Celebrating Carnival in Italy
Updated: May 9, 2021
Have you ever been in Italy in late January to the end of February? Have you ever noticed confetti sprinkled everywhere on the streets? Children wearing what seem to be Halloween costumes for days on end and thinking “what is going on”?
Welcome to the season of Carnevale!
Italians have a way of making sure that there is an event, “something special”, to celebrate in every season, if not every week. This coming from an Italian American who left NYC to move to Rome and I swear there are “festivals” all the time. I guess it is the concept of “la dolce vita”, but what exactly makes Carnevale special and why should you visit Italy during this period of time.
First some history. Some say Carnevale was first celebrated in 1094 in Venice. Others say that the Carnival of Venice was started from a victory of the Venice Republic against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico di Treven in the year 1162. In celebration of his victory, Venetians started to dance and party in San Marco Square. Presumably, it wasn’t until 1296 that the City of Venice actually recognized it as an annual event, but as they would say in Italian basta (enough) with the history, let’s talk about the fun of it!
It is a celebration directly tied to the tradition of Lent and Easter. I think more people are familiar with Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) than Carnevale, except for knowing people wear masks in Venice during this period. Yet it is the whole country and every age group which dresses up, wearing colorful, sometimes extravagant, costumes and not for just one day but for about two weeks, which means two weeks of parties, merry and fun! I have seen children actually going to school in costumes and throwing confetti everywhere day after day during the period of Carnevale. It creates a magical, fun, whimsical time in the whole country, from Venice to Sicily and everywhere in between.
Rome is not as well-known as Venice but it is really worth visiting Rome during this period as the city hosts its own type of Parade. It was not until the 17th Century that Romans started to embrace the tradition of Carnevale. At that time, Via del Corso which was one of the most important streets in Rome and is still the starting point for the Carnevale parade today. People stroll down the street in extravagant costumes to Piazza del Popolo. Carnevale itself lasts for about 10 days and the city is filled with musical and theatrical performances in addition to the wearing of costumes and throwing of confetti (did I say everywhere and at everyone?). I tend to keep a mask in my pocket, you never know when you might fall into a party!
An interesting fact about Carnevale in Italy was traditionally it was a period where roles were reversed between men and women, the rich and the poor. Today, I would say it is a time where people put their daily routine on hold to enjoy the humor in life, to be free to laugh together and enjoy life.
Oh, and of course, no festival would be complete without some super delicious Italian food specifically cooked for this period. Frappe and Frittelle are the specialities of Carnevale. They are delicious fried dough covered in powdered sugar, try not to wear black in this period or everyone will know how much you love these desserts. They are sort of impossible to stop eating!
There is a lot of debate as to the origin of the name Carnevale but the one that seems to be the most popular states that the word comes from the Latin expression, carnem levare, which means “taking away meat,” and somehow over time became “carne vale” which literally means “goodbye meat” which was associated with Ash Wednesday, the first day Lent. From what I understand, in ancient times people gave up meat for Lent, I gave up chocolate as an American, waiting for the Easter Bunny to help me out, but that is another story.
If you are in Rome for the Carnevale, which this year starts on February 20, make sure you don’t miss some of the parades. The rest of the time, you can sober up with a tour of ancient Rome!