances were unscripted, held outside, and used few props.  They were free to watch, funded by donations.  A troupe consisted of ten people: eight men and two women.  Outside Italy the form was also known as "Italian Comedy".

Conventional plot lines were written on themes of adultery, jealousy, old age, and love.  Many of the basic plot elements can be traced back to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, some of which were themselves translations of lost Greek comedies of the fourth century BC. Performers made use of well-rehearsed jokes and stock physical gags, known as Lazzi and Concetti, as well as, of course, on-the-spot improvised and interpolated episodes and routines, called burle (singular burla, Italian for joke), usually involving a practical joke. Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punch lines.  Characters were identified by costumes, masks, and even props, such as a type of baton known as slapstick (batocchio).  The classic, traditional plot is that the innamorati are in love and wish to be married, but one elder (vecchio) or several elders (vecchi) are preventing this from happening, leading the lovers to ask one or more zanni (eccentric servants) for help. Typically the story ends happily, with the marriage of the innamorati and forgiveness for any wrongdoings.

 Some of the most famous Characters:

Arlecchino-  Arlecchino is a clown. Typically acrobatic and mischievous.  He is a servant, and is recognizable by the colorful diamond-shaped patches that traditionally were part of his costume. Arlecchino is often the servant to Pantalone, or sometimes to Il Dottore. He is in love with Colombina, but she only makes fun of him.  Arlecchino also tries to trick his masters and is always plotting and planning, but his plans never work. Arlecchino is a mask from Bergamo.

Brighella - plays either a shopkeeper or a servant.  Brighella is always out for a way to profit from any given situation, and will cheerfully lie to save himself.  He is essentially Arlecchino's smarter and much more vindictive older brother.

Brighella is a mask from Bergamo too.

Colombina - developed as the female counterpart of Arlecchino.  She is also a servant.  She frequently initiates the plot of the play.  She is usually portrayed as clever, crafty, and untamed. Her costume often had the same colored patches found in Arlecchino's outfit.

Colombina is from Venice

Pantalone - a member of the vecchi. He is the archetypal "old miser." He is quite wealthy but very greedy. He only cares about money and he will do anything to get it. His costume usually incorporates a long beard and red pants.

Pantalone is from Venice

Pedrolino - also known as "Pierrot" or "Pedro" is the loyal servant.  He is hardworking, trustworthy, honest and devoted to his master.  Charming and likable, he wears a loose white outfit with a neck ruff.  When onstage Pedrolino tends to be the butt of the physical jokes. 

Pulcinella - is portrayed as pitiable, helpless, and often physically disfigured.  He usually has a hump, a distinct limp, or some other obvious physical deformity.  In some portrayals he cannot speak, and expresses himself in squeaks or other strange sounds.  His personality can be foolish or sly and shrewd.

Pulcinella is from Napoli

Scaramuccia - is a roguish character who wears a black velvet mask black trousers a shirt and a hat, similar to the uniform that Spanish people used to wear in Naples.  He is usually portrayed as a buffoon or boastful coward. 

Scaramuccia is from Napoli.

Tartaglia - short sighted with a terrible stutter, he is one of the stock old characters and appears in many scenarios as one of the lovers.  His social status varies; he is sometimes a bailiff, lawyer, notary or chemist.  Tartaglia wears a large felt hat, an enormous cloak, oversized boots, a long sword, a giant mustache and a cardboard nose.

 Tartaglia is another character from Napoli.

Balanzone – one of the vecchi or old men whose function in a scenario is to be an obstacle to the young lovers.

The Doctor is a local angry disruptive busybody who doesn't listen to anyone.   Aristocrat and/or doctor of medicine or law or anything else he claims to know about, which is most things.  He is extremely pompous, and loves the sound of his own voice, spouting ersatz Latin and Greek. His interaction in the play is usually mostly with Pantalone, either as a friend, mentor or competitor.                       

Balanzone is from Bologna.

Gianduia -  The mask depicts an honest peasant of Piedmontese countryland, with a certain inclination for wine, gastronomy and beautiful girls, while strictly faithful to his lover Giacometta, who is usually represented by a cute girl.

Gianduia is from Torino

 Did you know?

Gianduia is a sweet chocolate containing about 50% hazelnut paste. It takes its name from Gianduia, a Carnival and marionette character who represents the archetypal Piedmontese, the Italian region where hazelnut confectionery is common.

Gianduiotti, a speciality of Turin, are chocolates shaped like an upturned boat, again made with a mixture of cocoa and hazelnut paste.

There are many more characters in the Commedia dell’Arte, some of which associated with Italian regions:

Meneghino and his wife Cecca are from Milan

Mamutones is from Sardinia

Beppe Nappa is from Sicily

Stenterello from Toscany

Fagiolino is from Bologna

Rugantino is from Rome

Meo Patacca is from Rome

Fracanappa is from Verona

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