Mardi Gras in Italy

Tina Rocchio Resident Director for Italy Programs


February 13, 2018

Celebrating Carnevale

Carnevale – background

The dates during which Carnevale falls may seem arbitrary and slightly mysterious to most. In fact, the dates of Carnevale are tied to the date of Easter in any given year. The Resurrection of Christ always happens on a Sunday and, more specifically, the Sunday following the first full moon in Spring (so after March 21). The five weeks before Easter are known in Italian as quaresima which in English is Lent. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which follows Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras (in Italian, martedì grasso).  And martedì grasso is the gran finale of the period of Carnevale. Confusing enough for you? 

This year Easter is, as they say in Italian, alta, meaning early in the season.. It happens on April 1st. Therefore, Lent is early and, most visibly, Carnevale is early. It seems Christmas trees, stockings and nativity scenes were barely taken down and already the streets were full of the colorful confetti kids throw at one another in parades and neighborhood feasts.

If you are living and travelling in Italy during Carnevale, you’ll inevitably come upon a town parade, kids reveling in a piazza, silly string and other festive and mischievous substances! During Carnevale, every weekend there is a parade or a feast in the main town square.

The Regionality of Carnevale

Italian regions are all very distinct and maintain their own identity in language, food, and customs; and Carnevale is no exception to this.

There is the most famous and most spectacular Venetian Carnevale where I first ventured at just 17 years old. I made the unwise (but ultimately happy) choice to board a packed night train to Venice even though I had no voice and had been running a high fever. This was before the age of super-fast trains and assigned seating, so I spent the night sitting between cars, my back against the bathroom door. I met Neapolitan, Sicilian, Roman, Tuscan, Emilian revelers – some already in costume – all sandwiched in between cars and quite literally bursting to get to Venice. Once there, I let the crowds shuffle me along the canals and tiny calle of the Serenissima. I floated, as in a dream (helped along in equal measure, I think, by the surreal sights in front of me and my rising temperature). At every corner, an elaborate Venetian mask would be standing silently and regally as the crowds grew to take photographs. Between breaks for hot tea in crowded cafes, I stumbled back to the station to catch the night train back to Rome. I remember distinctly the train conductor taking one look at me and ushering my friend and me into a private cuccette with two cots and a tiny sink. He told us to lock ourselves in and that he’d wake us upon our early morning arrival to Rome. He then brought me hot milk and honey and bid us goodnight! To this day, taking a night train anywhere in Europe fills me with that joy and wanderlust of those 24-hours in Venice.

Viareggio and Foiano della Chiana, both Tuscan, are mostly political in nature. Their floats are year-long  in the making, with ancient papier mâché techniques, and in addition to representing the traditional figures like Burlamacco, they also satirize political and controversial figures of the time.

Putignano, in Puglia, is one of the oldest celebrations in Italy, dating back to 1394 with the Christianization of pagan processions through the village streets that had been taking place since well before Christianity.

Ivrea, a small town outside of Turin, is most famous for the Battle of Oranges. During the parade, oranges thrown with all the might the costumed men on the floats can muster pummel the excited spectators. To this day it is puzzling to me that spectators gravitate to this event every afternoon from the last Sunday of Carnevale until today, Martedì Grasso. The resulting injuries are reported in the Italian news as badges of honor, not unlike the wounded spectators at a bullfight. Traditions are often as bizarre as they are slow to die.

Carnevale – the TREATS

No event in Italy is complete without its accompanying food. In Rome, the Carnevale treats are called Frappe and Castagnole. Frappe in Milan are called chiacchiere or lattughe. In Tuscany they’re cenci some places and donzelle others. In Emilia, they’re known as sfrappole, while in Trentino they’re cròstoli. In Venice they are called galani and gale, while in the northwest of Italy they’re bugie. Castagnole have just as many names in various regions of Italy. In any case, our local bar makes them each morning during Carnevale with a fragrant sweet dough, lots of boiling hot oil, powdered sugar and various sweet fillings like Chantilly cream, ricotta and chocolate cream. Here is Bar Foschi at work this morning, on Martedì Grasso.

Happy Mardi Gras to all!!