February in Italy: the Peninsula is invaded with masks, confetti, colours and lights that make for a very exciting and unique atmosphere. In other words, it’s Carnival! Kids (and adults too!) get excited and start to seek their favourite costume, from fairytales or comics, fantasy goes wild.
Carnival’s protagonist is indeed the disguise: so important that every main Italian city has its own “Maschera” (think of Arlecchino…). The mask allows to transform themselves into whomever they wish to be – at least for a few days.
The origins of Carnival date back to the Roman Saturnalia festival that rang in the new year. The term “Carnevale” derives from the Latin “carnem levare” for “take away the meat” or “carne vale”, “farewell to meat” – which explain the function of the celebration: an opportunity to indulge and use up such treats before the start of Lent.
Now celebrations are way less foolish than back in the days, but the spirit remains – Carnival is still that period of the year when you can be just the way you want to be, from Spider Man to an ethereal angel.. and eat a lot of nice stuff (you don’t know what to eat? Try our food tour!).
Amongst all, three are the must-see Carnival in Italy: Venezia (the most famous one); Viareggio and Milano. They all share the fun and the concept behind Carnevale, yet they are totally different from each other.
Let’s check them out!
Traditionally, Carnival in Milan starts when other Carnivals end. It is also known as “Carnevale Ambrosiano”: it is a unique tradition in Italy, which origins – according to a legend – to the time when the city’s saint patron Sant’Ambrogio was not in town, as he was gone on a religious pilgrimage. The Carnival was therefore postponed, in order to wait for his honorable presence.
Tradition has been kept, so this year you will be able to segwaying around in Milan celebrating both Carnevale and San Valentino: parties and parades will start on Saturday 13.
Today the Carnival of Milan is a street parade with clowns, jugglers, music and fun. The final parade is usually on Saturday from the morning until early afternoon and takes the following route: Palestro, Piazza San Babila, Corso Europa, Piazza Fontana and Piazza Beccaria. Every year there’s an official theme and the cart must be dressed according to it. Traditional Milanese masks Meneghino, a jolly servant who likes kidding rich people, and his smiling wife Cecca lead the parade with the city band.
Thousands of tourists come to Venice to see and take part in its magnificent Carnival; walking round in fancy dress in this city’s magical scenery means taking part in a truly exceptional happening. Those mysterious, disturbing Venetian masks, eyeing you from the city’s alleyways are part of what we imagine the Venetian world would have been like 300 years ago.
Wearing masks has always been more than just simple fun for the Venetians; it is still a strongly felt tradition with deep cultural roots. The Venetian propensity for hiding behind masks was legendary: a rigid caste system coupled with ample opportunities for indulging in a host of vices made anonymity very desirable in an overcrowded city where detection was otherwise unavoidable.
Loose yourself in the magic of the many “calle” and “campino”, hide in the crow, do whatever you please – just don’t forget to dress up! There’s little point in experiencing Carnival as a mere on-looker; without a mask, at the very least, you’re not getting the full benefit. Mask shops out-number butchers and greengrocers in Venice. Head for traditional mascarei: they’re not cheap, but you will bring home a most precious souvenir.
If you go to Viareggio during the Carnival, you will have the chance to assist to a very funny and participative event, with a great seasight and some great fish to eat on the side. Viareggio Carnival’s main characteristic is given by the great parades of floats and masks, usually made of paper-pulp, depicting sometimes harsh caricatures of popular people, such as politicians, showmen and sportsmen; the parade is held on the Viareggio avenue located alongside the local beach.
This year’s parades are on February 7, 14, 21 and 28, and of course on Fat Tuesday (Martedì Grasso), February 9. The floats are enormous, colorful and often not-so-much politically correct. It’s satyr in its very essence, and you will get a taste of the famous tuscan sarcasm – a bit sour, but plenty of fun!